Louis, as in Louis Vuitton, was the man of the hour Wednesday night in Paris when the luxury giant hosted a cocktail party at its Saint-Germain boutique to fete the new novel by Caroline Bongrand that was inspired by his life story.
The front of the store had been converted into a gleaming white, minimalist library stocking only that title, just out on Gallimard as part of the French brand’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of its founder’s birth.
Michael Burke, chairman and chief executive officer of Vuitton, sipped a cucumber martini and did some impromptu casting if “Louis Vuitton: L’audacieux” was ever made into a feature film.
“Sir Anthony Hopkins for the older Louis,” he suggested to Bongrand, who nodded approvingly. Burke further mused that Virgil Abloh, who made it from architecture studies in Chicago to men’s artistic director at Vuitton in Paris, could easily take on the role of the adult Louis.
The author of a dozen novels, Bongrand said she relished the assignment of writing Louis Vuitton’s life story, and felt like a detective trying to piece together the early years of his life in France’s remote Jura region.
She noted that most written records had been destroyed by fire, and she relied on oral history to piece together a character study of a tough, brave and determined 14-year-old who, penniless, set off on foot for Paris, traversing some 400 kilometers of forest in search of a better life.
“He had nothing to lose. He had no fear. He only wanted to leave,” is the opening line of the 311-page, French language tome, which hits bookstores on Friday, with an English edition following a month later. It paints a picture of an exceptional artisan and business visionary who gained the confidence of Eugénie de Montijo, who would become the Empress of France following her marriage to Napoleon III in 1853, and who leaned into innovation to make a name for himself in the world of wrapping and packing. Vuitton apprenticed at renowned trunk maker and packer Romain Maréchal before setting out his own shingle in 1854.
Burke said each of Vuitton’s 25,000 employees worldwide will eventually receive a physical copy of the book as translations come on the market. A Chinese edition is slated for 2022.
The coming-of-age story — in the vein of Tom Sawyer or Jane Austen — is universal, according to Burke, and exalts one of France’s early entrepreneurial greats who had the foresight to send his children to school in London with a view to taking his business international.
The executive noted that Vuitton means “stubborn” in the local Jura dialect.
Award-winning actress Isabelle Huppert was conscripted for the French audio book, out on Audible from Oct. 28, and Jennifer Connelly for the English one, available beginning Dec. 1. The story riffs on the necessity of taking risks, of staying close to the customer, and of passing the baton to the next generation at the right time.
Bongrand noted that Vuitton cleverly located his business at 4 Rue Neuve des Capucines amid all the major fashion houses in the Place Vendôme neighborhood of Paris — and a clutch of prestigious hotels. And he quickly noticed how bulging, panniered dresses were yielding to sleeker styles, inspiring him to invent the sleek wardrobe trunk.
Vuitton is marking its founder’s 200th birthday in a big way, having already introduced a video game with embedded NFTs, window installations and social media activations. A documentary on Apple TV’s Explore channel is due out in early December, and bespoke artworks by Alex Katz are in the works.
Burke mused that Vuitton’s heirs, including his son Georges, who spearheaded the company’s international expansion starting in 1898, six years after his father’s death, could be the subject of future books.