A veritable treasure trove where the booty is in the trunk: this is 16 rue Louis Vuitton in the Paris suburb of Asnieres, Louis Vuitton's original workshop and a shrine to the art of travel. It's also a former family home to the suavely avuncular pipe-smoking Patrick-Louis Vuitton, great-great grandson of the malletier's founder. We meet in the log-fired art nouveau drawing room, where Patrick-Louis designs some of the company's special orders.
“One of my biggest challenges recently came from a Chinese client,” he says. “He wanted to be able to watch television and offer coffee to his friends wherever he travelled in the world, including the remotest desert. We sat at the dining table here for an hour and sketched the trunk of his dreams. We agreed to put two solar panels linked to a battery for the flat-screenTV and DVD player, two-way radio, tuner and coffee machine. But in the production stage we encountered a technical problem. While there was enough electricity for the TV, there wasn't enough to heat the water. This is something we had to sort out. A year on, our client is delighted.”
I have three keywords for the work I do - quality, tradition, innovation (Patrick-Louis Vuitton)
Patrick-Louis Vuitton has been the house’s special-order supremo since 1975. This recent assignment – one of 450 per year for the special-order team at the Asnieres atelier – was a reminder of his very first malle (trunk), a 1.10-metre-high, 45-centimetre-wide case for a hi-fi unit with an old-fashioned cassette player and turntable.
Louis Vuitton’s historic special made-to-order service is comfortably attuned to the modern techno age. One client – none other than Karl Lagerfeld of rival brand Chanel – turned to Patrick-Louis for an iPod-carrying trunk of black Taiga leather with trademark brass fittings and a red interior. For 40 iPods. Just what does Karl do with all those earphones?
Master craftsman Patrick-Louis has to draw the line in more ways than one; he has mastered the art of saying “Non”. He gives an example from the early 1990s: “One day a lady came to the Tokyo store with a collection of porcelain bowls. A rendezvous had been arranged so we could design a trunk for the bowls. She was dressed in a kimono and had brought her two assistants, but I had to tell her – one of the store’s biggest clients – I couldn’t agree to a sale. The sticking point came when we were discussing handles. She didn’t want any. I realised all she wanted was a piece of furniture for her kitchen.”
The golden rule is: all LV trunks are for real. They are world heritage luggage; handmade trophies for star travellers – the kind of high fliers who are on the road from 100 to 200 days a year. Hence, the no mercy approach to Britney Spears when her production team showed a pink-upholstered Louis Vuitton-style car interior in a music video. Louis Vuitton’s lawyers went into overdrive. The video 'Do Somethin’ was banned. Perhaps it now lies at the bottom of a trunk somewhere.
[She was] one of the store's biggest clients [but] I couldn't agree to a sale. I realised all she wanted was a piece of furniture for her kitchen.
Patrick-Louis Vuitton later guides me through the Louis Vuitton museum where you can see the legendary bed trunk circa 1898, Sharon Stone’s vanity case and some concept projects such as a BMW motorbike with Louis Vuitton accessories. The Louis Vuitton leather handlebars are fabulous. “I have three keywords for the work I do – quality, tradition, innovation,” says the house scion. “Louis Vuitton’s special made-to-order service is a perfect example of our savoir faire and pioneering spirit.”
The glass-canopied atelier at Asnieres first opened 150 years ago. Refurbished in 2005, it now employs more than 200 people whose learning process is life-long. Apprenticeships last throughout a career as each stage is gradually mastered. Photographs on the wall reveal previous assignments: a mini special-order trunk to transport a mahjong set, a Brideshead-style teddy bear and a rubber duck called Willy. The workshop will even make the ultimate fashion item for roving mums – a Louis Vuitton trunk for a baby’s bottle.
“Anyone in Hong Kong who wants a special-order trunk or item of luggage only needs to go to the Louis Vuitton store and make their request,” reassures Patrick- Louis. “If the order is complex, I will come and see them or they can come and see me here in Asnieres at the home of Louis Vuitton, and we can sit down together and draw it up.”
Count on eight to 12 weeks from order to delivery. The Chinese client with the taste for coffee returned to pick up his order and purred like a cat when he saw it. The trick to heating the water for his preferred brew? A can of petrol. The old solutions – as Louis Vuitton craftsmen and women will tell you – are best.