Trained as a luggage packer for wealthy Parisian families, Louis Vuitton opened his first store in Paris in 1854, soon after he had introduced a revolutionary new steamer trunk using leather and lightweight gray Trianon canvas. Before these flat-top trunks, travelers used round-top trunks, which deflected water, but could not be stacked. Vuitton's luggage was a success among world-traveling aristocrats, such as French empress Eugénie.
The now-renowned luxury goods company opened its first store in London in the 1880s. To combat knockoffs, it replaced the Trianon with beige-and-brown checkerboard Damier canvas, with a monogram reading "marque L. Vuitton deposee," meaning "L. Vuitton registered trademark." After Vuitton died in 1892, his son, George, took the helm, and led the company to international success.
George created the iconic Monogram gold-on-brown canvas with the quatrefoils, flowers, and "LV" logos. Based on Asian-inspired designs that were popular with Europeans in the Victorian Era, the design was launched in 1896 and patented globally. In 1901, the company introduced the Steamer Bag, a little piece of luggage meant to be carried inside larger trunks. Some consider it an early predecessor to the handbag.
In 1913, Vuitton opened the world's biggest luggage store in Paris, as well as boutiques around the world. The bags, recognized as status symbols thanks to their immediately recognizable Monogram print, got progressively smaller and more flexible, and in 1930, Louis Vuitton produced the Keepall, a smaller travel bag with two handles.
Its first popular handbag, the bucket-shape, drawstring-top Noe, was actually designed to hold champagne bottles when it was introduced in 1932. The 1930s Speedy, however, was designed as a purse, with a zippered top and heavy leather handles. Both featured the LV Monogram as their pattern.
World War II is a murkier period in the company's history. A 2004 book by Stephanie Bonvicini asserts that the Louis Vuitton company, under the leadership of his grandson, Gaston-Louis Vuitton, cooperated with Nazis while France was occupied by Germany during the war. But these allegations have not been made until recently.
In the 1950s, the Monogram canvas was redesigned as a more supple material for suitcases, purses, and wallets. By the 1960s, counterfeiters were going wild trying to copy this famous print, an issue the company has struggled with ever since...
The 1980s saw Louis Vuitton sponsoring its own yacht race, the Louis Vuitton Cup, and also expanding deeper into Asia. Its famed lightweight and supple Epi leather line appeared in 1985. Later in the decade, the firm consolidated with high-end liquor companies Moët Chandon and Hennessy to form luxury lifestyle behemoth LVMH.
In recent years, designers have had fun playing with the Monogram canvas, from making it smaller, as in the 1999 mini monogram line, to covering it with graffiti, as Stephen Sprouse and Marc Jacobs did in 2001. In 2003, Jacobs and Takashi Murakami came up with the Multicolored Monogram in 33 different colors on a white or black background. Murakami also invented the limited-edition Cherry Blossom pattern, which interspersed cartoon faces in pink and yellow flowers.
The company, whose travel bags are still made by hand, is popular with modern-day celebrities such as Elizabeth Hurley, Sharon Stone, Kanye West, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, and the Beckhams.