In the Bag

By staff February 1, 2006

I'll never forget the first time I saw Louis Vuitton. It was in Neiman Marcus in Dallas, and I was 12 years old. "Holy moly," I said. "That is the ugliest luggage I ever saw." It was an awful brown color with little designs all over it, and I couldn't imagine anybody actually buying it. And when my father explained to me that it was the fanciest, most expensive luggage in the world, I refused to believe him. "But it's so ugly."

Well, my taste has matured. Just last week I found myself bidding on eBay Motors for a 1990 Lexus with a Louis Vuitton interior. One look and I knew I had to have it. (So did everybody else; the bidding war was frenzied.) I already have a Louis Vuitton trunk from the '20s, which I use as an end table in my living room. Pity the poor guest who puts a drink down on it. And no trip to New York is complete without a visit to the Louis Vuitton flagship store on Fifth Avenue, where I badger the salespeople to show me everything with the nerve that only a determined fan can summon up.

As luxury brands go, Louis Vuitton is unique. It crosses all social barriers. It's the one status symbol that is instantly recognizable; it's as popular on Park Avenue as it is in Harlem as it is in Dubai as it is in Hong Kong. In Paris, every secretary on the Metro has a Vuitton bag. (A Parisian urban legend has it that it's the expected gift after a night spent with the boss.) And Louis Vuitton's position in the gay community is unparalleled. When a Hollywood costumer gives a male character Vuitton luggage, that can only mean one thing, and it's not that he travels a lot. (Of course, straight men can carry Vuitton, too. I certainly don't want to imply they don't. I saw one once, in the Cleveland airport.)

If you're thinking of taking the plunge and actually buying some, the first thing you must do is come to terms with that vague whiff of ostentation, that air of "look at me" and "mass market chic" that Vuitton has. Let's face it, subtle it is not. A Vuitton bag dominates every outfit it comes into contact with. It announces to the world that you have spent a fortune on a status symbol, and some people will look down on you for this. That logo with the LV initials and the stylized flowers and stars is the icon of elitism. Revolutions are fought over such things.

Here are some facts that can help you make an informed buying decision. First of all, the original Louis Vuitton invented the trunk. That feat alone should go rewarded. Before him people went around toting enormous, odd hooded cases. They were covered with the skin of a sow, the bristle to the outside. Then, in 1858, Louis Vuitton, a box maker from the provinces, came up with the flat, stackable, lightweight trunk we still have today.

In doing so, he literally changed the history of transportation. Travel became infinitely easier and more practical. Resorts sprang up, along with railroads and steamship lines; then came the airplane and the automobile. Vuitton was there every step of the way.

The first Vuitton heyday coincided with France's Second Empire, when Paris was reveling in the world of the Belle Epoque and the idea of what constitutes modern luxury was being invented. Worth dreamt up haute couture, Haussmann designed the most beautiful city in the world, Offenbach composed, Proust began to write, and Vuitton's designs became a crucial part of this world.

His great patroness was Empress Eugenie, considered the chic-est woman in Europe. They were always off together, designing trunks for her fabulous wardrobe and her equally impressive collection of jewels. She herself was an indefatigable traveler, and Vuitton's innovations greatly enhanced the glittering procession she made from Paris to Biarritz to Deauville and on to the capitals of Europe, where her chief duty, as she saw it, was to dazzle people.

Succeeding generations of the Vuitton family seem to have inherited the patriarch's flair for innovation. The famous twins, Pierre and Jean, built an airplane and an early helicopter, but what seemed like brilliant careers were cut short when they both died in their early 20s. Georges, their father, built a special trunk for automobiles (this is why that storage space in the back of a car is called a trunk), and the experience led him to design his own cars, custom built to the owners' specifications. They became increasingly elaborate and are the direct forerunners of today's recreational vehicles. Oh, and did I mention that somewhere along the way one of them invented the tumbler lock (and challenged Houdini to try and get out of one, a challenge he refused)? Or that in 1901 they revolutionized travel once again with the invention of soft-sided luggage? The list goes on and on.

In 1977 Louis Vuitton had two stores, one in Paris and one in Nice. Today there are stores in more than 50 countries, including some I've never heard of. (Where, for instance, are the Northern Mariana Islands?) Even our neck of the woods, west central Florida, is dotted with them. In Tampa there are two stores; in Naples two, in Sarasota, one-the boutique at Saks. The product line has expanded to include watches, clothing, jewelry, pens, wallets, key chains, diaries, scarves, shoes for both men and women, jewelry-even, if I am understanding it correctly, one of those little devices you stick in your tongue after you've had it pierced.

Vuitton has never had a sale and is the most knocked-off brand in the world. When it decided to go into the Japanese market, its success was so complete that books have been written about it. It's taught in business schools as one of the most successful brands in the world-certainly the most successful luxury brand.

To me the greatest pleasure of Vuitton is the way it doesn't take itself too seriously. New lines, under the direction of creative director Marc Jacobs, have cherries and graffiti painted over the famous logo. It has created soccer balls with the famous logo, and when its Champs- Elysées headquarters were revamped, the building was covered from view by a giant Vuitton trunk.

And it's always interesting to stand on Fifth Avenue and watch the Vuittons go by. It's like a lesson in symbolism. Each one says something about its particular owner. To some, their bag is a sign of accomplishment. To others it's a sign of hope. To others still, their proudest possession. No matter how well dressed a woman may be, she never quite rises above Vuitton. Even the fashion connoisseur may think Vuitton is a little corny and infra dig, but look in her closet and you'll find one or two. For whatever Vuitton is, it's never just another purse.

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