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

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life -

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

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