Luxury French brand Louis Vuitton has had a long love affair with the Far East, Chloe Street discovers on a visit to Tokyo
A trip to Tokyo reveals Louis Vuitton’s long love affair with the East
In 1883, two highly influential Japanese politicians strolled into Louis Vuitton’s store in Paris and ordered bespoke trunks. Itagaki Taisuke, founder of the Liberal Party and home minister in two governments, chose a classic waterproof waxed, wooden-framed number; Goto Shojiro, a samurai and also Liberal Party founder who served variously as minister for communications, agriculture and commerce, opted for a leather version. The orders, the young brand’s first from Japanese customers, are recorded in beautifully handwritten entries in one of the company’s ledgers.
Taisuke’s trunk and that ledger feature in Volez, Voguez, Voyagez—louis Vuitton, an exhibition in the Kioicho district of Tokyo, just a short walk from the site where Louis Vuitton opened its first Japanese store (its fourth after Paris, Nice and London) in 1978. The show traces the brand’s journey from 1854—when a young Louis Vuitton, following an apprenticeship as a box maker and packer, decided to establish his own business “to safely pack the most fragile objects” and to provide “speciality packing for fashion”— until today, a journey in which Japanese culture played a significant part.
In curating the show, Olivier Saillard, director of the Palais Galliera in Paris, spent months wading through the maison’s archives—a trove of more than 23,000 objects, 165,000 documents and 110,000 customer records—to select the best 600 trunks, accessories and documents to tell the fascinating 160-year tale of development from packing company to global fashion and accessories brand. “I wanted to understand not only the history of the brand, but also the world the Vuittons operated in,” says the fashion historian, who has previously created exhibitions on Azzedine Alaïa, Christian Lacroix and Yohji Yamamoto, among others.
The first room of Volez, Voguez, Voyagez— which had a nine-week run in Paris before travelling to Japan, where it closes on June 19 and moves to New York—focuses on the development of the flat-topped trunk pioneered by Louis Vuitton, considered the prototype of modern-day luggage. The display features Louis’ first beige-and-brown stripe, which he initiated in 1872 to set his products apart from copies of his popular flat design, and the tumbler lock system developed by his son Georges, which allowed customers to open all their baggage with a single, unique key. The family was clearly very focused on innovation. “Louis Vuitton was someone who looked to the future,” says Robert Carsen, the brain behind the exhibition’s set design and production. “He was always trying to find the newest and the lightest fabrics and metals. I’m struck by how he wanted to renew and modernise constantly what he was doing.”
By the time Shojiro and Taisuke bought their bespoke trunks in 1883, Japanese influences were well and truly making their mark in Europe. The continent was first exposed to the country’s art and culture through the Paris World Fair of 1867, and the period of Japanese influence that followed had a profound effect on Western culture, post-impressionist French artists in particular, and would come to be known as Japonisme.
That influence is clear in the motif Georges designed in 1896 that became the famous Louis Vuitton monogram—a repetitive
pattern of flowers, plants and geometric shapes with the interlaced initials L and V. In his sketches on display at the exhibition, one can observe how Georges was influenced by Japanese family crests. The stylised floral motifs that abound in the ancestral heraldic emblems are very similar to the floral shapes Georges drew. “The famous monogram is very inspired by many little things from Japan,” says Saillard. “There was a huge interest in Japan at this time.”
George’s son Gaston-louis, an obsessive collector fascinated by antiques and curios of all provenance, also brought Japanese influences and inspiration to the house. He amassed a sizeable selection of tsuba— samurai sword guards—and one of the most impressive archives of antique trunks in the world, many of which were imported from Japan. One can spot the influence of these oriental artefacts permeating designs—for example, a clearly tsuba-inspired motif is identifiable on the mirror of a 1920s trunk in the exhibition.
The maison’s history is chronicled through 10 themed rooms. The first four highlight the
different modes of travel—trains, planes, cars and boats—that influenced the development of the brand. Steamships went into service in the 1830s, railways in 1848, cars in the 1890s and the first commercial flight took off in 1914, and the exhibition demonstrates how each new mode of transport affected Louis Vuitton’s designs.
“Every object, every piece of luggage Louis invented was to make travel possible and was very focused,” says Saillard. As well as being beautiful, everything is ingeniously practical, from the Steamer bag, initially designed to hold dirty laundry during an ocean crossing and which foreshadowed hand luggage, to picnic-set or tool-kit trunks designed to fit into car boots, to the soft leather 1932 Noé bag designed for a client to transport five bottles of champagne on car journeys (the bag remains one of the company’s most popular styles, though nowadays its uses are not restricted to carrying bottles), to the first trunk containing a fold-out bed, designed in the 1860s to accompany explorers on their expeditions. “It was more than just luggage and packing,” says Saillard. “It was about a lifestyle, an art of travel.”
Finally viewers arrive at the Japan room (added to the exhibition when it moved from Paris to Tokyo), which contains, alongside Taisuke’s trunk, two commissions for contemporary Japanese clients: one a beautiful tea ceremony trunk, the other a make-up trunk for Kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizo XI. The room also features examples of the brand’s iconic (and highly lucrative) handbag collaborations with Japanese artists. The cherry printed and multicoloured monograms of Takashi Murakami’s 13-year collaboration transformed Louis Vuitton’s fortunes from the relationship’s inception in 2003, and Yayoi Kusama’s delightfully dotty aesthetic (2012) and the hole-ridden totes created with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçon (2014) were also successful partnerships.
The special relationship between Louis Vuitton and Japan is evident and enduring. The brand’s current creative director, Nicolas Ghesquière, took inspiration from the Japanese anime series Evangelion in creating his futuristic spring/summer 2016 collection. He has also chosen Lightning, the virtual heroine of the cult Japanese Nintendo game Final Fantasy, to front the latest advertising campaign—a novel bid to woo the younger crowd and, of course, the ever-important Asian market. “Lightning heralds a new era of expression,” says Ghesquière, but arguably she merely taps into the rich seam of Louis Vuitton’s longstanding Japonisme.
the art of travel From above: The gallery dedicated to travel by rail and the luggage designed for it has the feel of a vintage train carriage; Le voyage en avion (The plane trip), an image shot by American photographer Thérèse Bonney in 1927; fashion photography published in Vogue and Paris Match circa 1960