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Vuitton Garden: A Maze Through History

DALLAS — Louis Vuitton figures its history is a good selling point in the present.<BR><BR>The luxury firm paid homage to its heritage here last weekend by displaying about two-dozen seminal products in an maze-like indoor garden.<BR><BR>Erected...

DALLAS — Louis Vuitton figures its history is a good selling point in the present.

The luxury firm paid homage to its heritage here last weekend by displaying about two-dozen seminal products in an maze-like indoor garden.

Erected inside the Galleria mall in front of the Vuitton store, the maze’s 10-foot-high hedges concealed the exhibits from all but those who entered. As visitors trod the footstones of the narrow pathway, they discovered an unfinished briefcase on a table arrayed with latches and tools of the trade followed by a stack of four Vuitton steamer trunks from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The display, which was open Thursday evening through Sunday, also highlighted the company’s first soft luggage from 1969 and more recent works, such as a silk dress from Marc Jacobs’ first collection for the house in 1998, a vanity case designed by Sharon Stone in 2000 and a 2005 cherry handbag by Takashi Murakami.

Garden benches and ficus trees dotted the switchback walkway, which ended at two flat-screen TVs broadcasting Vuitton’s latest runway show.

“We want to emphasize the know-how we have established in bags, luggage and new products — shoes, ready-to-wear, watches, jewelry and, soon, sunglasses,” said Jean-Marc Gallot, chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton North America. “The maze is to explain this know-how and where we come from….It brings a little bit of mystery, and it’s a nice way to display the products that isn’t on a flat shelf.”

Created to celebrate the company’s 150th anniversary last year, the maze has been shown in four U.S. cities and may visit others, though none are scheduled.

Gallot explained that Vuitton, whose portrait was mounted at the entrance to the maze, began his career packing luggage for wealthy people. When he was 33, Vuitton decided he could make a better trunk than the all-wood standard of the day, and he went into business in 1854.

His first trunks featured a durable gray canvas exterior, and he easily sold them to clients he formerly served as a packer. He then began printing stripes and a checkerboard on the canvas, but other trunk makers began copying the patterns. So, in 1896, Vuitton’s son, Georges, developed the famous LV logo in the belief that no one would copy his father’s personal initials, Gallot said.

This story first appeared in the May 16, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Modern-day counterfeiting is something the Vuittons probably never imagined, and one of the ways the firm is fighting back is by elevating its products.

“We are trying to make the products more and more complex,” Gallot said. “The [Murakami] cherry, for instance, seems to pop off the bag. That’s because it takes 70 to 75 screens to print it. We are raising the bar and making the counterfeiters look bad.”

Vuitton tightly controls manufacturing, making all products at its own factories in France, Spain and California. It also directly manages all retail distribution. In the U.S. there are 55 freestanding stores plus 51 leased departments in specialty stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

The company plans to open additional units in Palo Alto, Calif., in July; inside the new Neiman’s in San Antonio in August, and in Chevy Chase, Md., in October. Next year, Vuitton is to open in Atlantic City, N.J., and “some other” cities that Gallot declined to reveal.

“The point is not to develop business by opening stores,” he said. “The point is to develop business in existing stores. They can and should do more.”

Indeed, people who flocked to the cocktail party to herald the maze seemed far more intent on shopping than viewing the company’s legacy. Women lined the counters and handled new denim and cherry handbags that they could not even buy. All the denim styles and all but the cherry “Speedy” style were sold out and available only to those patient enough to sign up for the waiting list.

“We got a shipment of 50 or 60 cherry bags today, and it’s gone,” Gallot said. “The denim is going to be crazy. We don’t have any. People think we do it on purpose, but it’s just that we can’t match the demand.”

He held up a new pearl patent leather handbag and predicted it would be a bestseller. “The beauty of Vuitton,” he said, “is there is a permanent excitement.”