When Michael Burke arrived as chairman and chief executive of Louis Vuitton in 2012, an idea had been bouncing around the French luxury-goods maker for several years: Why not sell the many furnishings that decorated the legacy brand’s stores? The sticking point had always been that the items were the equivalent of theatrical props—luxurious-looking tables and chairs that lacked the functional design and safety certifications to allow them to be manufactured or sold to the public. So Burke, an American who had completed stints at Dior, Fendi and Bulgari, kindled the concept of producing a new line, inspired by these props, that would serve not only as seats, lamps and end tables but also as collectible high design. He hoped they might become as iconic in the 21st century as the original 19th-century Louis Vuitton steamer trunks—rare and beautiful objects created for a discerning clientele. “In this digitalized world,” Burke tells Robb Report in an exclusive interview via Zoom, “I think that is something that is going to become more and more precious.”
Louis Vuitton introduced the first of these pieces in 2012 and now calls them Objets Nomades—a name chosen because each object is in some way inspired by travel, harkening back to those original trunks. In the past nine years, the collection has come to include a trove of covetable furniture and home accessories conceived by some of the biggest names in the business—from Atelier Oï’s woven leather hammock for $48,500 to the Campana Brothers’ Bulbo chair, resembling the blooming petals of an exotic flower, available in raspberry and other colors for $103,000—that are upping the brand’s design cachet and drawing in a new, young, hyper-affluent clientele. And in the process, Objets Nomades may also be stoking one of the luxury industry’s longest and fiercest rivalries.
As a brand, Vuitton has embraced mass consumerism and pop culture while maintaining its high-fashion bona fides. Its logo bags and wallets are ubiquitous in airports and shopping malls around the world, priced so those hungering for upper-class status symbols can afford them on a splurge. Virgil Abloh, artistic director for menswear, has reinvigorated the fashion and monogram-covered luggage and accessories, splashing the bags with colorful cartoonish drawings and creating clothes with a haute-streetwear vibe that have been adopted as a uniform for rappers and are worn by stars from Jay-Z to Timothée Chalamet. Women’s artistic director Nicolas Ghesquière’s armor-like gowns, meanwhile, bring the house plaudits from red carpets; Agathe Rousselle, the breakout star of the 2021 Palme d’Or–winning film Titane, has been wearing Ghesquière-designed looks to the movie’s premieres and film festivals all around the globe.
Objets Nomades are not of that busy world. Made to order or produced in small quantities, requiring buyers to wait months in anticipation of their delivery, they appeal to customers who prefer privacy and calm appreciation. “This is not fashion. This is not architecture. This is design,” says Burke, speaking from his Paris office.
He sees the effort as taking Vuitton back to its roots in innovative, sometimes whimsical luggage, such as the so-called Bed Trunk—essentially a cot that popped out of a suitcase—ordered in 1874 for the French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, known for signing treaties that established the French Congo colony.
Today, the brand’s iconic trunks are responsible for only a tiny fraction of the company’s sales and are primarily purchased as decor rather than for use during travel. Yet their quality, inventiveness and implied wanderlust provided the inspiration for the entire house as it moved into ready-to-wear, jewelry and fragrance over the past 25 years and, now, Objets Nomades. “We were born actually designing,” says Burke. “We’re not born in fashion.”
With Objets, Vuitton seeks a variety of design talents, as opposed to the singular visions of its fashion divisions. One of its first entries was a circular folding chair called the Concertina, which recalls leather origami on ash-wood stilts. Without defining what the object would be, Vuitton asked the London-based design group Raw Edges, whose principals are Shay Alkalay and Yael Mer, to come up with an idea and develop it. The chair was four years in the making, its early iterations too uncomfortable to sit on, the designers say.
As they worked out its mechanics, drawing the project two years past deadline, Alkalay and Mer were surprised by the patience they encountered from Vuitton, which seemed unconcerned with cost overruns and missed due dates. Their marching orders were first, make it beautiful, and then, make it structural and comfortable. “I don’t think a lot of brands could afford this level of commitment,” says Mer, via a Zoom call from Tel Aviv, where the pair spent part of the pandemic. The Concertina chair is now available by special order, priced at $20,500. Conceivably, one could take the collapsible seat on safari or sink into it while extreme glamping, but buyers are more likely to keep it in their living rooms, where it would add a chic pop of color and texture.
Yet Objets Nomades is not simply a design exercise. Burke credits the artful, lighthearted collection with opening Vuitton’s doors to the world’s youngest generation of self-made wealth—clients in their 30s and 40s who place orders from $100,000 to $1 million. “We recruit our wealthiest customers through Objets Nomades,” Burke says, noting that the company’s high jewelry tends to draw the same cohort.
Often as young as 30, these clients spent the first decade or so of adulthood focused on building businesses, and Burke says they now derive pleasure from developing connoisseurship: They’re finished with instant gratification and product drops. Made-to-order goods that require time to craft with precision offer another level of satisfaction.
“They’re paying to wait,” Burke says. “They don’t want something overnight. They do want a physical relationship with the brand. They do want to research the origin of the product, the design of the product, the raw material. They’re really into old-fashioned carriage trade-type relationships.”
Those relationships can play out, though, in the most modern of ways, including with augmented reality if, for instance, a client would like to see how a sofa might look in their living room from the convenience of their phone or laptop. Many of the Objets are on Louis Vuitton’s website; largely, though, the company encourages clients to discover them at design weeks around the world and at a roving lineup of “Savoir Faire” events and other gatherings that it holds in private homes and temporary locations. At a recent such event in Los Angeles, a warehouse space was transformed into a series of rooms furnished with Vuitton products; the one for Objets felt like a cross between the Jetsons’ living room and an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.
Vuitton doesn’t dictate to its designers, but it does leave room for cross-pollination, opening the doors to its archives on the outskirts of Paris, which contain 300,000 objects. In time, just as Abloh and Ghesquière take inspiration from the legacy trunks—locks one season, logo canvas another—Burke hopes Objets will fuel creativity down the road. “The Objet Nomade aspires to be another iconic object that survives centuries,” he says. Burke is aiming for Vuitton to produce pieces that, like Isamu Noguchi’s paper lanterns, Charlotte Perriand’s wooden tables for Cassina or the Eames lounge chair for Herman Miller, outlive their designers.
Objets Nomades now differentiates Louis Vuitton from the crowd of luxury-brand competitors—with one exception. Because Objets Nomades is not a wholly original idea. Louis Vuitton is dipping its toes in what has been the territory of Hermès, another French company with roots in the 19th century— though in saddlery rather than luggage. While Hermès offers fashion collections and holds runway shows during Paris Fashion Week, the company remains broadly focused on furnishing a luxury lifestyle. Its internal Paris showrooms—used by its global retail managers to order inventory—are reminiscent of an insanely opulent and playful department store, filled with furniture, housewares, art objects, sports equipment and toys, in addition to leather goods, jewelry, scarves and apparel.
There is almost no element of a gilded life that Hermès doesn’t consider with some article or other, including many rare ones, sparsely produced. It’s possible to furnish a living room with Hermès’s $83,100 three-seat Sellier sofa, play on a $40,000 mahjong game set in solid rosewood or toss a $620 calfskin frisbee. “There’s almost no other group today that touches the customer so much in how they live,” says luxury consultant Robert Burke (no relation to Michael), founder of New York–based Robert Burke Associates.
And there’s no love lost between LVMH, Louis Vuitton’s parent company, and Hermès. LVMH, led by chairman and chief executive Bernard Arnault, famously—and initially in secret— acquired a large stake in Hermès, a family-controlled public company, over a period of years in the 2000s and was roughly rebuffed. The two luxury behemoths ended up suing each other in a legal melee that lasted for several years and played out like a bitter one-sided romance. LVMH ultimately agreed to stay hands-off and to divest much of its stake in Hermès.
Today, Michael Burke acknowledges that the two companies “absolutely” share clientele and that Vuitton is a diligent student of Hermès. “And vice versa. They shop us,” he says. “They’re very aware of what we’re doing. I think they know more about us than we know about them.” Hermès declined to comment for this article.
Commending Hermès for adhering to its heritage, Burke also is quick to note what he sees as Objets Nomades’ biggest point of divergence. “They’re coming at it from a different vantage point that is very much in tune with their DNA, so I’m not knocking it,” he says. “It’s basically a continuation of what they’ve been doing for so long, so I’m complimenting that. I think our approach is typically more audacious. It’s based on giving more freedom to the designers. Our briefs are basically two words: Surprise us.”
As a result of these efforts, Louis Vuitton is rising above its own runways and the famous fashion designers who have shaped the brand’s public perception, beginning with Marc Jacobs, who introduced the company’s first prêt-à-porter collections after taking the helm as creative director in 1997. “Vuitton as a company has become greater than fashion or accessories,” says Robert Burke, who has worked for Jacobs’s namesake house, which is owned by LVMH. He points to the example of a Louis Vuitton shop on the Place Vendôme in Paris that is as much gallery as retail store, and LVMH’s Cheval Blanc hotels, which offer a level of art, decor and service that extends luxury goods into pure lifestyle. “If you know artwork and highly collectible furniture,” he says, “it’s off the charts as soon as you walk in.”
The latest additions to the Objets Nomades collections will be shown at its Miami stores during the city’s Design Week in December. Two boldly colored, cartoonishly rounded outdoor chairs and a sofa by Chinese designer Frank Chou will join pieces from an eclectic array of acclaimed designers, including the Campana Brothers, Patricia Urquiola, Marcel Wanders and Raw Edges. In 2018, Vuitton introduced Petits Nomades, a playful collection of smaller objects by some of the Objets designers. It’s now possible to furnish a home full of Objets and Petits products, from lamps and mirrors to swing chairs and stools.
Michael Burke says it took about four years for the line to become profitable but notes the brand would gladly have waited longer: “It could have been 10 years.” What’s more, profitability was not the goal. Objets is about brand elevation, so there was not even an annual budget. Burke describes the approach as, “Damn the torpedoes, we’re going to truly be slaves to design.”
The house can afford profligate spending, of course, because LVMH is controlled by the Arnault family, which is far more patient than Wall Street fund managers. Bernard Arnault is generally ranked among the top five richest people in the world on the Bloomberg and Forbes billionaires lists, with his wealth currently estimated between $160 billion and $180 billion. “Bernard always says, ‘If the stock tanks, I’ll just buy more,’ ” says Burke. “The executive has to think in decades, not years.”
That puts the brand’s designers, both in-house and commissioned, in enviable positions of independence, creatively and financially. Mer and Alkalay, who have continued to design for Objets Nomades since introducing the Concertina chair, say they don’t bother to familiarize themselves with what Vuitton’s two artistic directors, Abloh and Ghesquière, send down the runways each season. They have taken note, though, that Vuitton is looking for a memorable, modern sensibility. “There were bold aesthetics that they wanted. This is not for every corner in a room,” Alkalay says. Mer adds, “Everything is very bold and pop-y.”
The freedom that astonished Mer and Alkalay, Burke says, often frightens designers at first. “It’s basically a white piece of paper, which for designers, initially, scares the hell out of them,” he says. “It’s a lot easier designing with boundaries. But I know that if I don’t give them boundaries, they’re going to create them themselves. We just say, ‘Make us smile,’ and that’s about it.”
“At the end of the day,” he notes, “your report card is: Did anybody buy anything?”