Louis Vuitton’s new two-storey gallery showcases its glorious past
Louis Vuitton’s new two-storey gallery in Asnières-sur-seine showcases the luxury purveyor’s glorious past, multifaceted present and efforts to stay one step ahead, writes Amy Serafin
Few luggage makers have streets named after them. But a world away from the hustle and bustle of the Champs-élysées flagship store, in the middle-class suburb of Asnières-sur- Seine, there’s a quiet street called Rue Louis Vuitton. About halfway down, a green metal gate opens up to a compound that is the heart of this illustrious French house.
In 1859, five years after creating his eponymous company, Louis Vuitton had already outgrown his Paris atelier, so he built a workshop northwest of the city in Asnières. At the time it was countryside, with just a few houses on the bank of the Seine. But it was a strategic location—the nearby river served as a conduit for boats delivering wood to make trunks, and the first train line passed through Asnières on its way to the Gare Saint-lazare, near the brand’s original flagship store.
Vuitton and his wife lived above the atelier. In 1880, when his son Georges married, he built the stone house that still stands, along with another villa for the newlyweds. At the turn of the century, Georges renovated the main house in art nouveau style. It remains intact as an extraordinary example of the
era, with a ceramic chimney, stained glass windows by Joseph Janin, floral motifs on pale green walls and sculpted vines spreading across the ceiling.
Six generations of the family resided on the site until the early 1980s. Today the house hosts visits and small receptions. Behind it, the Eiffel-style atelier buzzes with activity as 170 artisans turn out prototypes for fashion shows, pieces from the collections and special orders. Patrick-louis Vuitton, of the fifth generation, oversees these custom orders, which number more than 350 per year.
Inside the atelier’s woodworking shop, carpenters prepare the frames for trunks in poplar and okoumé woods, a combination that ensures they are light and resistant. In another area, an employee named Carlos inspects leathers one by one from a pile of silver-coloured cowskins, the ridged épi leather that womenswear designer Nicolas Ghesquière has brought back into vogue. Upstairs, an artisan handles a hot metal instrument with surgical precision, engraving a fine line along the edges of leather strips for the Petites Malles, Ghesquière’s miniature version of the famous trunks.
Meanwhile, another specialist applies leather to a Cindy Sherman trunk, one of Louis Vuitton’s monogrammed trunks recently customised by personalities. The renowned photographer designed hers like a small travelling studio—in the green and yellow colours of her pet parrot—with drawers for accessories such as “fake eyes,” “clown wigs” and “miscellaneous small body parts.” The limited series of 25 sold out immediately.
One is already in the company archives, an enormous building in a different Paris suburb.
Gaston-louis Vuitton, the grandson of Louis, was a passionate collector. Long before most luxury brands thought to store their archives, he was already squirrelling away all sorts of papers and items. Today the company has 200,000 documents, such as client records and photographs, and 23,000 objects, from trunks to clothing. In order to share some of these treasures with the public, the brand has just opened a modern, two-storey gallery covering 6,800 square feet, attached to the house by a raised walkway. Clients will be able to visit the gallery upon request.
Judith Clark, one of the most inventive curators of fashion exhibitions today, has been working on the space for the past year. She admits it’s challenging because Louis Vuitton is such a well-known brand with an extremely rich history. “The question is how to create something that is evocative but also highly condensed, in a way that doesn’t feel too much like a caricature,” she says.
After spending hours in the archives, Clark broke the exhibition down into 16 themed sections. She discovered a wooden cube puzzle that Gaston-louis created, called the Patéki, and decided to use it as a starting point, creating blocky units made from poplar as display cases on wheels. Individual pieces can be moved from one section to another, or replaced at any time. “The structure of the exhibition is a series of incomplete structures, like a jigsaw puzzle,” she says. “I thought to set it up more like a game—to keep it light-hearted, but also to keep this idea of movement and restlessness.”
Clark found many unexpected objects in the archives, including belongings that clients carried in their luggage, such as modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller’s stage accessories. She came upon surprisingly obscure items, too, such as ribbons used to tie hats inside trunks. “They were still totally intact in their little box. It’s exquisite attention to detail, to a lifestyle that’s no longer here.”
Louis Vuitton has a long history of collaborating with a variety of artists, from art deco bookbinder Pierre-émile Legrain to Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami. Likewise, Clark brought in outside talent to help with the space. For the entrance, artist Jorge Otero-pailos made a latex dust cast of a wall that shows traces of the houses that formerly stood on the location. Fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo painted miniature scenes of universal expositions as wallpaper. And milliner Stephen Jones recreated headdresses he made for a prior collection, which have now morphed to become the mannequins themselves. Clark is also working with Patrick-louis Vuitton to restore the garden outside the house to its original state, planting it with descendants of the irises his grandfather once grew.
This new gallery tells the story of Louis Vuitton’s glorious past, its multifaceted present and its continual effort to stay one step ahead of the future. “There is the extraordinary fact of this site being the cradle of company, their most historic site,” says Clark. “Yet it is always restless—and evolving as fast as their designs.”
“THE QUESTION IS HOW TO CREATE SOMETHING THAT IS EVOCATIVE BUT ALSO HIGHLY CONDENSED, IN A WAY THAT DOESN’T FEEL TOO MUCH LIKE A CARICATURE” —JUDITH CLARK
have trunk, will travel Louis Vuitton luggage helped define the style of 20th-century leisure
custom fit The atelier buzzes with 170 artisans creating prototypes for fashion shows, pieces from the collections and special orders. Patrick-louis Vuitton oversees more than 350 custom orders per year.
Louis Vuitton products, from bespoke rubber rings to monogrammed trunks, harken to a more elegant age of travel
treasure trove The archives (opposite) reveal such splendours as a wooden cube puzzle (above), created by Gaston-louis Vuitton in the 1930s