The Homeless Boy Who Invented Louis Vuitton



Its history dates back to the 19th century and begins with a homeless teenager who could only dream of success. With no money or food, he worked odd jobs with artisans and craftsmen to survive, barely making any money but learned valuable skills that led to pioneering modern luggage and creating a billion-dollar empire. In the 19th century, Louis Vuitton was born and raised in Anchay, France, to a farmer and hat-maker. During that time, France was still recovering from the Napoleonic Wars, and many farmers, including the Vuitton's, faced bankruptcy. Starting from a young age, Louis had no choice but to work on the family farm. From dusk to dawn, he planted and harvested crops, raised the animals, and stockpiled firewood. When Louis turned 10, life became even more difficult. His mother passed away, and soon after, his father remarried. Louis’ stepmother was as wicked as the villains in fairy tales. She made Louis’ life miserable, and eventually, he had enough. After Louis turned 13, he quietly slipped away from the farmhouse and headed to Paris — with no money or food. Fortunately, Louis found odd jobs with artisans and craftsmen who taught him how to work with metal, stone, fabrics, and wood. Still, he had no money leftover for shelter and became homeless. He often slept in the woods with only a cloak to keep him warm. At the time, the first railway line to Paris had just opened. Travel became more accessible, and the industry started to boom. Craftsmen capitalized on this by making custom boxes for aristocrats. They often traveled with paintings, instruments, and furniture, and needed boxes that could fit and withstand long trips. They also needed help with packing their belongings in a certain way to protect them from breaking. Since Louis learned some of the skills involved on his way to Paris, he decided to try and find work in the trade. Fortunately, a craftsman named Monsieur Maréchal hired Louis as an apprentice. While Louis didn’t earn much, his willingness to learn paid off in more ways than one. He became a favorite amongst Maréchal’s clients. And later, the Empress of France appointed him as her personal box-maker. After working for the Empress for a year, Louis became more in-demand and opened his first shop. Early on, Louis came up with ideas for new products that changed the industry standard. At the time, traditional boxes were made with leather and were rectangular-shaped. The lids were dome so that water would run off the top instead of soaking through the leather. This made the boxes impossible to stack and time-consuming to load. To tackle these problems, Louis experimented with new materials and settled on canvas. When compared to leather, the canvas was lighter, durable, and more water-resistant. This allowed boxes to have simple, flat lids — making them possible to stack and easier to load. And while waterproofing compounds made the color grey, it looked more clean and modern. Using canvas material, Louis created a slat trunk. His new product marked the birth of modern luggage. While customers were skeptical of its advantages, it took off within two years and became known as an elegant and must-have accessory. Afterwards, Louis set out to do the same thing with a new invention: handbags. At the time, handbags were not embraced by society. Many people complained that they were inelegant, bulky, and would cause injuries to women. Still, Louis believed that handbags had potential and started making them with canvas. They immediately took off and created the demand for more styles so that women could pair them with different outfits. Eventually, Louis could not keep up and enlisted help from his son, Georges. Like his father, Georges came up with new ideas that changed the industry standard. He created a tumbler lock that turned trunks into treasure chests and prevented theft. Up until then, most trunks had locks that could be easily picked. The family’s products became even more desirable. But soon after, production came to a halt. A war erupted and destroyed the business — making Louis homeless for a second time. At the height of Louis’ business, the Franco-Prussian war erupted. Louis and his family were forced to leave their home and workshop in Asnières outside Paris and head to the city. There, they lived in a cramped shelter amongst thousands of other refugees. Food became so scarce that the Vuittons nearly starved to death. When the war ended, Louis returned home. He was devastated to find his materials stolen and his workshop destroyed. Using the remainder of his savings, Louis wasted no time in rebuilding his workshop and finding a new shop location. Fortunately for him, property prices dropped because of the war. Louis took advantage of the opportunity and purchased a shop in an upscale district. Within months of reopening, business was thriving again, and orders came in from all over the world. Louis now felt the need to try new and bolder ideas. At the time, technology was advanced enough to print custom patterns on fabric. And since the canvas is a fabric, Louis was able to create a line of trunks covered in a striped pattern. The new design took off immediately. It gave people a way to stand out and show how up-to-date they are. It also made it more difficult for counterfeiters to copy Louis’ work. Afterward, Louis received so many international orders that he opened a shop in London. The expansion led to diversifying his clientele, which included more royals and explorers. From then on, Louis was known as the only designer whose products could be found in both the homes of the elite and within exotic rainforests. Eventually, Louis decided to release his first catalog to make ordering easy. It was a practical move that was bound to bring the business to new heights. But within that same year, an unexpected tragedy stomped on Louis’ efforts. Louis suddenly passed away in his home at the age of 72. The cause of his death remains unknown. It was now up to Georges to take on his father’s unfinished plans. Georges wasted no time in growing the business and traveled to the U.S. to attend the World Fair. The experience made him realize that he needed an international sales network. And fortunately for him, he met someone at the fair who could help: John Wanamaker. John pioneered the concept of the department store and invented the price tag. After meeting Georges, he started selling LV in his New York department store. It became the first in the U.S. to carry the brand. It was then that Georges created a monogram in memory of his father: a floral pattern with an interlocking L and V. Customers were shocked to see the monogram on products. They were used to only embellishing their own names or initials on bags. But eventually, times changed, and the new design took off. From then on, Georges and his son, Gaston, continued to follow Louis’ footsteps and created new designs. Noteworthy creations include a bag for everyday use, the Keepall, a bag to carry wine and champagne, the Noe, and a redesign of a Coco Chanel commission, the Alma. By then, Georges had toured all over the U.S. and built a distribution network. Like his father, he was bound to bring the business to new heights. But unfortunately, history repeated itself. He passed away — leaving Gaston to complete Louis’ unfinished plans alone. Gaston was off to an unlucky start. The Second World War erupted, and contracts were canceled. Gaston had no choice but to shut down LV’s factory and stores. In Louis Vuitton, A French Saga, the author claims that Gaston became so desperate to survive that he collaborated with the ruling party for Germany. Gaston allegedly gave the green light to produce commemorative busts and set up a shop in Vichy. The author also claims that while shops like Van Cleef and Arpels were shut down, LV was the only one allowed to stay open. A Louis Vuitton spokesperson later commented, “This is ancient history … We are diverse, tolerant, and all the things a modern company should be." After the war ended, Gaston tasked his sons, Henry, Jacques, and Claude, with rebuilding the company. With their father’s guidance, the sons ensured new models of luggage were made each year. But after Gaston’s passing, business stagnated. Hard-sided luggage became less popular. Henry, Jacques, and Claude were divided about how to run the company. So they asked their sister’s husband, Henry Racamier, to take over. By then, Henry had founded and sold a steel trading company for a large profit. He had a keen business acumen and pivoted LV from wholesale to retail and tapped into the Asian market. Within six years, LV sales soared from Louis found odd jobs with artisans and craftsmen who taught him how to work with metal million to over $260 million. It was around then that Henry took LV public. The company’s stock sold out after more than one million shares were sold. Two months later, LV’s stock price started to fluctuate. Analysts warned that sales might fall since counterfeit goods were on the rise. Still, Henry forged ahead with opening stores all over the world. Within just a few years, he proved the analysts wrong. LV reached nearly he worked odd jobs with artisans and craftsmen to survive billion in sales and merged with Möet-Hennessy, champagne, and cognac producer, to form a luxury goods conglomerate: LVMH. The goal of both companies was to prevent the threat of an outside takeover. While the merger allowed LV to expand its investments, Henry found himself embroiled in management disputes with Möet-Hennessy’s president: Alain Chevalier. In hopes of gaining control, Henry asked a property developer named Bernard Arnault to be his ally, who agreed, but soon after, Henry realized that Bernard had his own ambitions. Bernard secretly bought a controlling interest in LVMH for himself and gained support from the Möet and Hennessy families. Afterward, a legal battle between Henry and Bernard ensued. The courts favored Bernard and forced Henry to step down. From then on, LV fell behind when compared to other luxury brands. It was considered a smaller business, and sales plummeted. No journalist dared to speak highly of the brand. It wasn’t until LV followed Louis’ footsteps under the leadership of Yves Carcelle, and came up with a new and bold idea that things changed. The company invited designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Isaac Mizrahi, and Manolo Blahnik to create handbags using its monogram for its 100th anniversary. At the time, such collaborations were practically unheard of, and handbags weren’t a thing in the world of luxury. Still, the collaboration was well-received and put both LV and handbags back on the map. One year later, LV hired a designer named Marc Jacobs to be their creative director. Marc revitalized the brand by launching its first ready-to-wear line, designing its popular Vernis collection, and collaborating with high-profile artists — starting with Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Murakami. Since then, LV has expanded into watches, jewelry, and sunglasses, and continues to launch iconic bags. The company also continues to make everything in-house. Craftsmen must train for two years, and some pieces require 300 stages to assemble. Today, LV ranks as the No.1 luxury brand in the world, and its valuation has topped $30 billion. This is the story of how a homeless teenager pioneered modern luggage and laid the foundation for a billion-dollar empire. 

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