Handle With Care

A rare look inside Louis Vuitton home and workshops in France


2 Louis Vuitton salon Paris June 2013
Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
1 Louis Vuitton salon Paris June 2013
Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
26 Louis Vuitton salon Paris June 2013
Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
20 Louis Vuitton salon Paris June 2013
Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com

Even though French conglomerate LVMH owns Louis Vuitton, the ancestral home and atelier, located just five miles from the center of Paris in Asnières-sur-Seine, retain a family feeling. As he strolls the grounds, Patrick Louis Vuitton, the great-great grandson of the founder, seems proud to show visitors the rarely seen compound.

The Art Nouveau family home and workshops, including the area where special orders are made, are normally closed to all but a few exclusive clients But during a weekend called Les Journées Particulières, the Louis Vuitton private workshops, along with those at other LVMH luxury businesses, were open to the general public — and they showed up in droves. The wait to get into the Vuitton atelier was three hours or more for those who didn't have a reservation.

CultureMap finagled a private tour and snapped some exclusive photos. Take a peek inside.

In 1854, Louis Vuitton, a young French craftsman who had been the personal box maker and packer for Napoleon III's wife, opened a Paris shop featuring the finest handcrafted flat-topped trunks. They were an instant hit, and five years later he moved his workshop to this town strategically located near the Seine, so he could get easy access to the wood for his trunks transported by boat.

In the 1870s, he established a family home that was totally redecorated by his son, Georges, in the early 20th century. It was built next to the workshop where trunks were made with exacting care — a place where the tradition continues.

Patrick Louis Vuitton, a fifth-generation member of the family, heads up the department where special orders are created. Patrick lived in the home until he was 18. His grandmother, who died in 1964, was the last Vuitton member to live in the family home.

The Louis Vuitton ancestral home reflects an Art Nouveau style, with stained glass windows, floral chandeliers and a blue ceramic fireplace in the living room. The home has been maintained with painstaking care.

Iconic trunks with the Louis Vuitton pattern — some dating back to the start of the business — are on display. In 1858, as railroads replaced the horse and buggy as a primary means of transportation, Vuitton debuted a lighter, more durable rectangular trunk that could be stacked more easily, unlike the domed-shaped trunks that were prevalent at the time.

Because the rectangular lids did not shed water as easily as the domed predecessors, he came up with a treated grey canvas called Trianon and then a checkerboard pattern called Damier. 

The trunks were an immediate hit; most historians credit the Vuitton trunk as the birth of modern luggage.

As travel changed, so did travel bags. Created in 1901, the canvas Steamer bag (in front right of photo) was among the first soft bags created by Louis Vuitton.

It was originally used as a laundry bag by passengers on trans-Atlantic ships. Once filled, it was left on the outside door handle so that the ship's staff could pick it up and send back clean laundry.

Louis Vuitton menswear designer Kim Jones has incorporated the modern-looking "V" logo into recent collections.

An early drawing shows the first Louis Vuitton workshops at Asnières. Business boomed here as Vuitton made special orders for French royalty and Egyptian pashas.

His business was interrupted by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, which destroyed the French Empire. When he returned to find Asnières demolished a year later, he started the company up again.

Today, a "Made in France" label is stitched into every Louis Vuitton trunk or bag made in the Asnières workshop.

In the workshops, a mix of traditional and sophisticated tools are used to create the hand-framed luggage, handbags and special orders. Many of the 150 craftsmen and women have been with the company for years.

Vuitton constructed the modern-looking atelier with steel beams, hardwood floors, and windows that let in natural light in the tradition of Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel tower. The atelier was renovated and expanded in 2005 but retains its original facade and configuration. 

Much of the work on the luggage continues to be done by hand. Here, a worker taps small nails into a trunk; as many as 1,000 can be used on a large trunk to keep the trim in place.

The trunks are made of wood that has been aged a dozen years and covered with canvas or leather. Workers painstakingly glue lining in the interior and hinges made from layers of stitched cotton canvas.

Toward the end of the process, they add saddle-stitched handles and brass edges.

A worker cuts the distinctive LV logo fabric of natural cowhide leather without using a ruler. He says he has been on the job here since 1988.

The interlocking chocolate brown and gold logo with diamond points and Kimono-inspired quatrefoil flowers created by Georges Vuitton in 1896 is among the world's most recognized and copied status symbols. Ironically, it replaced a design that was deemed too easy to copy.

Workers know the monogram must never be cut or stitched together, and the flowers must correspond perfectly from one edge to another. Otherwise, the bag is a fake.

A worker stitches together the fabric on a small trunk. It takes strength to puncture the canvas and wood as well as delicacy to apply the stitches.

The signature Louis Vuitton “tumbler lock," invented by Georges Vuitton in 1890, is one of the final pieces added to a trunk. Since the founding of the company, every trunk has been given a unique registered lock number.

It holds the secret of when the trunk was made, by whom and where it was purchased. An owner can have one key for all of his or her trunks, and it can be passed down from generation to generation.

A variety of exotic leathers, including crocodile, two types of alligator, python, stingray and ostrich, are used for handbags. Less exotic leathers — like lamb and goat for linings and veal and cowhide for the outside of the handbag — are also used. All are stored in a temperature-controlled room.

Exotic skins are colored and given a matte or glazed finish, then cut with pressurized machines, except for special orders, which are always cut by hand. Shoppers can choose handbags and accessories from 26 colors and in several finishes.

Handbag handles are made of kemp, covered with leather glued to the shape of the handle and stitched accordingly. A special machine stitches the handle so it stays rounded.

Workers use a machine to clamp down the leather handle of a handbag. 

The finished product shines in red crocodile.

All special orders are made here at the Vuitton atelier. The luxury luggage house will create just about anything as long as it involves travel and stays true to the spirit of its founder. A drawing, like those shown here, is made so the customer can get an idea of what the finished product will look like.

Some recent made-to-order items have included a backgammon set and jewelry case (as show in the drawings). Cases for Barbies, Christmas ornaments, teddy bears, iPods (two were made for Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld) and even a rubber duck have been created. 

In 2009, to commemorate the Apollo 11 first lunar landing 40 years earlier, Vuitton created a trunk that resembled a space capsule. It opened up to reveal just about everything one would need to explore the universe, including dishware, CDs, tools and a folding lounge chair.

Also in 2009, Louis Vuitton made a special case to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Red Cross. Seeking to interpret the original first aid kit, it featured a series of red and silver aluminum medicine boxes arranged in the shape of the cross. It is on display at the atelier with a number of other one-of-a-kind trunks.

Custom orders can be placed at any Vuitton store but must be approved before work begins. The price varies depending on the intricacy of the project and materials.

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