The Iconic Journey of the Louis Vuitton Trunk

The luggage that lasted 100 years

Though nobody was around to notice it, the world of luxury changed forever on a dingy Paris afternoon in 1837 when a 16-year-old boy, having walked 300 miles from the peasant village of Anchay, signed on as an apprentice in the trunk-making shop of M. Maréchal on the Rue Saint-Honoré. The lad’s name? Louis something. Oh, wait … Louis Vuitton.

It would be easy to say that the rest is history, except that’s exactly what it was. Rising from the scrappy streets of Victor Hugo’s Paris, Vuitton opened his own shop, attracted clients that included the Empress Eugénie and, by 1855, debuted a cutting-edge wonder called the slat trunk. Not only did its canvas sheathing make it lighter and more waterproof than leather, but its clever array of drawers and nooks could hold weeks’ worth of ensembles. And unlike the round-topped trunks in fashion at the time, Vuitton’s were rectangular, allowing them to be stacked—as they soon were, in the first-class suites of transatlantic liners steaming from Cherbourg. (Note to reader: Check the attic to see if great-grandmother left her Vuitton trunk up there because it could be worth some $20,000 now.)

That sort of appreciation in value shouldn’t be a surprise. The timeless, sophisticated steamer trunk has remained the thematic and aesthetic centerpiece of the Vuitton brand for well over a century—even though, as these ads show, its role has moved from the transactional to the figurative.

In 1930, before air travel challenged the steamer trunk for luggage supremacy, Vuitton’s goods required little marketing outside this simple display of sizes and varieties. “The ad is purely functional—there was no lifestyle in it,” said consumer marketing consultant Siv Paumgarten, strategist for the fashion analytics platform “Back then, you had a master brand in each category, and that’s who you went to.”

Oh, for the good old days. The latest version of the World Luxury Brand Directory (yes, there is such a thing) lists no fewer than 682 high-end brands. And Vuitton itself is but a single name within the gilded stable of LVMH (2012 sales: $38 billion), the line having expanded to include dresses, shoes, watches, even home accessories. Far from being the signifier of a decent suitcase, the LV logo now ornaments an entire luxury segment—one valued at $287 billion and whose value is growing faster than global GDPs.

The luxury tsunami is, of course, good news for Vuitton. But it has also created a bit of a differentiation problem for the brand. “Right now, we’re overwhelmed by glamorous, luxury lifestyle branding,” said Paumgarten, who sees the 2013 Vuitton ad shown here not just as a means of showcasing the fall line but as evidence of the luxury-goods maker “trying to reclaim their heritage—to show the world that they’re authentic, that they’ve been around a long time.”

How to do that? One way is digging that old steamer trunk out of storage and, just like the brand did in 1930, put it back in the center of an ad.

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