Louis Vuitton, who spawned a global luxury giant synonymous with travel, actually started his entrepreneurial journey on foot, setting off from the tiny town of Anchay in eastern France at age 13.
Two hundred years after his birth, the Vuitton company is marking the milestone in ways its founder never could have imagined, including a video game with embedded NFTs, a documentary on Apple TV, window installations, artworks, and social media activations galore.
“Media is evolving so quickly that every time there’s a new way of communicating, you have to tell your story all over again,” said Michael Burke, chairman and chief executive officer of Vuitton. “Generations are now defined by technology, not by age.”
And yet the life story of Vuitton, who eventually reached Paris after two years and apprenticed at renowned trunk maker and packer Romain Maréchal, contains many universal business truths, including the necessity of taking risks, of staying close to the customer, and of passing the baton to the next generation at the right time.
“It’s important to learn from these journeys, to know that somebody before you went through the same trials and tribulations, that somebody before you made big bets, took big risks,” Burke said in an exclusive interview, marveling at Vuitton’s courage to spend nights sleeping in the woods as he made his way to the French capital. “It’s about going through experiences in life.”
Vuitton will begin unfurling bicentennial birthday celebrations under the banner of “Louis 200” on Aug. 4, exactly 200 years after the founder’s birth. Beginning that day, “Louis: The Game” can be downloaded through the App Store and Google Play for Android systems.
Burke trumpeted the game’s importance for Vuitton’s employees: “The best way to engage people is the through the medium they like.”
Also on Aug. 4, windows will be unveiled across Vuitton’s global network of boutiques that will showcase trunks reimagined by 200 notable people from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, including illustrator Jean-Philippe Delhomme, interior designer Pierre Yovanovitch, Paralympic swimmer Théo Curin, art director Willo Perron, and architect Peter Marino, whose hardcore harness trunk takes cues from his leather-daddy wardrobe.
Other activations will happen later in the year including:
• a fictional novel, based on historical facts, by French writer Caroline Brognard. Titled “Louis Vuitton, L’Audacieux,” it will be published in French by Gallimard in regular and deluxe editions from October, with an English translation coming in November
• a documentary titled “Looking for Louis” that retraces the adventures of the young entrepreneur, to be broadcast on Apple TV’s Explore channel from December
• a large-scale triptych by acclaimed American artist Alex Katz that will be unveiled some time in the fall
• a “cuvée spéciale” from the LVMH-owned Champagne brand Veuve Clicquot, also some time in the second half
Founded in 1854, Louis Vuitton is today one of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s most successful and profitable heritage brands, prized for its legacy, craftsmanship and savoir-faire.
Burke stressed the importance of innovation and risk-taking, something the founder embodied.
“I believe the great majority of success stories, they didn’t start with the past, they start with the future. They start with creativity, innovation, disruption,” he said. “Mythical companies like Louis Vuitton need to always maintain that balance between tomorrow and yesterday.”
To be sure, the founder had sharp instincts and all the right connections when he finally set up his own maison at 4 rue Neuve-des-Capucines amid all the major fashion houses in the Place Vendôme neighborhood of Paris. He became close to haute couture pioneer Charles Frederick Worth and was appointed the official trunk maker and packer for Empress Eugénie.
From this vantage point, Vuitton saw how bulging, panniered dresses yielded to sleeker styles, meaning trunks did not need to be so voluminous. “He went to people’s homes and he saw how the clothes changed and he adapted to the clothes,” Burke explained.
The young Frenchman also divined that new ways of traveling, including overseas crossings, would require new kinds and shapes of luggage.
Among his inventions was Gris Trianon, a coated canvas that made cases waterproof, and a flat lid for trunks that made them stackable on ships, trains and other newfangled modes of transportation. Previously, trunks had convex lids for strength and weather resistance while riding on the backs of stagecoaches.
Burke said hundreds of trunk makers followed Vuitton’s flat-lid design, “but everyone remembers he did it first.”
In 1888 came the checkered and branded canvas dubbed Damier, Vuitton’s way of coping with many counterfeiters who had copied the striped canvas he had introduced in 1872.
Burke stressed that Vuitton’s manufacturing capabilities helped drive product innovation, and he registered patents for many technological and typological innovations in his Asnières atelier, which turned out the first soft bags toward the end of the 1800s — precursors to the modern handbag.
“He was able to innovate because he was a manufacturer. So he knew how to handle wood and metal. He invented the un-pickable lock because he was making them,” he said.
The founder also innovated via distribution, encouraging his son Georges to learn English and set up Vuitton’s first outpost beyond France in London in 1885, the first steps of its internationalization.
According to Burke, Louis Vuitton surely saw his son tinkering with the LV initials, geometric designs and floral patterns of what would become the iconic Monogram canvas, which was introduced in 1896, four years after the founder’s death.
Georges continued the company’s international expansion in 1898 when he started retailing his trunks in the United States through merchant John Wanamaker, who operated department stores in Philadelphia and New York.
“These are unusual, audacious decisions — no different than bringing in Marc Jacobs, an American, or Nicolas Ghesquière, or Virgil Abloh, another American,” Burke said.
The Vuitton of today continues to surprise and take risks, with Burke casually mentioning that the brand just launched a portable connected speaker that resembles one of the spinning top-shaped handbags Ghesquière designed. “We sold 3,000 the first day,” the executive noted proudly.
Products — whether it’s a down-filled women’s boot or a transparent Keepall bag — are what grabs the consumer’s attention the most, but in Burke’s estimation, it’s the intangible aspects of Louis Vuitton’s legacy — including putting the company ahead of himself — that explain its longevity, and its magic.
“Louis was a visionary, much more than just when it came to product, but also on distribution, on client service, on globalization and transmitting his company to the next generation. That’s the reason Vuitton is still around.
“We’re now in our third century,” Burke said. “We’re involved in something much bigger than our generation. Within the company, there’s a strong sense of duty to continue the story.”