The amazing stories of the Louis Vuitton family home and atelier in Asnières, northwest of Paris, make it a living, breathing showcase of the maison’s heritage. Benoit-Louis Vuitton takes Jacquie Ang to where it began and shows how respecting history and values with an eye on the future keep the maison at the forefront.
In a year illuminated with momentous anniversaries, fashion’s social calendar should have been full and fun. Nonetheless, there are many ways to pull off a party during the pandemic without compromising on the wow factor. We’re talking about the bicentennial birthday of Louis Vuitton, the man behind the iconic luxury maison, and how the ingenious commemoration sparked off a host of multimedia tributes that cleverly reinforces the malletier’s visionary spirit.
#Louis200 celebrates the life and legacy of the founder, who was born on Aug 4, 1821. As travel is at the heart of Louis Vuitton, various creative initiatives cross geographical boundaries by inviting mavericks to take part in the global months-long birthday bash. Fans can look forward to a large-scale triptych painted by American figurative artist Alex Katz, while store windows showcase 200 reinterpretations of the iconic trunk as a vessel from exceptional talents the likes of Japanese streetwear superstar Nigo, French Paralympic swimmer Théo Curin, Danish toymaker Lego, as well as South Korean boy band and house ambassadors BTS.
Louis’ success story is not complete without Asnières. Benoit-Louis Vuitton, the sixth-generation scion of the Vuitton family, turns the spotlight on the history-steeped family home and atelier by hosting a special virtual visit for a select group of international media. In this Covid-19 era, it’s a small world after all.
Benoit starts the tour right at the entrance, fittingly, in front of his great-great-great grandfather. “We like to introduce people to Asnières with this portrait of young Louis,” he enthuses. France-based Chinese artist Yan Pei Ming was commissioned by Fondation Louis Vuitton to paint this for The Art of Travel exhibition in 2018. The dynamic rendition of the budding trailblazer from a hamlet makes an unusual contrast to the portraits that depict an older, stern-looking Louis, alluding to the founder’s early years in building the business.
In 1859, barely five years after he founded his eponymous house in Paris, Louis felt that his thriving business had outgrown the place. He decided to return to the countryside, building a new nexus in Asnières, a village to the northwest of Paris. Fortune favours the brave, they say – as this would prove to be an astute move that future-proofed the maison’s evolution.
Asnières’ location on the banks of the Seine River facilitated boat deliveries of raw materials, such as the wood to make the famous trunks. Just across the river stood the first Louis Vuitton store on Rue Neuve-des-Capucines. It was also accessible via train as one of the first railway lines in France passed through the village. “Asnières provided the space to expand the workshop to the outskirts, but it’s still near to Paris,” Benoit sums up. “Today, it takes only 15 minutes to come to Asnières from Paris by car.”
Asnières was a remarkable construction ahead of its time. Built out of steel beams in 1854, it draws parallels to the Eiffel Tower that was erected 33 years later. The bright, airy atelier was a bold departure from the dark workshops in Paris and would come to be recognised as the heart of Louis Vuitton’s savoir faire – the birthplace of the heritage house’s most distinguished creations spanning leather goods and trunks to incredible special orders for dispatch around the world.
To stay close to the centre of production, Louis kept the top floor of the atelier as a home for his family. This family home later moved into a separate building, constructed around 1878. The dining room is lined with trunks from Louis’ grandson Gaston’s acquisitions. Credited for the maison’s rich archives, he is known as a crazy collector who travelled the world collecting various curios, among which are the wedding trunks here that once transported a bride’s trousseau.
A simple man at heart, Louis kept the dining room pared down in decor compared to the rest of the house. Despite the success he had attained in Paris, he remained down-to-earth with a strong work ethic and steadfast focus on the business.
On the other hand, the French Art Nouveau-styled living room – this denotes the second part of the house renovated by Louis’ son Georges in the late 19th century – is enlivened with paintings and other forms of decor. An ornate chimney, rare to find even in today’s Paris, takes pride of place. The decor is reflective of the educated and well-travelled Georges, who set up the first Louis Vuitton store in London.
Benoit has an interesting insight on the contrast. With the atelier just a few metres away, the house also welcomed people working with the family. The simple dining room tells visitors that they have stepped into the family home, while the decorated living room conveys success and fine taste.
A patron of the arts, Georges created the Monogram as a tribute to his father. Its mysterious origin spawned different possibilities, from architectural quatrefoils in Gothic cathedrals to the coats of arms of old Japanese nobility. Benoit points out a majolica kitchen tile decorated with four-petal flowers that bear a strong resemblance to the Monogram flowers. Regardless of its true reference point, the 1896 design was a talking point at the time as it marked the first print that had someone’s initials on luggage.
Among the stations in the atelier is one that makes the signature impossible-to-unpick tumbler locks, Georges’ 1890 invention used on all Louis Vuitton’s hard-sided luggage. All the locks of one customer can be harmonised with personalised serial numbers, enabling a lock to be duplicated for a new luggage in your current set, or a new key to replace a lost one.
Benoit had established himself in Louis Vuitton’s high watchmaking and jewellery development before his appointment as corporate director of art, culture and patrimony this year, a role that extends to managing the gallery and exhibition contents of the Asnières house. He is the perfect person for the job. Born and raised in Asnières until the age of seven, Louis’ great-great-great-grandson has seen the evolution of the family home.
Together with his brother, he would play in the garden, which at the time seemed vast to the children as there were places they were forbidden to venture. Once, they got carried away running around the garden and ended up breaking a part of the Art Nouveau-stained glass windows that bore a treasured “Janin, Asnieres 1900” signature. These windows carry symbolic heft. With the memory of this incident, it has come to represent not only family, but also symbolise business as the floral design alludes to the garden that links to the atelier. The Art Nouveau style suggests the family’s forward-looking approach, embracing trends of the time.
Benoit has acquired a few trunks in 2019 following the passing of his father Patrick, the former director of the atelier. A favourite is the flower trunk circa 1910s from his father’s office, the predecessor of the current Malle Fleurs. Flowers, water or soil can be put in the hermetic and water-resistant coated brass tray without damage. Based on the original trunk crafted from printed paper on canvas and natural cowhide, a reinterpretation is being made in the new Monogram canvas.
But the trunk with the most sentimental value he inherited was a bar specially made in Asnières for his father’s 60th birthday. “The team designed it for his favourite drink and made it secretly,” reveals Benoit. “They had to hide it every time he stepped into the atelier. We presented it to him during a surprise party with all the artisans.” It is another one of the many exceptional expressions that continue to come out of Asnières.
A deeper purpose
Little has changed in the wood atelier located on the first floor. For more than 100 years, craftsmen have been working with three types of wood – poplar, breech and exotic okoumé – for their light yet robust quality even as new trunks adopt carbon fibre. A computer-aided cutting machine slices precious leather with extreme precision to optimise the surface area, but this process is overseen by experienced hands. Artisans continue to impart their time-tested skills and know-how to the next generation. According to Benoit, fewer than 10 craftsmen have mastered the art of making the trunks.
“Asnières is a mix of tradition and innovation. Nothing changed yet everything changed,” he remarks. Things in the family home are preserved even though the house has undergone renovation and the family no longer lives there. It has been repurposed into a gallery hosting special events for VIP customers, celebrities and the media.
Benoit once welcomed Ichikawa Shinnosuke VII and his father for lunch. The Japanese kabuki actor had taken on the Ebizo name as the 11th holder, and it was the first time the name-succession ceremony took place outside Japan. “For this occasion, the master would pass on his make-up case,” says Benoit. “For the first time in kabuki history, my father designed the make-up trunk.”
Recently, it set up a Time Capsule exhibition chronicling the landmark moments in the maison’s history from a visual timeline. Along with
rare and celebrated objects from the archives, the thematically curated retrospective reveals how the maison’s foresight has anticipated desires and met the needs of a changing world.
Benoit realised that his father has been passing on core values when he thought his father was rigid. Patrick believed that when one sets out to do something, he should do it well and proper. That explains Louis Vuitton’s investment in La Fabrique du Temps in 2011 when it made its foray into watches. The Swiss manufacture was headed by esteemed master watchmakers Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini.
For many years, customers asked for fragrance. The luxury juggernaut debuted that category after getting master perfumer Jacques Cavallier- =Belletrud on board. “The education was tough but now, it makes sense,” says Benoit. Patrick’s lessons have influenced his outlook on luxury and he has adopted some in his work.
Transmission plays a part in #Louis200. A tribute like no other, it shares the maison’s wealth of history with the digitally abled generation. For one, Louis the Game has surprised many. The app lets you lead Louis Vuitton’s adorable mascot Vivienne on a quest to collect 200 birthday candles and find one of the 30 NFTs (non-fungible tokens) by the house’s artistic directors and American digital artist Beeple – who made headlines for selling an NFT for US$69.3 million on Christie’s – while fascinating players with stories about Louis along the way.
The celebratory series also retraces the enterprising pioneer’s journey with an unprecedented documentary Looking for Louis slated for release on Apple TV, as well as the first-of-its-kind fictionalised biographical novel, Louis Vuitton, L’Audacieux, which is accompanied with audiobook versions in English and French, narrated by actresses Jennifer Connelly and Isabelle Huppert respectively.
“We have to stay in tune with what’s going on in the world,” opines Benoit. “Curiosity is the key to longevity. When you’re always curious about what’s next, you are ageless.” That is what keeps Asnières going – it is the wellspring of inspiration. “There’s a reason why people return again and again. Designers Marc Jacobs, Nicolas Ghesquière, Kim Jones, Virgil Abloh and Francesca Amfitheatrof have come here to immerse in the maison’s DNA. I return often, and I am still surprised by Asnières. Like right now, the light by the window shows a different perspective of the stained glass. It makes it come alive and radiate energy.”
(Main and featured image: Tommaso Sartori)
This story first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.