Novelist Caroline Bongrand digs deeper into the story of young Louis Vuitton, unearthing the craftsman, innovator and adventurer within

Celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of the founder of his eponymous luxury house, novelist Caroline Bongrand takes us on a journey of the illustrious life of Louis Vuitton. Through her novel, Louis Vuitton, L’Audacieux, published by Éditions Gallimard, Bongrand recounts the story of a young 14-year-old boy, who leaves home without a penny to his name, and ends up in Paris to eventually set up his trunkmaking business in 1854.  
 
The twists and turns that follow his expedition, through the mountains of Jura to the dazzling city of Paris is a riveting experience, and one that Bongrand deeply resonated with. We chat with the esteemed author as she shares more about the fascinating process of researching and writing Louis Vuitton’s legendary story. 

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Tell us about your connection with Louis Vuitton.  
 
My connection to Louis Vuitton starts with my mother. She was a very elegant French woman, who always carried a Louis Vuitton vanity case when she travelled. As a little girl, I was always drawn into elements the vanity case—the shape of it, the locking mechanism, all the secrets it held.  
 
Until eight years ago, I just knew Louis Vuitton as the founder of the brand, that he existed once upon a time and nothing more. Then, I had the pleasure of learning about the founder’s childhood from friends I knew at the brand. It was a fairy-tale—with over-the-top characters, encountering a very special time of history and embarking on journey of a lifetime.  

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What lead you to work with Louis Vuitton on this fictionalised account of his life? 
 
My first and foremost desire was to share a story that I was personally impressed by. The story of a young boy who becomes a man of many talents; how his will power, courage, vision, and determination led him down a remarkable journey. He encountered various challenges and witnessed historical time posts of the nineteenth century—the cradle of our modernity—where invention and innovation were part and parcel of the times. 

Tell us more about your writing process. How was your experience writing this book different from others you've done in the past? 
 
It was a totally different experience, as I had to get into Vuitton’s skin to tell his story. I thought a lot about his early journey through the forest to get to Paris; what he must’ve gone through, the thoughts he had, the struggles he faced.  
 
When you get so close to someone, you start to really feel for them. I fell in love with him, admired his strength, felt sad for his loss, and was proud of his wit. I cheered and even cried once, knowing that he beat the odds and succeeded. The distance between my main character and myself turned out to be very thin, and when I finished the book, I genuinely felt a pang of sadness that I didn’t know how to process.  
 
I have written about twelve novels so far, and this has happened to me only once in the past. To love a character so dearly, it is certainly an experience. You are emotional, but you ought to stay rational and structured. With Vuitton, the emotions came in an instant. I was with him; he was with me. 

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Tell us about some surprising events in Louis Vuitton’s life you found during your research process. 
 
I researched a lot about the region of Jura, where Louis Vuitton comes from. I had to be able to imagine the circumstances of his childhood, and the mindset he wanted to break away from. He had a loving, wonderful family, but the heart-breaking death of his mother, and his father’s new marriage to the kind of stepmother no one dreams of, really struck a chord with me.  
 
Learning about him as a young boy allowed me to understand why he left home at 13, and how he became the man who would plant the seeds of a luxury empire. Great life stories, unfortunately, often start with someone overcoming a big heartbreak. That is to me a message full of hope. 

What about the story of Louis Vuitton surprised you?  
 
I spent a considerable amount of time reading up on the Second Empire, to contextualise the long-term friendship between Vuitton and Eugénie de Montijo, the Spanish widow of Napoleon III. She protected him, and he was there by her side as she became Empress of France. Saying farewell to the Empress at the end of the book was a moment I was deeply touched by. 
 
Given that Vuitton left his family at such a young age, he had a deep love for his family and couldn’t bear to be separated from them. Yet, he decided to send his son to England to pursue his studies at a young age for his son’s future. He even came back bilingual, which turned out to be a huge milestone for the future of the company. 

  • ImagesCourtesy of Louis Vuitton
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