HISTORY OF THE HERO: THE LOUIS VUITTON TRUNK
It has transported world-famous paintings, a long-lost memoir and some seriously covetable clothing collections – we unlock the Louis Vuitton trunk and the stories inside
This article was originally published on harpersbazaar.com
What’s beige and brown, nearly 170 years old, travels well and has assumed the form of a library, cocktail bar, jukebox and vase? It’s Louis Vuitton’s iconic trunk, of course. More than just a covetable piece of luggage, it is an objet d’art, treasure trove of stories and the foundation upon which the house was built.
If you’re going to think outside the box, it’s a good idea to perfect the box, first. At least, that was what Louis Vuitton did, spending 17 years mastering the art of trunk making before establishing his eponymous company in 1854 and putting his own stamp on the travel essential.
By the time he opened his first shop on Paris’s rue Neuve des Capucines, Vuitton had already established a reputation as a master of his craft, with an elite client base that included the Empress of France, Eugénie de Montijo (for whom Vuitton had been appointed personal box-maker and packer). Outside his shop, the sign read: ‘Securely packs the most fragile objects. Specialising in packing fashions.’
With his clients travelling further, faster and more often, Vuitton identified an opportunity to create hardier, more easily transportable luggage. He set about crafting a flat-topped, rectangular trunk that could be easily stacked in a ship’s hold or railway baggage car, unlike the domed designs of the time. What’s more, this trunk was covered in Trianon canvas, a material that added no extra weight yet resisted damage, in fashionable grey – the same colour as Empress Eugénie’s salons. It was so popular that competitors followed suit, prompting the house to expand its trunk coverings over the decades: striped canvas (1872), chequered Damier canvas (1888) and finally, in 1896, the now-legendary Monogram canvas.
The new design was dreamt up by Georges Vuitton – son of Louis – as a tribute to his father, who had died four years earlier. In the same beige and brown palette as the Damier canvas, it featured Louis Vuitton’s initials alongside floral and star motifs – the uniqueness and intricacy of which was designed to thwart plagiarism. Though it was met with some resistance from customers who had heretofore carried luggage emblazoned only with their own initials, the new canvas gathered momentum and by the 1910s, LV-monogrammed trunks were the luggage of choice of voyaging elites.
Uniquely, each trunk was equipped with a pick-proof lock – another of the house’s innovations, and one that was put to the ultimate test when Harry Houdini tried and failed to escape from a box closed with a Louis Vuitton lock.
The only thing more glamorous than travelling with a set of Louis Vuitton trunks? Commissioning your own, totally bespoke creation. Nestled in the Parisian suburbs, Louis Vuitton’s Asnières atelier has been producing special orders since the early 1900s, ‘according to the particular wishes and needs of clients’.
The house’s most extravagant, important and/or eccentric trunks – and their owners – are documented in the 2010 book, Louis Vuitton: 100 Legendary Trunks. There was the Trunk Bed French explorer and loyal Vuitton client Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza travelled with on his 1905 expedition; the pink-satin-lined and perfume-scented Desk Trunk owned by flamboyant Russian exile, Princess Lobanov de Rostov, in the early 1900s; and Ernest Hemingway’s 1923 Library Trunk, which, after the writer’s death, was found in the basement of The Ritz Paris, together with the long-lost manuscript of A Moveable Feast, his posthumous masterpiece.
The trunk’s original purpose of ‘packing fashions’ is a concept Louis Vuitton plays with, subverts and supersizes. There is the Takashi Murakami-designed, 2007 Marilyn Trunk – an enormous trunk bearing 33 bags, which sold for a staggering $500,000. In 2019, the brand launched the Sneaker Trunk, an imposing piece in Monogram Eclipse canvas, with double doors and 14 separate sections for one’s favourite sneakers – each fronted with a transparent, monogrammed window, for easy admiring.
There are scaled-down designs, too, namely a tiny set of trunks made in 1936. These bijou creations were designed not for Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret of England, but for their dolls, France and Marianne, as part of an impressive ambassadorial wardrobe that included miniature outfits and accessories by Lanvin, Cartier and Hermès.
Though some trunks are filled with objects designed to charm and amuse, others open to reveal great masterpieces. In 1924, the house created a trunk for French gallerist René Gimpel, so he could take important paintings to clients around the world. In 2018, Vuitton reprised this historic tradition when they designed a trunk to transport Johannes Vermeer’s precious artwork, The Milkmaid, from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum to an exhibition at Ueno Royal Museum in Tokyo. Inside, a yellow interior mirrored the main colours featured in the masterpiece.
One kind of specially-designed trunk was not commissioned but rather gifted to loyal clients, a tradition upheld from 1910 to the early 1980s. Instead of sending an ordinary bouquet of flowers, Georges and Gaston-Louis Vuitton would send theirs in a monogram canvas-covered planter trunk, its interior protected from water and humidity by a zinc tub. After the blooms perished, the lucky recipients could use the trunk to store jewellery, or as a cigarette case.
‘No dream is too large or object too complex’, says Louis Vuitton of its bespoke trunks. If you can think of an object, it’s likely the house’s dedicated Special-Order workshop has concocted a trunk dedicated to its storage and/or transportation. Trunks have been made for watercolour paints, billiard cues, record collections, birthday cakes, tea sets, Christmas decorations and even exactly 1,000 cigars. One avid collector even commissioned a custom piece with the sole function of storing his children’s baby teeth.
How about a trunk containing an entire party? Your wish is Vuitton’s command. Last year, they introduced the Party Trunk, a fully-stocked home bar and entertainment centre, complete with a plated silver ice bucket and Monogram disco ball. Inside, there’s space for 30 bottles and a smoke machine. Not your average house party.
In case you were wondering whether Louis Vuitton’s signature trunks are still fit for travel, the brand’s current exhibition – a travelling tribute to the house’s founder for his bicentenary birthday – is proof. ‘200 Trunks, 200 Visionaries’ was first unveiled last year in Asnières-sur-Seine, France, and has since voyaged to Singapore’s Marina Bay, Los Angeles and New York, where it currently resides. There, you can see, experience and even listen to physical and digital trunks, from Marc Jacobs’ Stephen Sprouse graffiti trunk – a nod to the former Creative Director’s bestselling bags – to a strap-bound trunk by architect Peter Marino, created as a new challenge to Houdini. There is even a 200-track jukebox trunk by British DJ and producer Benji B. That’s the thing with Vuitton trunks – you never know what treasures you’ll find inside.