Branding really is a strange phenomenon. Mention any brand, and if you know it or have even vaguely heard of it, it immediately elicits an association. As shown throughout this book, brands spend huge amounts of time and money developing the brand image and positioning they want.
Each brand has its own position in the market. Cheap and cheerful, middle of the road or… the realms of Louis Vuitton. Part of the LVMH empire, this iconic fashion house has an unequivocal association of quality, craftsmanship and unbridled luxury. Rich in paradox, contrasts and seeming opposites, Louis Vuitton has caught the eye and wallets of the rich and famous, just rich, and the fashion-conscious for over 150 years. So what’s the story behind this must-have brand? How did they get where they are? And has it remained the same, or is it also changing with the times?
Times of horse and carriage
Some companies would balk at being described as traditional, but not LV. The company has a long and proud history dating back to 1854. Louis Vuitton was born in 1821 in Jura, France. Filled with ambition, Vuitton decided he was going to have to move to the centre stage of fashion – Paris – and so in 1835 he set off by foot on the 400-km journey. Once there, he managed to find a job as an apprentice Layetier, or trunk- and box-maker, for prominent households.
He soon established a reputation for quality, and Napoleon III of France appointed Vuitton as Layetier to his wife, Empress Eugénie de Montijo. Over time, his experience with the French aristocracy allowed him to develop expert knowledge on what comprised a good travelling case. It was then that he began to design his own luggage, setting the foundations for LV Co.
Vuitton founded ‘Louis Vuitton: Malletier à Paris’ in 1853 where he introduced his flat-bottom, lightweight and airtight trunks. Before their introduction, travellers used rounded-top trunks, which allowed water to run off. These, however, could not be stacked, making them a hindrance in the horse-and-carriage travel of the time.
In 1867, the company participated in the universal exhibition in Paris. To protect against the duplication of his look, he changed the Trianon design to a beige and brown stripes design in 1876. In 1885, the company opened its first store in London on Oxford Street. Soon after, due to the continuing imitation of his look, the Damier Canvas pattern was created by Louis Vuitton in 1888, bearing a logo that reads “marque L. Vuitton déposée,” which translates roughly as “mark L. Vuitton deposited” or, roughly, “L. Vuitton trademark”. Louis Vuitton died in 1892, leaving his son what would become the world’s premier luxury goods company.
After the death of his father, Georges Vuitton began a campaign to build the company into a worldwide corporation, exhibiting the company’s products at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. In 1896, the company launched the legendary Monogram Canvas and patented it worldwide. Its graphic symbols, including quatrefoils and flowers as well as the LV monogram, were based on the trend of using Japanese and Oriental designs in the late Victorian era. The patents later proved successful in stopping counterfeiting. In this same year, Georges travelled to the United States, where he toured various cities, including New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and selling Vuitton products during the visit. In 1901, the Louis Vuitton Company introduced the Steamer Bag, a smaller piece of luggage designed to be kept inside Vuitton luggage trunks.
By 1914, the LouisVuittonBuilding opened on the Champs-Elysees. It was the largest travel-goods store in the world at the time. Stores also opened in New York, Bombay, Washington, London, Alexandria, and Buenos Aires as World War I began. In 1936 Georges Vuitton passed away, and, his son, Gaston-Louis Vuitton, assumed control of the company.
During this period, the look of the leather was used in everything from small purses and wallets to larger pieces of luggage. To broaden its line, the company revamped its signature Monogram Canvas in 1959 to make it more supple and allowing it to be used for purses, bags, and wallets. Audrey Hepburn is seen carrying the bag in the 1963 film Charade. It is believed that in the 1960s, counterfeiting returned as a greater issue to continue on into the 21st century (see below).
Creating today’s luxury icon
In 1987, the greatest change occurred in the company to date through the merger with Moët et Chandon and Hennessy, leading manufacturers of champagne and brandy to form the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. By 1989, Louis Vuitton was operating 130 stores worldwide. There was, however, an issue. Louis Vuitton had become somewhat outdated and was certainly not top-of-mind for the younger generations.
This all changed entering the 1990s, as Bernard Arnault became chairman, CEO and major shareholder. Dubbed “the Machiavelli of finance” by French newspaper Libération, Arnault had a clear idea of where the company was to go and introduced his star brand formula, which goes something like this: sharply define the brand identity (or ‘DNA’ as he calls it) by mining the brand’s history. Find the right designer to express it, create masterful marketing buzz, and tightly control quality and distribution.
He initiated the change the company needed to elevate it back to its must-have position in 1997, when Arnault hired Marc Jacobs, a young, hip designer from New York, as Creative Director. Jacobs studied Vuitton’s history and developed several lines of bags, each with a modern twist.
As the bags got edgier, Arnault created crucial buzz via a combination of ads with famous spokespeople (singer Madonna, actor Sir Sean Connery, supermodel Gisele Bündchen), attention-grabbing artist collaborations (most recently with music producer Pharrell Williams as well as Kanye West), corporate sponsorships (LVMH Young Artists’ Award, LVMH Discovery and Education), high-class events (Louis Vuitton Classic, Louis Vuitton Cup) and PR stunts like the USD1.5m scaffolding in the shape of two giant Vuitton suitcases around the renovation of Louis Vuitton’s Paris store.
Finally, Arnault oversees Louis Vuitton’s high-quality standards and distribution. A single purse can have up to 1,000 manufacturing tasks and almost every piece is made by hand. Original Louis Vuitton products are now sold only at Louis Vuitton stores, in other luxury goods shops, and via eLUXURY.com, an online shop owned by Bernard Arnault.
The best and most effective buzzmakers, though, are the highly priced and heavily promoted limited-edition bags Louis Vuitton creates each season. The aim of those fashion bags isn’t to make money, but to create envy. Because if you cannot get a limited bag, chances are you will buy one of the 180 standard bags.
Talking of must-haves…