Friday, November 26, 2010

No, I still think Louis Vuitton is pulling a fast one on us

Louis Vuitton in Paris
 It seemed like a good idea to view the exhibition on Louis Vuitton’s history at Museé Carnavalet in Paris. Andrew had recommended it. Besides, given my previously-expressed cynicism about the brand, I felt I owed it one chance to try and understand the secret of its unceasing popularity. Then again, we were in Marais, one of the most fashionable neighbourhoods I’ve ever visited, and it seemed somehow appropriate.

The exhibition traced the luggage-maker’s history since 1835 when 14-year-old Louis Vuitton undertook a two-year trek from his hometown Jura to Paris to become an apprentice for a luggage store on 4 rue des Capucine. It took him only another 18 years to set up his own eponymous store in the capital. But interestingly – and here’s where my respect for the company grew – the first 100 years of the luggage company were as much based on innovation as branding exercises.

Think about it: 1850s to 1950s is when the means, modes and quality of travel changed dramatically. From horse-drawn carts we sswiftly moved to ocean liners, trains, automobiles and airplanes. Naturally, a change in transport necessitated a change in our luggage designs – and Louis Vuitton constantly innovated to keep up with modern lifestyles.

Luggage and writing desk rolled into one
It started with changing the shape of our trunks from domed-tops to flat tops, which could be easily stacked on top of each other. Then they changed the material used for trunks from leather to coated canvas – less prestigious but sturdier. The House also started cleverly compartmentalising spaces inside to optimise usage. They created slim cabin trunks that could be slipped under the bunks of ocean liners and trains. They created drop leaf cases (where the front end would also drop along with the top) for picnic cases, once automobiles became fashionable. These picnic cases came complete with set-to-size cutlery inside. Among their more outlandishly innovative designs were suitcases with pop-up beds and built-in writing desks for longer exploratory journeys.

The designs were exciting because functionality and not just aesthetics lay at the heart of their creation.Interestingly, after the 1950s, such functionality-based innovation petered out and aesthetics, branding and marketing exercises took over. (It is also the time when the company moves out of family control after three generations of Louis Vuittons at the helm.) It is telling that barely two percent of the exhibits included designs made between the 1950s and now. These exhibits include the luggage custom-made for Damien Hirst, Karl Lagerfeld, Zaha Hadid and film maker Wes Andersen for his film, The Darjeeling Ltd. So their wow-factor had more to do with brand association than with design innovation.

My problem with Louis Vuitton is that even when it comes to aesthetics, the brand is stuck to one look, coming up with gazillion permutations and combinations within that narrow framework. It was Gaston Louis Vuitton – second in the chain – who came up with the brand’s distinctive lazenge motif in 1888, inspired by Japanese design which was all the rage in Paris at that time. But today, the distinctiveness and prominence of the motif has made the brand an extremely easy prey to forgers – for we live in a world of easy duplication. And yet, LVMH Group seems loathe to innovate their design which is a cash cow for them. It is a far call from the days when Louis Vuitton decided to replace leather on his truck cover with coated canvas – a decidedly less prestigious but lighter and sturdier material. He took a call based on functionality, and the canvas in elegant grey went on to become the company's signature design.

Sid says, travel hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. It is still aeroplanes that we travel in so what could they possibly innovate over? Well, the speed, frequency and quality of our travel has changed dramatically. We travel more, for shorter distances and with far lesser luggage. Surely, that requires a new attitude towards luggage making. For example, if Louis Vuitton once came up with a case with an in-built writing desk, then why not one with an in-built laptop board, a device that has attached itself to our beings?

It is because the brand is no longer about innovation in luggage making. It is just another corporation looking for the easiest and safest way to cash-in on the hard-earned reputation of its founding fathers.

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