The Art of Travel: Decoding Louis Vuitton's Bespoke Trunks
About 30 minutes from Paris, in its special-order workshop at Asnières-sur-Seine, lies the heart and soul of Louis Vuitton. This is where LV transforms the desires of its travel-loving clients into reality—explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza’s famous bed trunk, the Maharajah of Baroda’s tea trunk, Ernest Hemingway’s library trunk, Greta Garbo’s shoe trunk…
To this day, key pieces are created in this shrine to the art of travel: rigid trunks, designs in rare or exotic leathers, as well as special orders such as skateboard trunks, iPad trunks or even one-off violin trunks. Whatever the form, it is here that the savoir faire of the Asnières artisans is stamped on history.
And what a storied history. Louis Vuitton’s luggage company was founded in the right place at the right time—when the 19th century enthusiasm for imperialist expansion converged with the birth of the steam age. The newfangled railways and steamships enabled more Europeans to travel to far-flung destinations than ever before—and these well-to-do globetrotters wanted a practical yet glamorous means to transport their belongings.
The house’s eponymous founder recognised the necessity for a new design and provided it. Vuitton was the first trunk-maker to produce flat-top trunks, the better for stacking, and he also made them lighter—and impervious to inclement weather—with flexible poplar-wood frames and waterproofed canvas sides.
As an aesthete, Louis Vuitton had a very recognisable signature style. His brand’s artisanal trunks have different kinds of finishes: solid Trianon grey hemp oil, red-striped cloth, chequered Damier canvas, and the classic monogram canvas.
Very popular with sophisticated travellers, Louis Vuitton products have been copied for centuries, and the different finishes were developed mainly as a way to discourage counterfeiters.
In addition, all Louis Vuitton trunks, whatever the vintage, come with two identifiers that will help to authenticate them—a serial number and an official label. These days, counterfeiters focus on producing fake LV purses and other small products, but it is still not out of the question to find a counterfeit trunk.
The saddlers, carpenters and locksmiths who created some of Vuitton’s earliest trunks—wardrobe trunks, bed trunks for explorers, secretary trunks, streamer trunks, car trunks, aero trunks, and even a trunk for carrying paintings, like one made for Henri Matisse—were not only masters of their craft; they were able to apply their skills to any request. Their modern counterparts are equally adept.
A fifth-generation member of the Vuitton family—Patrick-Louis Vuitton— oversees the Asnières workshop, where he’s in charge of special orders and commissions. LV employs about 200 craftsmen in the workshop, cutting wood (poplar, which Louis favoured for its lightness and flexibility) and sewing hides (from lamb, goat and calf to stingray and python).
Other artisans assemble and finish the trunks, always adhering to the rules—the logo must always be centred, the monogram must never be cut, the flowers must correspond perfectly from one edge to another, and so on.
The final step is putting the signature Louis Vuitton tumbler lock in place. Since the founding of the company in 1854, every trunk has been given a unique registered lock number, which records when it was made, by whom and where it was purchased.
Louis Vuitton receives about 450 special orders per year, some of which the founder’s great-great-grandson designs himself. If certain designs evoke some of the legendary trunks, such as the thin leather trunk crafted for violinist and conductor Pierre Sechiari’s Stradivarius, others display rare or technical fabrics, in mink, or Plexiglas.
Indeed, the historic special made-to-order service is well attuned to modern times. One client, Karl Lagerfeld of rival brand Chanel, commissioned Patrick-Louis to create a carrying trunk of black Taiga leather with LV’s trademark brass fittings and a red interior for his 40 iPods.
Previous commissions filled by the atelier range from one by a Chinese customer who asked for a trunk that would allow him to watch TV and serve coffee absolutely anywhere, to five Malle Plénitude trunks, each holding 23 bottles of the finest vintages from Dom Pérignon.
For underage imbibers, Patrick-Louis has created a trunk that holds baby’s bottles. Other recent renditions of the Louis Vuitton trunk have included the “Journey of Tea” trunk, which was designed by Hong Kong’s very own Alan Chan in 2016, as well as a trunk to house a two-turntable DJ deck.
“I have three keywords for the work I do—quality, tradition, innovation,” Patrick-Louis says, adding that “Louis Vuitton’s special made-to-order service is a perfect example of our savoir faire and pioneering spirit.”
Clients should note that the Asnières atelier is generally not open to the public. However, a customised trunk can be ordered from any Louis Vuitton retail store in the world, from Panama to Paris, and from Amman to Ulaanbaatar.