CHICAGO — “Of course, boats and Vuitton are an obvious,” said Michael Burke, chairman and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton, who jetted in from Paris for the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series over the weekend.
“We have this historical connection to boats and water,” Burke said. “That’s what got us really started is when people were crossing the Atlantic and going on these cruise ships and they needed to stack their luggage and Louis Vuitton invented the flat top trunk.”
The three-day sailing race, which made maritime history as the first time the prestigious America’s Cup competed on fresh water, took place from Friday to Sunday on Lake Michigan off Navy Pier.
It’s been about two years since Burke traveled to the Windy City; the last time was to make a decision on whether to move the French luxury house’s Michigan Avenue flagship.
“We decided to stay put, but completely redo the store including the facade. It’s a landmark building. A beautiful building, but it had not been restored properly,” noted Burke, adding that the restoration work is still under way. “We are undergoing a historically significant restoration to bring it back to its architectural glory days. We’re bringing back some of the verticality, some of the vertical mullions. It took a little bit longer than we had hoped for. The important thing is we’re building a store for the next 20 years.”
Coming back to the Midwest is like a “homecoming,” the Paris-based executive said.
“My father is from Madison, Wis. I’m a lot more from the Midwest than from the East Coast. A little-known fact. My father went to Marquette. They were Irish and they moved to Chicago. My grandfather worked on the railroads. It’s just a place to be. It’s a little bit of a homecoming,” said Burke, who was dressed casually on this scorching hot day in a short-sleeved shirt, khaki pants and white sneakers — all Louis Vuitton.
The relationship between Vuitton and the America’s Cup began in 1983. It’s a partnership that works because Burke said the brand and the race share the same fundamental values.
“It’s about the quest. A lifelong quest,” he said. “The great majority of those who have attempted to win the Cup have not. Some have tried their entire life and didn’t win. Some finished their lives tragically because they didn’t win the Cup. There’s this amazing quest and if you look at Vuitton, our first clients in the mid-19th century, they were on quests. They traversed Asia and went to China, they traversed Africa from north to south, they traversed Asia from east to west and west to east, and they went across the Himalayas, the high mountains and deep gorges. This is what Vuitton was about.”
In the world of sailing, the Chicago race was a hot ticket. The high-speed preliminary races, which featured the six teams entered in next year’s America’s Cup in Bermuda, attracted more than 200,000 sailing fans.
Guests included Wyclef Jean, a guest racer on the Team USA boat; “Mentalist” actor Simon Baker; Australian motorbike stunt rider Robbie Maddison; Hawaiian surfing star Ian Walsh; ski medalist Bobby Brown; Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel; Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, and sailing legends such as Sir Russell Coutts, chief executive officer of America’s Cup.
Artemis Racing from Sweden took first prize, Land Rover BAR from Great Britain took second place and Team Japan finished third.
With Louis Vuitton as the title sponsor of the America’s Cup since 2013, the firm has a vested interest in moving the historic race, traditionally staged at sea requiring a boat to view the competition, into the 21st, Instagram-posting century. It’s safe to say the Cup, founded in 1851 and ruled by a deed, was up for renovation.
“It was one of the first things I did when I rejoined Louis Vuitton was to reengage with the organization [America’s Cup],” said Burke, who has five sons and loves all sports, in particular windsurfing and skydiving. “We decided we would attempt to simplify the races leading up to the title defense. Previously, there was the Louis Vuitton Cup sandwiched in between the preliminary races and the Cup itself. So you were asking the public to understand three separate races. In this day and age, it’s just too complicated. So we said we need to unify all the racing. It turns out we were absolutely in sync. We thought it was more important to have both of these historic mythical houses combined from Day One to the final.”
One of the big changes to the Cup’s format meant bringing the race on shore — key to sponsorship. Brands including BMW, Bremont, Sperry and Moet & Chandon are listed as partners on the Cup web site.
“You have to have spectatorship on shore,” Burke said. “Or, it would remain a race for a few billionaires. If we wanted to go beyond that, we needed to have race syndicates that could successfully raise money. It didn’t have to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. You can mount a challenge with $20 to $30 million, which now opens it up to many more syndicates.”
Make no mistake: Vuitton, which designs the trophy travel cases for the Rugby World Cup, FIFA World Cup and America’s Cup, is not involved with sports.
“It’s really about the trophy,” noted Burke. “This is one thing that has not really been understood clearly. We’re involved with the values of that sport. We’re involved with the values of that trophy. If we believe we have the same values as that trophy, we’ll get involved. What we like is trophies that travel.”
Burke cited the faster, high-tech racing boats used in Chicago — 45-foot foiling catamarans, the result of America’s Cup 2010 winner Larry Ellison’s vision to modernize the event. With their towering wingsails, the new boats are capable of traveling in excess of 50 miles an hour. The traditional monohulls had a top speed of 20 mph.
“Larry [Ellison] embraced the change. He was really criticized by some conservative sailing milieu when he absolutely insisted on the foiling catamarans. We thought the opposite. We thought this is going to make sure this becomes the most prestigious sporting event,” Burke said.
“We love that creativity, pushing the envelope, doing it differently, not taking the past for granted. The other foot has to be forward-looking. You have to disrupt, you have to break rules, you have to invent new technology,” Burke said. “That’s what we do with our creative teams in Paris. In Rio, everybody told us ‘it’s impossible. It’s never been done before. Michael, there’s a reason it’s never been done before. It’s impossible in Rio.’ Brazil, on top of with the timing, Zika and [presidential] impeachment, when we see that, it just makes us want to do it more. The impossible. The quest. The conjunction of the past with the future. Bringing that all together. If we didn’t have that spirit alive, we would have disappeared just like every other trunk-maker. There were more than 200 trunk-makers in 1854 in Paris alone. They all disappeared save for Vuitton. Two made a comeback. We never disappeared. When times were changing, we embraced the change.”
Now the house is looking to collect some of those historic Vuitton trunks, purchased at stores like Marshall Field’s, for an upcoming museum show that will combine the “Volez, Voguez, Voyagez” Paris exhibit with a look at how Americans traveled in the 19th century. The exhibit is slated to open in 2017 in Chicago or New York, Burke said.
“Marshall Field’s was one of our first points of distribution in America in the 19th century. I still remember the store and I would always pick up the chocolates,” Burke said. “Some of our best clients were typically industrialists and they bought our trunks. They were from places like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, the highest density of old Vuitton trunks are between Chicago and Philadelphia.”
Vuitton would like to showcase these historic trunks in the exhibit — and the quest is on to find these relics.
“We’re going to build an American room,” Burke said. “Where we will show how significant Americans traveled in the 19th century. What we’re looking for is that it was purchased at Marshall Field’s. Marshall Field’s — Louis Vuitton. It’s the juxtaposition of the two that’s magic. In Paris, there’s this little suitcase and it’s not even that significant from the mid-Fifties. It had the LV monogram and on top of the LV there were two letters painted: CD — Christian Dior. This gives it provenance and makes it unique. It sets it in a period of time.”