This is the incredible story of French malletier and entrepreneur Louis Vuitton and the iconic luxury brand that bears his name.
The decisions that craftsman-turned-entrepreneur Louis Vuitton would make would later serve as best practices for an entire industry. His ingenuity would lay the foundation for Louis Vuitton to become the most valuable brand in the world. With over 160 years of history, the Louis Vuitton brand offers quintessential lessons on how to create a luxury brand.
Who Was Louis Vuitton?
Louis Vuitton was born to modest means in Anchay in the remote region of Jura, France. His father and mother, a carpenter and a hatmaker were perhaps the first influences on the craft that would later define Vuitton's legacy.
The mountainous region of Jura is known for wine-making and today still has no industrialized cities and is home to approximately the same population as during Louis Vuitton's childhood.
Long before monogrammed trunks, as a teenager, Vuitton decided to leave his hometown in the green mountains of Jura. At the age of thirteen, he embarked on foot for Paris. The journey took two years, and the decision would forever change his life.
Paris, the Capital of Global Luxury
With the support of a robust banking system, Paris was in the midst of a slow but certain industrial transformation, on its way to becoming the world center for luxury craftsmanship.
Arriving in Paris in 1837, Louis left behind a life of poverty for a city of possibilities. He would first become a master of elegance and craft and, later, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Often evoking the same ennobling spirit of Louis Vuitton's rags-to-riches journey, the brand that would bear his name would share his spirit.
The Royal Malletier
In Paris's colorful city, the young Vuitton apprenticed as a malletier (or trunkmaker) for Monsieur Maréchal at one of the city's finest box-making and packing workshops.
The work of a malletier was a highly respected craft. The opportunity allowed him to hone his skills and garner attention among an elite clientele. Their need to safely pack away fragile and valuable items would later inspire his brand.
In 1852, Napoleon III assumed the title of Emperor of the French. His wife, Empress Eugénie de Montijo, chose none other than the now 31-year-old Louis Vuitton as her personal box-maker and packer. Her royal endorsement gave Vuitton both a gilded stamp of approval and the confidence to strike out on his own.
The Entrepreneur Louis Vuitton
Louis Vuitton was now 33 years old and newly married to Clemence-Emilie Parriaux. With two decades of experience performing at the highest levels of his trade, it was time to create a new path.
He opened a small shop and hung a sign, "Securely packs the most fragile objects. Specializing in packing fashions."
How Luxury Travel Inspires an Innovation: The Traveling Trunk
Ocean liners, trains, and carriages now connected people from all over the world. Mobility was a new kind of status. It sparked an interest in travel for an explosive leisure class.
However, the more people traveled, the more impractical costs and headaches began to surface. From these pain points, Louis Vuitton saw an opportunity.
Tourists packed their belongings in trunks (or suitcases today). But
existing trunk designs were flawed. Vuitton this as an opportunity to create a better product. Trunks at the time were not flat. They were rounded to encourage water runoff. This attempt to keep your belongings dry made them impossible to stack and, in turn, limited how much you could take with you.
Louis Vuitton trunks were waterproof, rectangular, and stackable. Louis Vuitton's trunks solved two critical problems for passengers: they kept your belongings dry and allowed them to pack more.
The Tumbler Lock Makes Traveling Safer
When it came time to reinvent, it was an innovation in the locking mechanism that set the brand apart. The Tumbler Lock created a safer traveling experience. Louis's only son, Georges Vuitton, who would later lead the company, developed its design.
As burglars began to recognize the trunk's design coming to associate them with their affluent owners, the world's first pick-proof lock solved another problem for travelers: theft. The brand consistently sought to offer customers pleasant travel experiences as alternatives to unpredictable ones. LVMH celebrates Louis Vuitton as 'the soul of travel since 1854'.
The Global Luxury Brand
Now a decade into his entrepreneurial journey and in his mid-forties, it was time to grow. In 1867, Louis Vuitton exhibited his trunks at Exposition Universelle, the Universal Exhibition in Paris.
It was a global event that brought together over fifty thousand vendors from France and its colonies, Great Britain and Ireland, the United States, and Canada. Nine million people visited the six-month-long exhibition, including leaders and royals from Russia, Japan, Prussia, Egypt, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire.
For the first time, Louis Vuitton trunks were on display for an international crowd. It marked a new chapter for the luxury brand.