I’ve always been intrigued by the aura of luxury.
As a little girl, I can remember visiting my mother’s super wealthy brother, who is president of a brewery, and lives with his snobbish wife and my two gorgeous blonde haired cousins in a mansion in Connecticut. USA.
My parents were born in New York City. And is where I spend my childhood.
My father never had a driver’s licence or owned a car until he was 37 years old. No need to. Until brothers and sisters move out of New York City and into Long Island, Brooklyn, Connecticut, New Jersey, Queens.
Diamond Firetails on my rural fence.
Those destinations can only be visited by car.
His first car is a 1946 shiny black Plymouth. Second hand.
And dressed in our best finery, we set off for a day trip to Connecticut. To visit my Uncle Steve, Aunt Marie, and my cousins Stephanie and Susan.
As a five year old, I am speechless the first time we visit and a maid in her crisp white uniform and starched cap answers the doorbell.
I remember walking through that big door. Held open for us by her. And I can still smell the highly waxed furniture. And feel the lushness of the upholstery on the chair I am allowed to sit on.
And am in further awe when a butler serves drinks. From a beautiful silver tray.
And can hear, as if it was yesterday, the crisp bell sound that only expensive lead crystal makes when scotch glasses are clinking together in a toast.
I am smitten.
And I’ve had a love affair with unaffordable luxury ever since.
Crimson Rosella fledglings eating gum nuts in the leaf litter under a Yellowbox tree.
I also remember the first time I saw a Louis Vuitton trunk.
It was at university.
I am a freshman and it is my second day at uni. I share a room with two other girls. Betty and I have arrived. One is yet to show up.
And when she does, she makes a grand entrance.
A tall, olive skinned, dark haired girl with a loud voice and carrying two suitcases pushes her way into the room.
Followed closely behind by her equally pushy mother. And a more genteel father. Who is an industrialist. And verrryyy wealthy.
Lois has arrived.
With enough luggage in tow to spend five years on the QE2.
One piece being a Louis Vuitton trunk. Which I later learn is a prized family heirloom. And on this day is packed to the brim with her expensive clothes.
The university I go to is not a posh school.
She is there because she doesn’t have the grades to get into Vassar. Bryn Mawr. Smith. Brown University. Wellesley. Or any of the other upper stratosphere universities for women. That her father can afford.
Kangaroos in the light of the rising sun.
Lois is engaged to a young man a few years older than her. He is an up and coming member of the elite upper class in which her father travels. And despite the fact that she is academically challenged, her parents think a year or two at a small university – one that is grateful for the generous donation made to them, in advance, by her father – will polish off some of her rough edges. And instill in her an intellect that she currently lacks.
Betty and I, as students there on government loans and work scholarships, are in awe of her wealth.
And her possessions.
And her mother.
Who quickly informs us that Lois has never boiled water or ironed a blouse.
And although they can afford to pay for private accommodation in town for Lois to live in, her mother thinks it best if she is exposed to the ‘hoi polloi’ before marrying into the upper classes.
Much like Prince Phillip sending Prince Charles to the austere Timbertop School in Geelong Victoria. To toughen him up.
I never forgot that heirloom Louis Vuitton trunk.
Early morning mist in the hills.
There was no Google then to enlighten me. But I just knew it had to be one of the most expensive, and regardless of its wear and tear, stunningly beautiful pieces of luggage on the planet.
And am reminded of Lois when I read the story of Louis Vuitton in a book by Dana Thomas. ‘Deluxe. How Luxury Lost Its Luster.’
And how similar the story of Louis Vuitton, the artisan box maker, is to the many stories of men and women who start a business today.
The beginnings can be so different to the now.
The Louis Vuitton that I know is part of the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) luxury juggernaught.
A luxury brand company valued at USD$26 billion. Give or take a few million dollars here or there.
In 2012, its revenue was about USD$7 billion ($7,000,000,000).
Zeroes . . . !
But it wasn’t always so.
Balloons of clouds in a stormy sky.
And we should remember that, like many businesses, its beginnings are very humble. And not so far removed from – the technical person who is good at something so they start their own business – scenario of today.
What is unusual today is that a business started in the mid 1800′s is still operating under its original name. With members of the founder’s family still in its employ.
Louis Vuitton’s humble beginnings is in rural France in 1821. He is born into a family of a farmer father and a milliner mother. When he is 10, his life changes when his milliner mother dies.
His father remarries. To all intents and purposes, he marries the twin sister of Cinderellas’s wicked stepmother. The clashes between the headstrong Louis and his stepmother result in him leaving home in 1835 at the age of 14.
With no money. And no skills. He heads to Paris. On foot.
A personal journey that today would be lauded as remarkable. But back then, it is his only choice if he wants to have a better life.
The 292 mile journey takes him two years. Stopping on the way to do odd jobs to pay for food and shelter. Stable boy. Kitchen hand. In today’s parlance, a jack-a-roo.
A silhouette of a Whistling Kite in front of the rising sun.
Paris in 1837 is a booming city of a million people. In the grips of the industrial revolution. A city of rapid growth. And the vices that come with it. Abject poverty. Filth. And horrific slums. Along with opulent palaces. And grand wealth.
Until the GFC created ghost cities, not much different to the cities of today’s developed world.
With no skills, he is open to offers. And opportunity.
And lands a position as an apprentice to a box maker and packer.
Contrary to the images that immediately come to mind, of cardboard boxes made by Visyboard, box making in 1837 Paris is a very urbane and highly respectable craft.
The ladies of the wealthy classes wear haute couture voluminous gowns with layers of petticoats – crinolines in my youth – and cumbersome bustles.
Made by designers such as the Englishman Charles Frederick Worth.
And when they travel, they seek out box makers like Louis Vuitton, who are experts at not only making the boxes – to measure – that will hold these gowns that are made of 15 metres of fabric. With the added baubles and pearls and embroidery on the gowns that take 400 hours to create.
A Crimson Rosella fledgling enjoying his breakfast of gum nuts.
But to also pack into these boxes – to perfection – these delicate frocks with their embroidery and baubles and pearls.
Hence the term box maker and packer.
When these ladies return from their trips, the boxes are unpacked by the box maker.
Very much bespoke boxes with a valet.
For the fashionable classes of Francophiles.
He has a knack and a flair for this craft that sets him apart from others and for 16 years he is ‘the go to’ box maker for the premier families of Paris.
Already successful as a craftsman, he is propelled further up into the stratosphere when Louis Napoleon Bonaparte becomes Napoleon III and the Emperor of France in 1852.
And catches the eye of Napoleon’s wife Eugenie, a Spanish countess.
From that moment on, he becomes the box maker and packer to the royal family.
I am captivated by the soulful face of this sheep in my paddocks.
According to Eugenie.
“Packs her beautiful clothes in the most exquisite way”.
She is his key to the kingdom of the elite class of royal clientele who use his services exclusively for the rest of his life.
But don’t be seduced into thinking he is ‘lucky’.
Unless you are a believer that luck is when hard work meets opportunity.
During his lifetime, and after being discovered by Eugenie, he also establishes the Louis Vuitton trunk and label for which he’s most famous.
Up until 1854, trunks used for luggage had rounded tops. In case they get wet, the water can run off.
But for the long voyages on ocean liners that are the predominant form of travel for the elite, these trunks can’t be stacked.
Which poses a problem.
To resolve the stacking issue, Louis reworks the basic design of the trunk and develops the flat topped trunk.
And the flat hinge system.
A Jacky Winter on a blackberry cane.
He also replaces the leather – which gets mouldy when wet – with a lightweight timber frame covered with a waterproof cotton canvas.
The flat topped design is copied in a flash by every luggage maker to the wealthy.
Just like today.
But not the hinge system.
He is able to differentiate himself from the riffraff with his unique hinge system. Which is the same today as then. Of a piece of sturdy canvas glued to the inside of the trunk. And another piece glued on the outside. This hinge system developed by Louis doesn’t break. Opens and closes easily. And creates a flat surface on the back of the trunk.
He further identifies himself with his distinctive LV monogram that can’t be copied. And his signature canvas fabric of brown and beige stripes.
In 1854 he has twenty artisans making his trunks to order.
Today more than 220 artisans still hand make these trunks – to order – in a working class suburb in Paris. In exactly the same way they were made 160 years ago.
Some things are too good to change.
A White Plumed Honeyeater in amongst the blackberry canes.
I love the stories of humble beginnings because most of us only know the here and now.
It takes 160 years for Louis Vuitton to get to where it is today.
And it gives inspiration to those who think everything successful is an overnight wonder.
Because it’s usually not the case.
Every business has its setbacks, including Louis Vuitton.
It becomes a shadow of itself when the Nazis arrive in Paris in 1940. A time when many luxury brands in France close their doors. Never to reopen again.
Louis Vuitton reawakens itself in the post war years, but it is only in 1989, when it is acquired by Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH, that it is propelled into the super luxury monolith it is today.
The ensuing 24 years is another story.
A Louis Vuitton vintage trunk.
The art of packing a suitcase is as old as the fashion industry. The artisans who perfected it are no longer practising this craft. But thanks to Louis Vuitton, who make videos to show us how it’s done, we can now be our own ‘best practice’ packer.
And don’t forget that to be well dressed. You need to be well pressed. So make room for a Fitz Like A Glove™ Ironing Board Cover in your suitcase.
And pack your shoes in my Travel Bug Shoe Bag.
Join me next time?
Tell me what you think.
Your comments are always welcome.
Your stories, thoughts, experiences add to the fabric of the conversation.
And I acknowledge your comment with a reply.
All the best,
Photos are courtesy of Ironing Diva and taken at sunrise every morning on her rural property.
Sources for Louis Vuitton:
Go peek at ‘My Story. How I Built A Business From Broke’.
My beautiful rural property is in the picturesque hills of the Central Tablelands of NSW Australia.
This is the hook I hang my heart on.
When I’m not out in the paddocks in the morning photographing my beautiful Wild Blue Yonder, I’m the purveyor of the one of the world’s finest ironing board covers, The Fitz Like A Glove™ Ironing Board Cover.
And 5 other beautifully designed textile products of excellence.
This is the hook I hang my business hat on.
Since 1994, my partner, Victor Pleshev, an architect and de facto product designer, and I have worked tirelessly to make sure each product is a joy to use. Every time you use it.
My website, InterfaceAustralia. The home of Simple Solutions For Difficult Problems! does all the heavy lifting. You can read about all my products in great detail just by clicking the link above.
When you own one of my products, you also make a huge contribution to the surrounding rural community because they are made with love and care in rural Australia by men and women who have a disability. They put their heart and soul into everything they do. And it shows.
You will look long and hard to find comparable products that are as well thought out for their design and usability. And of such high class, that our customers send us fan mail! Which finds its way onto Testimonials on our website.
Go peek. Every product truly is a joy to use. I guarantee it.