The story of Louis Vuitton starts very magically ★★★★☆

Statue Martyn F. Overweel

Long ago in a land far, far away, a boy was born who was baptized Louis Vuitton. That long ago was two hundred years ago in 2021, reason for the Louis Vuitton company to have the fairytale life story of their founder recorded in the form of a biographical novel. That book is called, nice French pompous, l’audacieux: the bold.

When they do something at Vuitton, they do it well, whether it’s making suitcases or having a biography written. That’s why they asked award-winning author Caroline Bongrand for it. The result is a life story based on facts not mentioned before, which was also generously colored with assumptions and fantasy dialogues.

Bongrand already had experience with biographies: she previously wrote about Christian Dior and Gustave Eiffel. She also has experience with fashion: from 2007 to 2010 she was editor-in-chief of the French fashion magazine L’Officiel. For l’audacieux she had to dig deep, because little or nothing of Vuitton’s personal archive has survived: the studio and family home in Asnières near Paris went up in flames in 1870 after a Prussian attack during the Franco-Prussian War. To get the necessary anecdotes and stories, Bongrand looked for testimonials from people who knew Vuitton closely. There were quite a few, as the book shows. Louis had plenty of contacts, also with people who played a major role in history, which made him a kind of Forrest Gump before la lettre makes. But more about that in a moment.

ran away from home

The story about ‘the bold one’ proceeds well chronologically and is particularly fairytale-like, especially in the very beginning. Not that young Louis was surrounded in his crib by good fairies in 1821, but after ten years a classic evil stepmother emerges. After the death of mother Vuitton, this new wife of his father is so horribly unkind to the children that Louis, at the age of 13, decides to run away from his native village in the Jura, towards a better future.

Along the way, the young lad meets a handy woodworker with whom he takes up residence and apprenticeship. Two years and 250 kilometers after his departure, he finally reaches the city of Paris, where he is hired – thanks to his manual dexterity – as the youngest employee of a professional packer. There, at Romain Maréchal’s, he makes wooden boxes to transport clothes, porcelain, glassware and art of all kinds of wealthy people eager to move. Also among them is the Spanish Countess of Teba, Eugénie de Montijo, who gets on so well with Vuitton, five years her senior, that she appoints him as her personal packer and encourages him to start his own business.

The Empress’s Favorite Packer

Years later, in 1853, this Countess marries Napoleon III and becomes the last French Empress Eugénie, Vuitton remains her favorite packer. In 1854 he opened his own shop in Paris on the Rue Neuve-des-Capucines near Place Vendôme. Since everything the Empress does and wears (crinolines!) sets the trend, it’s becoming chic for the beau monde to have things packed by Vuitton – or, if they can’t afford it, pretend they’re a customer. The popular packer himself is now throwing himself into trying out new techniques and materials. In 1855 he makes his first stackable poplar wood trunk, covered with varnished gray canvas and therefore waterproof. It turns out to be a bull’s eye.

When his Parisian workspace becomes too cramped, the now-married Vuitton settles in 1859 in Asnières, which with its location on the Seine is ideal for wood supply by boat. He builds a family villa and a spacious studio, which, as mentioned, was reduced to ashes in the war of 1870-1871.

world fame

This is how . becomes l’audacieux slowly becoming a history book. Logical, because the time in which Vuitton lived and worked in Paris, the city was not only radically redesigned by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, but there were also enormous changes in the political and technological field. At the World’s Fair of 1855, the suitcase maker was still amazed at Adolphe Sax’s saxophone, Léon Foucault’s pendulum and Isaac Singer’s sewing machine. Twelve years later, at the international exposition of 1867, he was there himself with his patented invention, because with the rise of long-distance travel, grands hotels and department stores, more and more solid suitcases were needed. Vuitton’s friendship with Charles Frederick Worth, the favorite couturier of the wealthy and royals, also helped establish his fame worldwide.

Did Vuitton live happily ever after? Read for yourself. For those who prefer to read with their eyes closed (and understand French well): the French listening version of l’audacieux is voiced by Isabelle Huppert, the English by Jennifer Connelly, available through Audible and

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Statue Gallimard

Caroline Bongrand: Louis Vuitton – L’audacieux. Currently only available in French and English. Gallimard; 320 pages; €22.


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