The Heart of Louis Vuitton
The story of the most famous luxury brand in the world began in a sleepy village along the Seine
When the ateliers began to be built in 1859, Louis Vuitton transformed the top floor into living space in order to remain near to his artisans. Like many of the younger generations, his son Georges, born in 1857, was a true child of Asnières, educated at the local boarding school in a village that was rapidly becoming a town. Though Louis and his wife Émilie finally settled onsite in the 1870s, it was Georges’ wedding in 1880 that marked the turning point in Vuitton’s path, with Louis building a villa with a smaller home tucked away for the young couple. Living close to the company’s beating heart became part of the Vuitton family life, with members coming together in the big home for hearty Sunday gatherings in Asnières, this little corner of countryside just outside Paris. “The table was open to all, as was the pot-au-feu,” recalls Gaston- Louis Vuitton in a letter to his cousin. Given his own delicate health, Gaston-Louis spent all of his childhood at the family home on Rue de la Comète. The neighboring Rue du Congrès, home to the ateliers, was later renamed Rue Louis Vuitton.
The family spent their precious free time rowing on the nearby Seine. The river, large garden, and railway track leading to the station of Paris Saint-Lazare bore the first signs of adventure for the Vuitton boys, who had all, in turn, passed through the ateliers to hone their craft before heading out to manage the ever-expanding stores. This atelier “work-experience” was Georges’ idea, and the home’s current appearance is also due to Georges’ late 19th-century renovation. The latter paid close attention to the Nancy School and so commissioned its artisans to refurbish the family home in the purest art nouveau design, a style pioneered by his friend Louis Majorelle. As though the garden itself were extending into the home, flowers and leaves multiplied across stained glass windows—created by master craftsman Janin—intertwined through intricate wood carvings and even on the furniture. The front room dining table still holds memories of family gatherings, and was home to some of the most important decisions such as the creation of the Monogram pattern, the Houdini Challenge to test the patented locks, and the opening of Vuitton’s first international store.
The family continued to live in the home until 1964 when George’s widow Joséphine passed away. Between the unique work of the nearby ateliers and the home’s anachronistic appearance, the family home remains a place where great creative minds were as comfortable in their destiny as they were visionary in their approach.
An Outstanding Savoir-Faire
Barely five years after founding his House, Louis Vuitton began to outgrow his Parisian headquarters. In 1859, he relocated the new workshops to Asnières, a village a few kilometers northwest of Paris. This was a calculated decision: located on the banks of the Seine, Asnières allowed for bundles of poplar wood, used when constructing trunks, to be delivered by water (on a Louis Vuitton barge nonetheless). The very first railway line also passed through the village and terminated at Paris’ Saint- Lazare station, a stone’s throw from the flagship store. At the time, this suburb was little more than a bucolic clump of riverside houses, where painters came to capture the reflection of the sunset on the river.
As an aesthete and a man of his time, Louis Vuitton had his new ateliers built in the ethereal Eiffel style, combining glass and steel. Over the years, the buildings expanded along with the number of employees. Saddlers, carpenters, and locksmiths worked side by side to create and construct luggage. The exceptional savoir-faire of the Asnières artisans is such that, even today, key pieces are created here: rigid trunks, designs in rare or exotic leathers, special orders. These one-off designs strive for perfection by bringing together technical innovation and quintessential style.
The Soul Of The House
Since its creation, the House of Louis Vuitton has been driven by its desire to explore new paths and to accompany an ever-changing world with its emblematic creations. The Asnières atelier is the House’s true hub, and puts its soul into the creation of every special order.
The family’s sons all learned the art of trunk-making here, including Patrick-Louis Vuitton, who today, is in charge of these special orders. The House has always excelled in the art of transforming the desires of its travel-loving clients into reality: explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza’s famous trunk-bed, the tea trunk for the Maharajah of Baroda, photographer Albert Kahn’s trunk with its signature white crosses. To this day, each dream finds its special case as long as it can de transported. Shower-trunks, iPad trunks, or even one-off violin trunks. Travel remains at the heart of the House, where finesse is born of careful precision and attention to detail.
A Grand Affair: Paris remains the heart of the Louis Vuitton empire, where its heritage is showcased in true splendor
The Maison is situated in two hôtel particuliers—classic Parisian townhouses—which, over the years, have been home to courtiers, nobles, aristocracy, the occasional princess, and the future emperor Napoléon III. Once known as Hôtel Baudet de Morlet and Hôtel Heuzé de Vologer, these hôtels were completed in 1714, but greatly altered over the years, including a particularly destructive “renovation” in the 1980s. Architect Peter Marino has now returned these two buildings to their former glory: floors have been returned to their 18th- century grandeur, ceilings to their original heights (nearly five meters on the first floor), and the façade, designed by the architect of the Palace of Versailles, Jules- Hardouin Mansart, has been sensitively restored. Throughout the Maison, Peter Marino has deftly blended the old and new, employing techniques and materials that reference French history and craftsmanship, while carefully integrating ultra-modern designs. Behind the original façade, the Maison has been designed to be open and filled with light. The extensive use of glass, light- colored stone, artisanal wall coverings, and beautiful parquet and stone flooring allow each floor to subtly assert its unique character, while remaining part of a coherent whole.
On the ground floor, natural light from the extensive number of windows and doorways illuminates the leather goods, accessories, textiles, fragrances, and, on the Place Vendôme side, a full range of jewelry and timepieces. Louis Vuitton men’s universe is upstairs on the mezzanine and its herringbone parquet, with leather goods, ready-to-wear including the formal offer, shoes, travel items, and accessories displayed on leather-lined shelving. The stairs, which continue to the first floor, provide high levels of contrast: 18th-century design in stone completed with ultra-modern, high-tech glass balustrades suspended by stainless steel cables. On this first floor are the women’s ready-to-wear, shoes, and accessories, presented in a beautifully airy, high-ceilinged space with richly intricate Versailles parquet. On the second floor, travel-related items—from Louis Vuitton City Guides and travel books to luggage—share space with the Objets Nomades, a collection of designer travel and home-related objects, offered for the first time in France on a permanent basis. There is also a hot-stamping desk and a savoir-faire corner, the latter being the House’s first permanent space, offering demonstrations of Louis Vuitton’s traditional know-how to clients. On the Place Vendôme side, the second floor hosts the Appartement, where clients can be invited for private viewings of the collection.
The Maison Louis Vuitton Vendôme will be home to two working ateliers, representative of the House’s ancestral savoir-faire. The haute joaillerie atelier, hidden away discreetly under the eaves, is where Louis Vuitton’s jewelers will transform exceptional precious stones into the House’s most exclusive high jewelry.
In the Atelier Rare & Exceptionel, celebrities and the House’s most prestigious clients will have the chance to discover remarkable pieces from the latest collections. These can then be fitted and customized by the atelier’s in-house artisans, who will also be available to fashion exclusive red-carpet gowns.
Dynamic Forms: Louis Vuitton is the caretaker of a 21st-century architectural treasure
The Fondation Louis Vuitton is located next to the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne, the famous park on the west side of Paris. In October 1860, after two years of construction work, Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie opened the Jardin d›Acclimatation. It provided Paris with a landscaped park designed in accordance with the model of English gardens that they so admired, in the Bois de Boulogne, just next to the Longchamp race-course.
From an initial sketch drawn on a blank page in a notebook, to the transparent cloud sitting at the edge of the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne, Frank Gehry constantly sought to “design, in Paris, a magnificent vessel symbolizing the cultural calling of France.” A creator of dreams, he has designed a unique, emblematic, and bold building. Respectful of a history rooted in French culture of the 19th century, Frank Gehry dared to use technological achievements of the 21st century, opening the way for pioneering innovation. “We wanted to present Paris with an extraordinary space for art and culture, and demonstrate daring and emotion by entrusting Frank Gehry with the construction of an iconic building for the 21st century,” says Bernard Arnault.
The impulse of a dynamic architecture exudes from the first sketch. “Within the Bois de Boulogne and the Jardin d’Acclimatation, the idea of a glass pavilion was the only possible way forward. It seemed inappropriate to me to create a solid object: I wanted to express a notion of transparency. To reflect our constantly changing world, we wanted to create a building that would evolve according to the time and the light in order to give the impression of something ephemeral and continually changing,” says Frank Gehry.
The “iceberg,” an assembly of blocks, is covered by a glass envelope that brings the building its volume, lightness, and original momentum. Set on a water garden made for the occasion, that building gets into the natural environment, between the wood and the garden, playing with the light and the mirror effects. His architecture combines a traditional “art de vivre,” visionary daring, and the innovation offered by modern technology.
From the invention of glass curved to the nearest millimeter for the 3,600 panels that form the Fondation’s 12 sails, to the 19,000 panels of Ductal (fiber-reinforced concrete), each one unique, that give the iceberg its immaculate whiteness, and not forgetting a totally new design process, each stage of construction pushed back the boundaries of conventional architecture to create a unique building that is the realization of a dream.
This great architectural exploit has already taken its place among the iconic works of 21st-century architecture. Frank Gehry’s building, which reveals forms never previously imagined until today, is the reflection of the unique, creative, and innovative project that is the Fondation Louis Vuitton. To produce his first sketches, Frank Gehry took his inspiration from the lightness of late 19th-century glass and garden architecture. The architect then produced numerous models in wood, plastic and aluminum, playing with the lines and shapes, investing his future building with a certain sense of movement. The choice of materials became self-evident: an envelope of glass would cover the body of the building, an assembly of blocks referred to as the “iceberg”, and would give it its volume and its vitality.
Placed in a basin specially created for the purpose, the building fits easily into the natural environment, between woods and garden, while at the same time playing with light and mirror effects. The final model was then scanned to provide the digital model for the project.
This article was originally published in Metro Society vol. 16, no. 6.
Photographs by Chuck Reyes, Thomas Cesalek, and Raul Manzano