Take a moment to think about the most notable luxury fashion brands of the world. Though they all carry great legacies, few can boast a living heir, as the house of Louis Vuitton does. Patrick Louis Vuitton is one such living heir, who as a fifth-generation descendent of the founding family is perhaps one of the only living successors to a global fashion empire. Opportunities to meet Patrick Vuitton in person are few and far between; even rarer is the chance the sit down and casually converse with the man, especially when said conversation takes place in the Louis Vuitton family home.
The Louis Vuitton family home carries with it as great a legacy as the notable residents of its past. As the story goes, in 1859 (just four years after the company was founded), growing demand required that Monsieur Louis Vuitton look for a production facility beyond his original workshop in Paris. With considerable foresight, he moved to the quiet rural town of Asnières, which had yet to be made famous by The Impressionists.
As the years went on, the Asnières workshop was unquestionably the nerve center of Louis Vuitton, as it served as the company’s sole production facility for more than a century, until 1977, when burgeoning demand from international markets required that additional workshops be opened. However, Asnières to this day remains the very essence of Louis Vuitton, and it is here that all the company’s hard-frame luggage, special orders, exotic leather bags, and limited-edition runway pieces are made. Not a single trunk in existence today has been produced outside of this workshop, and each and every piece is overseen by Patrick Vuitton, Head of Special Orders, who is himself a trained and talented craftsman who “began employment in the workshop producing pieces, as any non-Vuitton or regular staff member would”. So integral was the Asnières workshop to the family that Louis Vuitton built temporary living quarters above it until 1878, when he and his wife Emilie decided to make it their principal home, at which time they built two houses in the garden surrounding the workshop.
Those historic houses are where I am meeting Monsieur Patrick Vuitton for an intimate lunch and interview, following a private tour of the workshop on the same grounds. Upon entering the home, which has remained virtually untouched in the more than hundred years since it was first occupied, I feel as if I am in a time capsule – everything from furniture to personal family photos remains unaltered, some even unblemished. It is as if time has stood still in this peaceful home while the Vuitton empire grew with the rapid pace of a fire engine, and it is this dichotomy that stops me in my tracks as I absorb every detail of the fascinating residence, which is more akin to a shrine or a museum than a home.
Mr. Patrick Vuitton arrives on the dot, about thirty minutes after I have had the chance to assimilate every square inch of the home (which is surprisingly built and decorated in the Art Nouveau style, a controversial choice for the time, as it was the very antithesis of the design favored by the bourgeoisie). He is the type of man that commands attention simply by entering a room. He only converses in French and doesn’t speak a word of English, which I find rather interesting considering the international breadth of his brand.
We sit in the living room, which, with its intricate stuccowork and bright blue fireplace, is bathed in natural light, owing much to the exquisite stained-glass windows with graceful floral motifs signed by the local artist Paul-Louis Janin and dated 1900. Though mostly colorful, there are pieces of glass in the window that are transparent – a purposeful style so that the residents of the house could discretely look through and monitor the activities of the workshop next door.
He begins the conversation by telling me of his profound respect for the Louis Vuitton name and his gratefulness for his position, but that “this was never what I wanted to do – I only ever wanted to be a veterinarian.” So how did he end up at the Maison, I ask? “My grandmother, may she rest in peace, was the most important person to me in the world. She sat me down one day and pleaded with me to carry on the Louis Vuitton legacy. I could not say no to a woman as charming as her, and put my dreams aside.” His fondness for his grandmother becomes ever more apparent during lunch, when he sits on the second seat from the end of the table. “Why sit there and not at the head of the table, where you belong?” I ask. “This was my grandmother’s seat and where she would sit everyday,” he replies with the endearing tone of a young grandson with an endless love for his grand-mère. “I sit here everyday to remember her. She was an exceptional woman.”
Naturally, the conversation leads to a question of regret. Does he regret his decision not to pursue his veterinarian dreams? “Absolument pas,” he responds. “Any other family would have asked the same of me. I focus on this job, and when I go home I have dogs and horses I can take care of. I rarely ever take them to the doctor – I treat them, I stitch them up, I take care of them myself every day, and it is this that gives me the greatest pleasure in life.”
The idea of Patrick Vuitton, one of the senior-most members of the LV dynasty, taking care of dogs and horses might come across as something of a surprise, considering he is one of the most important and influential names in the industry. But it is precisely this that makes him the living embodiment of Louis Vuitton, a name reaped in tradition and innovation. Patrick has, quite literally, innovated his position, wherein he is focused on the heritage and continuity of the house, while at the same time remaining true to his deep-rooted, uncompromising personal desires – the very definition of a modern businessman, I’m sure you would agree.
As part of his role, Patrick is responsible for Special Orders, a department he “proudly and personally oversees”. Special orders comprise two services, which distinguish Louis Vuitton from every other company: Made-to-Order, which allows for variations on selected items from the permanent collection (for instance an existing bag or trunk customized in a particular material, at the discretion of the client); and Custom-Made, which is where imagination runs free and the true “one-off” pieces are made. These are original ideas – some modest, others grand in scale.
It is this subject, Custom-Made, which excites Patrick Vuitton most, and where his anecdotes starts spilling out. All of these orders, about 450 of them per year, are executed in Asnières, each by one single craftsman over a laborious period of several months, following detailed sketches and elaborate prototypes approved by the client. “Is there anything you won’t make for a client?” I ask him. “As long as it expresses individuality, realizes a dream, and respects the tradition of travel, there is nothing we won’t create… except for a coffin. That, I refuse.”
“Has that been requested before?” I enquire curiously.
“More times than you would ever believe. There are people in this world whose affinity for Louis Vuitton is so great that they want to be buried in it.”
He continues by recounting to me some of the more bizarre requests his department has received. “A few years ago, a client from Asia asked us to produce a special trunk for his rubber ducky, which he traveled with everywhere. It took some time, as we work with poplar wood, which naturally doesn’t easily transform into the shape of a rubber ducky, but eventually we managed it.” Another story he tells me with great enthusiasm was a bet he made with screen legend Catherine Deneuve. She owned a trunk that she was particularly fond of, and he knew simply by the year of production that it was made by him, personally, during his first years at the workshop. “I verified. I won the bet.”
After a beautifully presented lunch in the family dining room, he invites me out to the meticulously manicured garden, which is a rare sight in what is now industrial Asnières. In a lush setting filled with hydrangea bushes, he smokes on his pipe while I sip on tea and hear of his plans and hopes for the company. “It’s a great time for Louis Vuitton right now, with all the focus in the industry on [new Creative Director] Nicolas Ghesquière”, I tell him. “Yes, it’s a wonderful time in our history”, he responds, nodding with the type of approval you would only ever hope a family heir would bestow on a person newly entering the company.
As we sit on the antique wrought-iron table his family has used for virtually over a century, he continues musing on his childhood, recounting favorite memories and sharing anecdotes of his young adult days with great enthusiasm. A faint noise comes out of the factory adjacent to us, presumably from one of the very many futuristic pieces of machinery I saw during the tour earlier in the day, and I am reminded of how very seeped this Maison is in both history and modernity. It’s a telling reminder that in order to move forward in this industry, we must never, ever forget our past.
Inside the Louis Vuitton Family Home: Savoir Flair in Conversation with Patrick Louis Vuitton
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The heart of the Asnières workshops, pictured about 1888, when the company employed 30 people