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The slow craft of the Louis Vuitton custom case.
SOME BRANDS’ IDENTITIES are manufactured, their ethos fabricated and their value speculative. Louis Vuitton is something else entirely. The maison’s provenance is unrivaled. After serving as personal trunk maker to Napoleon III’s wife, Vuitton opened up his own trunk-making atelier in the heart of Paris when he was in his early 30s. Outside his shop hung a sign that read “Securely packs the most fragile objects.” This was in the early 1850s.
Nearly 170 years later, Louis Vuitton is still securely packing the most fragile, precious objects in their (still) meticulously handcrafted trunks.
While no longer the business’ mainstay, the trunks continue to represent the brand’s commitment to craft. From the very popular off-the-rack Malle Fleurs, a petite trunk that can be filled with water, or even dirt, to hold flowers, to Keith Richards’ made-to-measure guitar case, there is no limit to what Louis Vuitton’s special orders team can create. (Although, there is a cap on the number of items they can produce: just a few hundred annually.)
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This team also makes one-of-a-kind trophy trunks, which house prestigious awards from the globe’s most competitive events. These prizes represent hard-won victories earned at great personal sacrifice by some of history’s most committed individuals. From the Auld Mug (awarded to the winner of America’s Cup) to the FIFA World Cup Trophy — a whopping 13.6 pounds of 18-karat gold and malachite — Louis Vuitton shares in the most significant moments of the world’s premier sporting institutions.
I was invited, along with a group of other international journalists, to see one of these creations. Coming off a two-week, four-season binge of Netflix’s “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” I traveled to Monaco to watch the Grand Prix and see the trunk that had been designed for its trophy. As a product of ’80s excess, I work hard to maintain a healthy skepticism of all brands, never mind luxury fashion houses. This isn’t rooted in some higher pursuit of the spiritual whatsoever; it’s really just about keeping me grounded enough not to be an insufferable fool.
That said, I really, really wanted to go. Walking into the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort lobby made me feel as if I were a part of something historic, even iconic. Built in 2006, the hotel was integrated into the shoreline below Monaco’s steep corniche — they weren’t the first ones to the party, but they could’ve been the last. Stepping onto the balcony of my room, staring out over the Mediterranean, I felt an inextricable link between property and place.
After a short nap, I met fellow guests for dinner at La Table de Patrick Raingeard in the Cap Estel hotel. After dinner, but before dessert, a notably demure and incredibly well-tailored Frenchman raised his glass to address the group. I don’t speak French, but my very gracious host was kind enough to translate. The Frenchman was Alain Prost, a four-time Formula One Drivers’ Champion (and avid cyclist, placing 12th in L’Étape du Tour — an annual, mass-participation bike race that allows amateurs to ride one of the Tour de France stages). With a steady voice, he outlined the value of commitment and the importance of maintaining humility in the pursuit of excellence. While overwhelmingly impressed by the scene I found myself in, the connection between it and the Louis Vuitton trunks I was here to investigate felt unclear.
Around noon the next day, with bellies full of tuna from a wildly opulent, Michelin-starred lunch, we headed to the track. There, the bespoke Louis Vuitton Travel Trophy Case was on display at our loge — an open-air suite that placed us approximately 30 feet above the penultimate corner turn of the track, La Rascasse. From the LV-embossed wood-based lozine (the material that protects the trunks’ borders)to the incredibly straight but clearly hand-driven brass nails, the effort and care put into the design and construction of this trunk felt from another time. It was impossible not to be impressed.
“Seven distinct steps performed by three specialized artisans were required to create this one-of-a-kind trunk, from its initial conception to the structure’s woodwork, canvas coating, lozinage binding, metallic fittings, and final assembly, resulting in over 400 man-hours of work in Louis Vuitton’s historical workshop in Asnières,” describes Louis Vuitton of the trunk’s construction.
The term artisan is often bandied about these days in a way that could generously be called less than authentic. By contrast, at the Louis Vuitton atelier in Asnières, a suburb just 30 minutes outside Paris, the individuals charged with cutting leather for the label’s special orders — from signature handbags to custom-made trunks — have received up to seven (yes, seven!) years of training.
I spent an afternoon in the workshop, which buzzed with electric energy. It was creative and collaborative, but still organized and focused — and bright, joyfully bright. Walls of windows let in the sun, allowing the artists to see the greenery outside. Their ages varied, as did their skill sets. Machinists were working on the proprietary locking mechanisms, along with retrained engineers, teachers, and architects, taking painstakingly precise measurements for the trunk’s frame, cutting and laying the lozinage binding, and lining the carcasse, or interior frame, with various materials. It takes a team of artisans a total of 400 hours to make a single custom-ordered trunk like the one I saw in Monaco.
Standing up, looking out onto the track of the Grand Prix and experiencing the madness of these unrestricted 1.6-liter V6 engine Formula One cars was unlike anything … ever. These machines, capable of speeds upward of 249 mph that produce 1050 horsepower, are flawlessly engineered. They represent the seemingly limitless potential of innovation — along with that insatiable human need to go faster. Formula One is widely considered to be the highest class of racing, period. These cars represent the pinnacle of all motorsports — which is exactly why Louis Vuitton is there.
The same unbridled commitment to perfection on display with these F1 cars is built into the improbable craftsmanship and meticulous care of every case Louis Vuitton makes. More than a brand, they’re an aspirational aphorism. And what they’re doing matters because, as Alain Prost aptly stated over drinks, the pursuit of excellence matters.
Jeremy Malman is a part-time journalist and full-time dad based in Brooklyn. His writing explores topics including motorsports, design, fitness, farming, and fatherhood — in other words, some conceptually comical notion of modern masculinity. He also really enjoys traveling.
Skye Parrott is the editor-in-chief of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor-in-chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.
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