How Louis Vuitton defined luxury in the 21st century

A couple of weeks ago it was announced that Karl Lagerfeld had created a Louis Vuitton punching bag that retails for $175,000. The Chanel and Fendi designer, and a few other high-level creatives, was invited to celebrate the LV monogram logo by reinterpreting the intertwining letters on a selection of fashion and lifestyle goods. How many, if any, of the 25 boxing bags the French luxury brand expect to sell is unknown. But these kind of extraordinary marketing exercises (the true identity of the punching bag and other such costly one-offs) is in line with Louis Vuitton’s position in the contemporary luxury market. The French bag make, founded in 1854, holds a very special place at the top of the fashion pyramid; Louis Vuitton is seen as a bellwether for the rest of the industry.

Recently, except for Karl Lagerfeld’s punching bag, Louis Vuitton has been hitting the headlines because of its new creative director, Nicolas Ghesquière. Showing his second Ready-to-Wear collection in Paris in early October, he’s still putting his mark on the brand. As his predecessor, Marc Jacobs, held the job for 16 years, it will take some time for Ghesquière to settle in. Still, the initial success of his tenure is already sealed. The 70s retro looks from his AW14 collection, continued and modified for SS15, is in line with the Louis Vuitton aesthetic but decidedly different from Marc Jacobs’ version of the 160-year-old brand. Such a high profile brand of course needs a high profile creative director, and Ghesquière fits the bill. Having taken over Balenciaga in 1997, coincidentally the same year Marc Jacobs started at Louis Vuitton, Ghesquière reinvigorated the Spanish label and made it into a fashion force to be reckoned with. A very public resignation in 2012 made sure all eyes were on Ghesquière and his future employer.

Meanwhile, British designer Kim Jones was taken on in 2011 as style director of Louis Vuitton’s men’s ready-to-wear division. Jones was a bold choice for Louis Vuitton even though he had served as creative director at the traditional British tailoring brand Alfred Dunhill. Until his Dunhill appointment, Jones was famous for his casual sportswear and Umbro collaboration, but the Dunhill job showed he was capable of creating luxury lifestyle collections as well as contemporary leisurewear. Jones took the job from Paul Helbers, a soft-spoken Dutchman who designed sleek and sporty collections for Louis Vuitton for five years, but lacked personality and charisma. The appointment of Kim Jones was a statement of intent for Louis Vuitton. Today, Jones is wowing the menswear press with his fine balance of high-tech sportswear and travel-inspired luxury garments.

And it seems to be working. Recent figures show that the brand is doing well financially. Sales of the group’s fashion and leather goods business grew 9% in the third quarter of the year. LVMH, the umbrella company that owns Fendi, Moët et Chandon and Bulgari, as well as Louis Vuitton, has stated overall sales rose 5.2% to 7.39 billion euros ($9.37 billion) in the third quarter from €7.02 billion in the same period last year. Financially, Louis Vuitton is a solid business, but – and this is by no means self-evident in the world of high-end fashion – it’s a also a creatively sound brand, constantly pushing itself forward with the help of exceptional designers and world class collaborators.

Between Jacobs, Ghesquière and Jones, Louis Vuitton has spent the best part of 15 years trying to make the brand a cultural force, a contemporary leader when it comes to fashion. For a company that makes the majority of its money on bags and other leather goods, its fashion presence has been strong. Each season, for both menswear and womenswear, it’s one of the top shows, one that can not be missed. That’s partly down to the brand’s advertising spend, but also because how Louis Vuitton takes the concept of “ultimate luxury” and makes it relevant to our wardrobes. At least in theory. Even if you can afford it, it’s quite difficult to actually buy Louis Vuitton menswear. Even the flagship stores only carry selected pieces from the shows. But Jones and Ghesquière, and Jacobs before him, know that the role of their catwalk collections is about much more than selling lambskin jackets and cashmere T-shirts. They contextualise fashion in pop cultural history. And no one was better at that then Marc Jacobs. During his rein, Louis Vuitton instigated several partnerships and collaborations that brought high-end art into high-end fashion, and vice versa. Not only that, Jacobs also fused street art with his clothes and the all-important handbags.

Taking in to consideration Stephen Sprouse’s graffiti, Takashi Murakami’s camouflage and Yayoi Kusama’s dots, Louis Vuitton not only kickstarted fashion’s inclusion of art, but helped bring together two creative disciplines in what’s arguably a new 21st century art form. Designers have always been inspired by art and music, but what Marc Jacobs, and the late Louis Vuitton CEO, Yves Carcelle, did was to transform the catwalk into a gallery. And it wasn’t just restricted to the runway; Yayoi Kusama’s collaborative work was showcased in the windows of 460 Louis Vuitton stores in 64 countries, and sold in seven special concept stores throughout the world. Few other brands would have the man power, creative desire and financial backing to pull that off.

When the Louis Vuitton handbags with Sprouse’s graffiti logos went on sale in 2001, they sold out. And they sold even faster when Jacobs used the scrawlings again in 2008 as a homage to Sprouse who passed away in 2004. Having spent a considerable time trying to convince the LV team that defacing their most priced asset, the logo bag, was a good idea, Marc Jacobs first awed the press at the show and then the customer at the counter. The idea of taking the classic monogram bag and adding Sprouse’s graffiti was far from an obvious hit, it was an inspired move by Jacobs and his employers. By daring to play with the ultimate sign of luxury, the brand moved the goal posts and altered the way we looked at the brand; Louis Vuitton, the age-old leather bag manufacturer, was now a pop cultural player doing exactly what we expect from trendsetters; mixing two old ingredients to create new and exciting products.