NEW YORK – Louis Vuitton was only 16 when he forever changed the course of the luxury goods market and travel with his leather-enrobed luggage and bags that were immediately popular with the well-to-do. Picture if you will, a young couple on their honeymoon or a young man on the cusp of adulthood going on what was known as the grand tour, a 17th and 18th century custom. Louis Vuitton luggage would most likely have been a travel companion and stickers from various destination points would add to the luggage’s patina – an attribute that adds considerable appeal today for collectors.
Vuitton (1821-1892) was born in France and launched his business in 1854 on Rue Neuve des Capucines in Paris. The firm today has in excess of 460 stores in 50 countries and is one of the leading luxury brands in the world. Its iconic look was created in 1896 with the brand’s signature LV monogram canvas that features a repeating pattern of flowers, quatrefoils, and the “LV” initials. The design was inspired by the Orientalist design trend popular at the end of the Victorian era.
After working as an apprentice for box-maker and packer Monsieur Marechal, Vuitton launched his own workshop known for packing fashions and soon earned a reputation for his craftsmanship and quality in Paris, soon becoming a trunk master. Vuitton’s genius and market niche lay not just in the quality of his work but in the distinctive look of his trunks having a flat top instead of the traditional rounded-top trunks that were common at the time. As a bonus, Vuitton trunks were lightweight, airtight and stackable making them convenient and desirable for travel.
Securing valuables and protecting them from thieves during travel in the 19th century was a critical factor, and the father-and-son team of Louis and Georges made this a priority, designing a single lock system with two spring buckles. “In 1886, Georges Vuitton revolutionized luggage locks with an ingenious closing system that turned travel trunks into real treasure chests,” according to a company history on the Louis Vuitton website.
While contemporary trunks are still being made in the company’s tradition and to the same standards, vintage and antique trunks are highly collectible both for travel and as statement design pieces in a home for storage use or as furniture.
Tim Long, director of Couture and Luxury Accessories at Hindman in Chicago, said there are many reasons collectors are drawn to Louis Vuitton luggage. “I think a lot of it has to do with the heritage of the company. Louis Vuitton has been a luxury brand for a long time and with that comes a lot of heritage and legacy related to ideas of luxury travel,” he said. “People who buy these things today understand the importance of the history of the brand and the quality, but often it is that romanticized version of travel that people tend to come back to.”
Much of the appeal of trunks, especially the steamers associated with rail and ship travel in previous centuries, stems from their overall look, Long said, noting he sees many people interested in early trunks. “What comes to me are the ones that have had a lot of use and people are really drawn to that; the aspects of that romanticized version of travel are left as evidence on the side of these trunks from nicks, bruises, scuffs and often even stickers stating specifically where these items have come from. I think that connects with a lot of people and is what drives people to seek these things out.”
While large trunks are what most people might think of when luggage comes to mind, smaller boxes and handbags are highly desirable too. “The most popular are the ones that are much easier to carry, so those are the handbags that have been popular now for quite a long time since being introduced by Louis Vuitton; we have them from the late 19th century,” he says. “Trunks are still popular, they remain popular but now a lot of people are using them as furniture in their homes. They are having glass tops put on them or presenting them in a way that are set dressing. People carry the smaller bags much more regularly, and some people of course still travel with them but a lot of people are interested in the large trunks to be used as accessories or set dressing.”
Condition obviously is key but Long says a trunk’s patina can be just as attractive in determining appeal. Authenticity is a top criteria, however. Counterfeiting is rife in the luxury goods market from handbags to watches and brands like Louis Vuitton are a frequent target. “Naturally people are really interested in authenticity,” he says. “The market, as you can imagine, is flush with a lot of fakes, so it is something that is regularly discussed in this market. Quality, of course, is of the utmost importance but so is quickly honing on those aspects of authenticity from stamping on the inside to hallmarks of the design in the brands that people regularly look for.” Many videos and articles are posted online offering tips on what to look for when determining a fake vs. real Louis Vuitton trunk but buying from reputable sources and consulting experts is always solid advice.
Asked for a final tip for buyers, Long said, “There is such a wonderful variety of Louis Vuitton items that are available today … that I think it is quite exciting for someone to look into when they are looking for a specific size of bag. They can get a larger bag for traveling but also able to buy for day-to-day. Look for things that are appropriate for the task you are looking for in a brand like Louis Vuitton, which offers a plethora of opportunity.”