From its humble beginnings in France as a luggage workshop to a globally revered brand with one of the world's richest businessmen at its helm, Louis Vuitton has stood the test of time
The revered LV monogram is one of the most powerful symbols in the world of fashion. Iconic in every way, it's the signature of the house of Louis Vuitton – one of the oldest luxury brands in the world – and has become an era-defining status symbol. But it evolved from rather humble beginnings when a young Louis Vuitton made the decision to become a trunk master at the tender age of 16. Born into a working-class family, little did he know then that his actions would change not only his own life but the lives of generations to come.
In 1837, Louis set out from his village of Anchay and arrived in Paris on foot with a desire to apprentice under Monsieur Maréchal, a successful box-maker and packer known throughout France. At the time, trains, boats and horse-drawn carriages were the primary modes of transportation, and baggage was handled roughly. This made box makers highly sought after, with travellers calling upon these skilled craftsmen to pack and protect their valuable belongings during transit.
As travel became an integral part of life, the trade flourished and clients began demanding custom trunks. Louis spent 17 years of his career working for Maréchal, where he gained the reputation of one of the best in this specialised field. His skill also caught the attention of the royal and elite, with the wife of Napolean III becoming one of his customers.
With business booming, in 1854, Louis decided to open his own luggage workshop
at 4 Rue Neuve-des-Capucines near the Place Vendôme. The French sign outside his store translated to: “Securely packs the most fragile objects. Specialising in packing fashions." The early success of the brand meant that he had to expand his operations rather quickly and he opened more workshops.
Establishing his own business allowed Louis to get creative with his designs. He remained a constant innovator throughout his career. He experimented with canvas instead of leather, which made the trunks waterproof and durable; he introduced rectangular trunks, which, until this time, had rounded tops, making them stackable; and, together with his son, he introduced a secure lock system. He made profound contributions to the luggage-making industry and his impact on the world of luxury fashion resonates to this day, evident in the countless imitators and followers that have only grown over the century. Today, travelling with a Louis Vuitton piece, whether on far-flung adventures or during everyday commutes, is the ultimate symbol of sophistication.
After his death in 1892, Georges Vuitton took over the house, staying true to his father's vision, innovative spirit and legacy. Four years into his new role, the very first LV monogram, quatrefoil and flower design canvas was launched, which continues to appear on the brand's handbags, jewellery and clothing even today. Travel continued to be a major source of inspiration for the brand, and Georges was responsible for the introduction of the Le Voyage book series. In 1914, he opened the Louis Vuitton building on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, which became the largest travel goods store in the world.
Under his leadership, the business embarked on international ventures and the brand quickly rose to prominence, attracting elite customers thanks to its craftsmanship and outstanding designs. The collections also caught the eye of Gabrielle Coco Chanel, who commissioned a bespoke handbag – the Alma – in 1925, which she later allowed to be mass produced, marking Louis Vuitton's foray into smaller luxury leather goods.
As the business passed down the generations, more shops were opened around the world, from New York to Beijing. Perhaps the biggest milestone came in 1987, when the maison merged with revered Champagne and cognac brands Moet et Chandon and Hennessy. Together they created the parent conglomerate, LVMH. What started as a deal worth over $3.7 million has now grown into a multinational holding and conglomerate worth $83.4 billion as of 2022 with a total of 75 brands.
The conglomerate took Louis Vuitton to stratospheric heights. The year 1997 saw the maison appoint its first-ever Creative Director – American designer Marc Jacobs – who was hired to establish the brand as a fashion house. Jacobs released the maison's first ready-to-wear collections for men and women within a year of his appointment. Alongside clothing, bags and luggage, in the 2000s, Louis Vuitton debuted its collections of jewellery, sunglasses, shoes and perfumes, all of which reflect the company's love of travel and design.
The numerous collections that have followed are distinctive, timeless and much loved by Hollywood's who's who and international royalty alike. Each year, LVMH sells billions of dollars worth of luxury goods to customers all over the world. As one of the most successful purveyors of luxury goods, the conglomerate knows just how to keep up with modern consumers and keep the desire for these covetable products alive. The driving force behind the scenes is Bernard Arnault – the group's 74-year old Chairman and CEO, who, with a net worth of US$211 billion, beat Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos for the top spot on Forbes' annual billionaires ranking in April, before Musk claimed it back in June.
Dubbed “the Pope of Fashion” by the global press, Arnault has spent over three decades building LVMH from a small clothing manufacturer to a conglomerate comprising 75 of the world’s most powerful brands. Hailing from the northern French town of Roubaix, Arnault studied engineering at the École Polytechnique and went to work for his father's construction company after graduating.
In 1984, he acquired Agache-Willot-Boussac, the company which owned the French department store Bon Marche and the fashion house Christian Dior. Soon after, he acquired fashion house Celine and funded French designer Christian Lacroix. Arnault then made it his goal to run the world's largest luxury company and set his sights on LVMH. He spent up to $2.6 billion buying shares in order to become the company's largest shareholder, and its chairman and CEO in 1989.
At the helm, he has masterfully and creatively steered the business towards growth and profit, with several brands introducing items that have today become indispensable to their customers. In one of his early interviews, Arnault claimed that it is creative freedom given to its artists that has taken the company to such heights. Without setting managerial limits on its creative force, the business has made some unfettered decisions, such as allowing models to walk down the runway in dresses made of newspaper.
To have blocked even the most outlandish ideas, Arnault said would have crushed the spirit of the designers behind them – designers who went on to propel the brands they worked for to new heights. Channelling this innovative spirit – in the same fashion as Louis Vuitton himself – Arnault's commitment to excellence and creativity has set the foundation for the group to continue to break the barriers in the world of luxury goods.