Fashion stories: The story of Louis Vuitton

FOR Christine's mother, it started in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Wilshire in Los Angeles, aka the Pretty Woman hotel, when she watched a guest checking in accompanied by an entire trolley teetering with Louis Vuitton luggage. From that moment, she vowed to save up for a handbag.

Mother's obsession was passed on to daughter, and today Christine has "around 30" handbags from one of the world's most successful luxury brands, famous for its travel luggage, accessories and ready-to-wear clothes, and which this year is celebrating 125 years in the UK. "I have shoes and scarves too. It's the exclusivity, the craftmanship and the history that I love," she says, sitting in the Edinburgh store, in Multrees Walk. "I buy around six items a year, but that includes presents for my family. Once you have an LV bag, there's no going back. There are entry-level bags and then going all the way. My most expensive bag was around £3,700," she adds.

With bags ranging from £500 upwards, it's an expensive passion. "That depends how you define expensive. If it's beautifully crafted and can be passed down to the next generation, it's not expensive. Louis Vuitton is popular because it's classic, and I like to have a classic brand. It's also understated. A Louis Vuitton bag is a piece of art," says Christine, a dean at a Scottish university, who wishes to withold her surname, having been burgled in the past.

"When I get a new piece, she sits on the sideboard being admired for a week and I send a picture of her to my husband if he's away. I have a walk-in cupboard for my handbags and photos of each one on the box."

She? "Yes, they're all shes and have a personality. They can change your personality too. One of my evening bags – a tiny gold lambskin clutch, with a gold chain and silk on the inside – is very elegant and she makes me much more elegant too."

Christine's favourite is a Marilyn multi-colour with purple alligator panels, but she is careful to rotate her bags, today carrying a thick black leather Mahina. "I try to change my handbags every couple of days, otherwise the others get jealous," she says.

It's said that to travel is to arrive, and if your accompanying luggage involves a large collection of the distinctively monogrammed Louis Vuitton cases and bags, you can pack away your passport and crack open the Moët because you have very definitely arrived. It presents an image of luggage met by men in hats holding signs; that is gently placed in the boots of limousines and accompanies A-listers and those who only ever turn left on boarding a plane. At the same time, it's lusted after by those of us who travel cattle class and can only aspire to picking up a fake when we're abroad.

Since the 'It Bag' boom of the 1990s, Louis Vuitton has been one of the must-have brands and can be seen swinging on the arms of celebs from Paris Hilton to Rihanna, who was papped recently leaving London's hip Met Bar sporting a pink LV bumbag. One of the world's oldest fashion brands, 156 years old and with 426 stores in 60 countries, it remains one of the most successful. Since Monsieur Vuitton opened a shop selling packing cases in Paris in 1854, his name has been synonymous with style and luxury, born in an age when travel was revolutionised and the elite wasted no time in jumping aboard steamers and trains to explore a world that was opening up for them. Movie stars and maharajas don't travel light. and when Louis's son George joined the business, he provided them with cases for stately steamer travel, moving on to light bags when air travel came in for the jet set of the 1950s.

Since 1987, the brand has been part of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world's largest and most prestigious luxury goods group, and its advertising campaigns have featured the likes of Madonna, Naomi Campbell, Jennifer Lopez, Mikhail Gorbachev, Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi, invariably shot against a desert or Caribbean backdrop by the likes of Annie Leibovitz. So what is the secret to its success? The firm's chairman and chief executive Yves Carcelle puts it down to respecting the history of the brand, estimated to be worth 19.781 billion. Along with safeguarding the heritage – the trunks are still hand-made in the original workshops and the bulk of manufacturing is done in France – tight controls are kept on quality and the brand itself.Louis Vuitton handbags are only available in the company's own stores or online, and the name is never used on other products or promotions, despite persistent rumours that it is to move into hotels. Britney Spears fell foul of counterfeiting laws when what looked like a Louis Vuitton design featured in one of her videos, and courts ordered broadcasters to stop showing it.

Most importantly, the firm never discounts items. From design to manufacture and distribution, Louis Vuitton does it all itself. It also subscribes to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mantra and sticks with its original designs, the classic chequerboard canvas and the famous monogram, invented in 1896 by Louis's son as a tribute to his father. Those famous initials are still what draws customers in, from the Champs Elysées to Tokyo's Roppongi Hills, particularly Asian customers – Japan accounts for a third of the company's international sales and China is its third-largest market

But tradition is not enough to sustain a luxury label, and in 1997 it was given a shot of adrenalin with the arrival of designer Marc Jacobs, who created the company's first women's and men's ready-to-wear line. Like Gucci, Louis Vuitton wanted to move on from luxury goods, and while accessories make money, clothes generate catwalk press to keep a brand in the public eye.

Along with the introduction of shoes, watches and jewellery, Jacobs brought flair and innovation to add lustre to the traditional elements of quality, tradition and craftsmanship. He also introduced glamour and edginess by collaborating with popular artists such as Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami (Japan's answer to Andy Warhol), Richard Prince and rapper Kanye West, who designed a line of trainers last year.

So while Louis Vuitton continues with a dozen or so iconic bags, it introduces a couple of show bags or collaborations each season. Murakami's hugely popular Multicolour 2003 range became some of the most counterfeited fashion products in the world, annoying for the brand but providing a good gauge of public hunger for a product. The Stephen Sprouse 2001 graffiti and rose collection was also hugely successful and kept the brand in the public eye with an edgy glamour that prevents it from seeming passé. "Marc Jacobs is very clever in getting the collaborations because if it's down with the kids, you will get everyone up to 90 years old buying it," says Beca Lipscombe, a fashion and textiles course coordinator at Glasgow School of Art. "He has managed to make it contemporary, which it has to be to make money and continue to be successful. It's an enduring brand and deserves respect for that. The problem is if you have a classic that's built to last, how do you get people to buy more? You have to introduce variations," she says, "different colourways, limited editions and celebrity collaborations to keep them addicted, which Marc Jacobs understands."

And it seems there are plenty of people still addicted, despite the global economic crisis. Elite brands such as Louis Vuitton appear to be somewhat recession-proof. Jacobs explains why the French powerhouse is doing so well despite the downturn. "Obviously there are a lot of people suffering out there, but our sales are up."

Neil Stewart, manager of the Edinburgh branch, agrees. "We are increasing our market share. In Edinburgh we have a lot of local return customers as well as a million tourists a year in the city, many of whom see the store as a destination."

Indeed, the shop is such a big attraction that yesterday it had to be shut due to the volume of Taiwanese tourists. Today, a Saturday, it's full of locals and visitors happily spending away. The new maison, opening on 28 May in New Bond Street, London, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of LV in the UK, is also expected to be a hit, selling the entire range of travel goods, bags, watches, jewellery and clothes, with a library selling limited-edition books and a private Very Important Clients floor.

It seems that by sticking with quality materials and craftsmen, Louis Vuitton has managed to weather the financial storm. Its shoes come from Italy, its watches from Switzerland and its cashmere is produced in Scotland. But what is the importance of the brand in Scotland and to the country's economy? "The important thing about LV from a Scottish point of view is that it uses textiles produced here, and there are only a few mills left, so it's helping to keep a dying industry going," says Lipscombe. "For them it's about quality, and the mills we have left produce cloth that maintains this quality. Scottish cashmere gets better the more you wear it."

But no matter how you dress it up, is the luggage not just waterproof canvas with a leather trim? And does anyone really believe in the glamour of voyaging to distant lands, especially after recent events? The cachet of travel, personified by an elegant Audrey Hepburn with her LV luggage (her adoption of the Skippy has made it one of the brand's best-sellers), has been replaced by images of hordes of tourists bedding down in airports, using counterfeit LV Papillons as pillows. Is the brand a victim of its own success? Like Burberry, its status has seen it copied so much that most of the time we assume it's fake. It's one of the most counterfeited labels in the fashion world, and only a fraction of products bearing the LV initials are authentic.

In 2004, Louis Vuitton fakes accounted for 18 per cent of counterfeit accessories seized in the European Union, and the company has a team of 60 working on the issue. "Anything that's in demand will of course get copied," says Stewart. "It's such a sought-after brand, but no-one can replicate the quality and know-how. We make everything by hand in a workshop where there is 150 years of skills passed down from grandfather to grandson."

Shoppers are paying for the whole experience, and buying a bag in Multrees Walk, with its white limestone floors, nude rugs and blonde wood, is a long way from haggling for a fake in Marmaris. I watch a beautiful 20-something girl researching which handbag she would like her boyfriend to buy for her next week. Will it be a Galliera GM in monogrammed canvas at £925, or will she settle for an £800 version?

The classics are all here, the Monogram Vernis patent leather beauties, from £640, the Speedys, from £265 for one just big enough for your keys and lippy, plus this season's bright Cosmic Blossom collection from Takashi Murakami, at around £765. Everything is highly polished, from the bags, to the shoes to the customers. What recession?

Just as I'm wondering which of my children I could sell in order to purchase a shiny patent bag that's just shy of £1,200, Michelle Stewart, from Edinburgh, drops in to buy a present, wearing an eye-catching LV limited-edition Graffiti scarf. "I have a couple of bags and scarves, a small black leather evening bag and a messenger bag I bought for my husband. I like the quality and the history of it. They last for years and are classic pieces that never go out of fashion. They're timeless. I also like the whole shopping experience of Multrees Walk. It's a beautiful shop," she says.

Meanwhile, Beth Baird, from Dalgety Bay, is treating herself to a bag, having just emerged from the legal wrangling that followed the death of her husband. "I'm treating myself. I always say a shroud has no pockets. I've had a few fakes, never the real thing, but now I have a winter and a summer one. They're stylish and classic and will be heirlooms – I have three daughters." One of them, Yvonne, stands beside her, beaming.

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