I'm quite tickled with the fact that my fashion month has been given a sense of symmetry courtesy of Louis Vuitton, who invited me out yesterday to Paris to discover a few "secret places" which is succinctly summarised in the video above, unlike this beast of a post that I'm typing up at 3am after freshly landing in New York. So it is to be that Louis Vuitton will both kickstart and conclude my fashion month as of course in a month's time, in Paris in a month's time there'll be another show extravaganza as well as the opening of the new Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs exhibition. A dusting of snow and a stunning view from the Ritz is just the sort of insanely picturesque start that this month needs.
The craftsmanship and heritage aspects of Louis Vuitton aren't things that are necessarily sidelined. In fact, they're at the forefront of Louis Vuitton's marketing and advertising campaigns at times. Remember the ad featuring a woman hand stitching a bag that got banned in the UK? I personally never felt like the ad was wholly deceptive and rather, it was pointing out that there are in fact "petites mains" involved in the hundred stage process of constructing a Louis Vuitton bag or trunk. Now that I've witnessed these hands at work, I'm even more convinced that the ad didn't deserve to be banned. Despite that ad glitch, the concept of savoir faire has never been more spotlit than it is now, what with Louis Vuitton's newly relaunched website that features languid videos honing in on the intricacies of process. Specifically for Louis Vuitton, this shift in spotlighting craftsmanship is a retaliation against the counterfeit behemoth that they face. Cynically, you could also say that it is part of the rise of exposing what goes on behind the scenes as a marketing strategy, something which I've defended in the past. I reiterate here – as long as the show of craftsmanship is a genuine one, I see nothing wrong in how brands divulge that information.
On a more personal level, my relationship with Louis Vuitton on this blog has been needlessly fractious. From a childish rant back in 2006 where I got irritated with Hong Kong acquaintances buying up monogrammed goods like there was no tomorrow, I've come to contradict myself and lust certain ready to wear collections with gusto – namely S/S 10 and of course the current pastel takeover of S/S 12. This post is therefore some sort of reconcilation. I'm no longer that angry teenager that thinks fashion brands are evil fat cats or that buying a designer handbag is the downfall of mankind. The saturation of Louis Vuitton monogrammed products is of course in no way representative of what Louis Vuitton as a brand, stands for as a whole and connecting what they do today with how Mr Louis Vuitton began in 1854 seems even more relevant as the brand looks back to their history with their upcoming exhibition.
Along with Kristin of The Clothes Whisperer, we ventured out to the Parisian suburb Asni√®res, where Louis Vuitton set up his workshop in 1859. Until 1977, the Asni√®res workshop was actually the sole Louis Vuitton production facility in the world. Louis Vuitton also added two pretty brickwork houses by the workshop, which were then lived by subsequent generations of the Vuitton family.
Somewhere in this pic, three generations of the Vuitton family are present – Louis Vuitton, his son Georges and his son Gaston, who I believe is lying on the famous fold-out bed-in-a-trunk.
The only well-distributed and recognisable imagery of designer's houses/apartments are that of Coco Chanel. A good number of bloggers, journalists and guests have now frequented the famous apartment on Rue Cambon. This isn't the case for the Vuitton family home in Asni√®res (although I have to cite Bag Snob, who did visit the site two years ago) so it was such a delight to step into a reception room bathed in natural light, beautiful Art Nouveau curves and to discover an individualistic decor that was outrageous at the time, but became outmoded rather quickly. Within this beautifully preserved Belle Epoque room, features like the pistachio naturalistic curls and peach hued florals look fresh and exciting again.
The stained glass windows done by Paul-Louis Janin in 1900 are particularly stunning. Not sure if LVMH have the power to command natural light but the day was pretty much spot-on weather wise in terms of seeing this room at its best situ.
A note about the monogram, hardcore Louis Vuitton-ers will know that it wasn't actually created by Louis Vuitton nor was it the first bit of LV insignia. The checked Damier print actually came first and then to prevent counterfeiting (oh the irony…), Georges Louis came up with the monogram in 1896.
The blue ceramic fireplace was also another strong feature in the room. At this point, the inner Antiques Roadshow geek was coming out and I started to run my hands over things, whilst nearly passing ridiculous comments on how good the condition was.
The same can be said for this marquetry bureau. I might need to learn some print clashing skills off it as I counted at least ten different geometric patterns, all created by intricate wood marquetry. Our guide pointed out the faint similarities between some of the marquetry and the LV monogram, which could well have been a source of inspiration for the final iconic monogram pattern.
I also nearly started saying things like "Oooh! That's a lovely period feature", in manner of picky house hunters in London, who want period features but don't actually know what erm… period they mean. The fluidity of the plaster stucco work gave the room a sense of movement and honestly, without wanting to sound like I'm gushing, when the light came in, it was pretty magical.
The little semi-circles in the stained glass windows apparently enabled taskmaster Vuitton to oversee his workers in the workshop across from the house without them being able to look inside the house.
Here, Marc Jacobs is pictured with Patrick Vuitton, Louis Vuitton's great, great grandson, who now heads up the workshop in Asni√®res, creating special orders for customers.
We then went up inside the little travel museum, which has some of Vuittons' earliest flat trunk specimens. It seems silly now that a flat top and bottomed trunk could be considered an innovation in travel but in fact, all trunks beforehand came with a rounded top (to allow for water run-off). The museum neatly sums up the various patternations that Louis Vuitton and his son created – the brown and white stripe, the Damier check and then the famous monogram. Another example of Oriental marquetry (I'm using the word in the stylistic sense) again reasserts an inspiration link to the inception of the monogram.
This early steamer bag with its tricolor logo was recently revived and lifted as inspiration by Kim Jones in his S/S 12 debut for Louis Vuitton menswear.
It says a lot that as I apparoched this bit in the museum, I said "It's the famous packaway bed!". It seems unlikely that a creaky old pack-away bed has become an iconic Louis Vuitton archive image, due to it being widely seen in various touring exhibitions. I suppose it sums up the assertion that Louis Vuitton has and still is essentially a business based on travel, a practical point that sometimes gets lost when we think of Louis Vuitton and its hype-built shows, campaigns and luxurious image.
After the tour of the house, we then ventured into the atelier, which has been downscaled from what it once was, as it now concentrates on making all the hard framed luggage, special order pieces, exotic leather bags as well as the fashion show bags. I'm pleased to say though that in another part of, Asni√®res Louis Vuitton are training up a new generation of people to work at Louis Vuitton's atelier, something that I vehemently believe in and support. This workshop makes 250 special items or so a year which doesn't sound like a lot but the demand has never been higher and the dedication and time that each object requires hasn't diminished either, and so the need for new blood to come through the workshop is rightfully being addressed.
There was a bit of a strict policy with photographing and as the workers were also finishing up (they clock off VERY promptly at 5), I couldn't get the full scope of images that I normally do when I go to a factory/workshop. Sadly, I couldn't follow the make of a bag from beginning to end but I guess it's testament to how many processes there are involved in the making of a bag, that I couldn't even physically follow their every single move with my camera.
Here, carpenters are constructing the foundation boxes made out of popular and reinforced with beechwood as the basis of the luggage. I love these handwritten dimensions, passed down from Vuitton's instructions, which haven't actually changed that much.
In the warm leather storage area, we got a feel for all the supple lush skins that Louis Vuitton get in for their bags and for future styles, it looks to be extremely colourful.
The Epi leather is probably my favourite 'iconic' Louis Vuitton leathers/finishes just because its patina is so subtle yet immediately recognisable at the same time.
Here's a stack of that nude leather that is used to make the handles, the straps and the trims of a lot of Louis Vuitton bags. This was one of the "fake" rules that I learnt about Louis Vuitton bag back – that if it's a fake, the nude leather won't colour or take on an aged patina over time.
We then saw the exotic skins section, where I was admonished for touching these insanely expensive pieces that would then be made up into bags. Asni√®res is the only place where Louis Vuitton's exotic skin bags are made so I rightfully deserved to be reprimanded considering how expensive some of them are. Here are some stingray and python skins.
What I didn't know was that the shiny sheen on a croc or alligator skin is actually created by rolling an agate stone over the skin until it takes on a shine.
Again, we weren't allowed to take pictures but basically a leather cutting machine controlled by lasers expertly cuts the leather pieces to make up the bags and thus reduces wastage because of its accuracy. Going back to that banned "Handmade" advert, it seems to me that whilst machines are used at Louis Vuitton, without the judgement and expertise of a human being, there's no way of producing the bags. Working the laser-cutting machine and a leather sewing machine is an admirable skill in itself. I didn't see any fully automated processes and in the latter stages especially with the saddle stitched handles and the hammering of the nails into the luggage, you end up with products that have been touched by many more human hands than mechanic probes.
Each piece of luggage comes with a working lock and if you're lucky enough to own several pieces of luggage, you can co-ordinate the locks so that one key opens up all of them.
The hand-eye coordination work got especially intense when it came to the hammering and trimming the trunks. The little nails are hammered in by hand and judged by eye to get the spacing right.
Upstairs was where a lot of the trunks were getting finished, prepped and ready to be shipped off. Some people were also creating the special orders that comes through the atelier. This article here is a feature on Patrick Vuitton and talksa bout some of the weird requests that Vuitton has received ranging from an iPod and speaker case for Karl Lagerfeld, to a little leather case for someone to hold their rubber duck. The designs, whilst far fetched do have some limitations though. ‚ÄúI refuse to design furniture,‚Äù Patrick explains. ‚ÄúWe are in the business of movement. Nothing is made by our master craftsmen that cannot be easily transported.‚Äù
This trunk here is therefore the maximum size Louis Vuitton can make and if it ain't got a handle on it, they're definitely not making it.
On a mezzanine floor where the noise level plummets to a near silence is the exotic skins atelier. It's quiet because the level of concentration here is soaringly high. The expense of these skins weighs heavily on the shoulders of the workers and thus the responsibility to turn out a superbly finished, finely tuned product is definitely evident.
A small production line of Sofia Coppola for Louis Vuitton's bag in black alligator. Yup, still looking incredibly covetable despite their unfinished state.
Helmut Newton's image of a Crocodile Eating Ballerina from Pina Bausch's ballet in 1983 concludes these educational steps into learning about the atelier process at Louis Vuitton. If anything, I already knew vaguely what steps were involved in the making of Vuitton products, but the pride of the workers was something that was more unexpected. We weren't allowed to photograph their faces but they were happy to show off what they were working on, no matter how minute each step was. I only wish I could have spent more time there before they all started clocking off.
I thought a visit to the Champs Elysee mahussive flagship store in Paris wouldn't be anything new but seeing as my last visit was back in 2006 when I came out all indignant and huffy, this time round, I got a refresher class on the store. For a start, I missed the 20 metre high atrium where steel rods cascade down along with a flood of natural light. I think this was built in 2007 when the store was expanded and redone by the architects Peter Marino and Eric Carlson.
I didn't see these floating trunks along the wall on the ground floor…
I didn't know Louis Vuitton published paperbacks of some choice classics…
I didn't think that they'd still be reproducing the pack-away bed-in-the-trunk for the modern customer. The store manager said "It can be for someone who wants a bed in their garden!" It's definitely an intangible cloud cuckoo land when people have foldaway beds in their gardens that probably cost more than their actual bed but still, if you can afford it, why not?
I also didn't see that the doorway is flanked by two red columns of red LV luggage as a tribute to their Chinese customers. Yes, Chinese customers still flood into the store and buy at a rampant pace. I don't think they're into buying up anything and everything that is monogrammed anymore. I'm told that the Damier in fact has overtaken the monogram in the last few years as the more popular choice.
I missed this cruise collection print which does cheesily feature a lot of postcard moments but I quite like the white tippex feel of the print.
In ready to wear, I also spied a pair of python culottes. Why stop at leather culottes (i.e. my ASOS ones) when I can have ones in light python as well? // The more discreet bag options are available at the store's made to order lounges where you can choose your leathers and linings for a bag that doesn't scream "LV".
We also got a little lesson in how to pack our luggage. Well, how to pack Louis Vuitton luggage specifically. I didn't learn anything especially new other than our packing guide, reminded me that I should stuff my shoes with socks and belts so that they keep their shape in the cases and also, if you're folding shirts, turn up the collars and stuff the arms with rolls of tissue paper, so they don't get creased.
The final part of our "Secret Places" tour ended at the Espace Culturel on the top floor of the store. This part really was a secret as we weren't allowed to take pictures but it's also an art gallery that is entirely open to the walk-in public so in this sense, so this is effectively a place that everyone can enjoy. Just taking the lift designed by Olafur Eliasson is 40 seconds well spent. You enter the lift and once the doors close, it's entirely blacked out so that you can't see a thing and your earing becomes muffled because of the padded walls. It's a deathly quiet 40 seconds – either filled with tranquility or clastrophobia depending on the person. I rather enjoyed it.
If I'm honest, I wasn't expecting such a well-curated exhibition at the Espace Culturel. Fashion brands supporting and collaborating with the field of art isn't anything new and there's a sense of tokenism about brands that "dabble" in the art field. However, Louis Vuitton hasn't been dabbling. The Espace Culturel goes out of its way to support up and coming artists to create emphatic exhibitions that, whilst they are all themed around Louis Vuitton's moniker of travel, the resulting works are expansive in scope and execution. The current exhibition Anichroes explores the musical instrument and its impact first as an object and vehicle of sound all by itself, then as a discourse of interaction with the player. It's all intriguing and interactive and again I could have spent longer. As an art space in its own right, it's definitely worth escaping the doldrum of Champ Elysee and losing yourself for a moment on the way up.