With its unmistakable LV logo, Louis Vuitton is one of the most recognizable luxury brands in the world (as all those pesky knockoffs lining the stalls of New York City's Chinatown only serve to underscore). What began as a shop selling handcrafted luggage in Paris in 1854 has transformed, largely over the past two decades, into a global fashion juggernaut. Following the house's merger with Moët Hennessy in 1987, Louis Vuitton today is the crown jewel of luxury titan LVMH, which includes such labels as Fendi, Marc Jacobs, and Givenchy.
Central to Louis Vuitton's enduring success over the past century are the trademark canvas designs splayed across its leather goods, including the legendary trunksthe actor George Hamilton customized his with special compartments for his laptop, martini shaker, and Anderson & Sheppard suitsas well as new travel additions like dog carriers and golf bags. Still in production are the brown and beige color combination, which debuted in 1888, and the iconic LV monogram, developed in 1896 by Georges Vuitton, Louis' son.
But its status today as a bastion of high fashion is attributed in large part to creative director Marc Jacobs. Hired in 1998, the American designer reinvigorated the brand, developing the first-ever women's and men's ready to-wear collections for the house and adding categories like fine jewelry and watches. He also irreverently updated the house's canvases, collaborating with artists like Stephen Sprouse, Richard Prince, and Takashi Murakami, whose colorful cherry print and multicolored LV canvases made the limited-edition bags instant collector's items.
In 2004 Louis Vuitton celebrated its 150th anniversary with parties around the globe, and in 2007 made headlines for its Annie Leibovitz-photographed ad campaign, which featured such unlikely luminaries as Mikhail Gorbachev and tennis power couple Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi. But then, celebrity endorsement is nothing new for the label. According to legend, the great Italian film and opera director Luchino Visconti used to delight in giving sets of luggage, with the unmissable LV initials, to friends.
Much as Marc Jacobs craves attentionand he has told a reporter for The New York Times that this is the driving psychological force behind his creative choicesthere is something enigmatic about him. In earlier days, when he'd been publicly booted from Perry Ellis shortly after producing his Grunge collection for Spring 1993, he wore his chain-smoking New York neurosis on his sleeve. More recently, having risen to become one of the most powerful and lauded designers in the worldin command of Louis Vuitton and his own two labels (Marc Jacobs and the diffusion line Marc by Marc Jacobs)he has morphed into a muscular figure, with a tan and multiple tattoos (and, briefly, cartoon-blue hair). As a designer, you never know what he'll do next: voluminous Pierrot smocks, surrealist capers with underwear, darkest goth. Unpredictability is the only thing you can predict about Marc Jacobs.
That and the fact that he can forecast trends better than almost anyone in the business. Since 1997, when the insecure kid from Teaneck, New Jersey, via the New York club scene, went to Paris to oversee Louis Vuitton's new ready-to-wear venture as the brand's artistic director, Jacobs has had hit after hit after hit, especially with his madly popular updates on the classic LV monogram canvas (the design of which had not been touched since 1896, when Louis Vuitton's son, Georges, originated it). In 2001, Jacobs unveiled a collaboration with eighties pop designer Stephen Sprouse, who irreverently tagged the canvases with silver scrawls. Two years later, Takashi Murakami's cheerful cherry print and multicolored monograms debuted on the runways, causing near hysteria in the stores; there were wait lists and bidding wars, and the Murakami became an instant collector's item.
The latest hand to modernize the monogram belongs to the controversial artist Richard Prince, who customized the Vuitton canvas for Spring 2008. Prince is known for borrowing images and texts directly from pop culture sourcesmagazine ads from the 1950's, for examplea practice that's akin, as Jacobs has pointed out, to the way a designer today appropriates and rethinks ideas from fashion's attic. Jacobs has proved himself to be the industry's most adept mix master of these recycled and up-cycled design mash-ups, referencing everything from Mickey Mouse to SpongeBob SquarePants to Sonic Youth to the Wiener Werkstätte.
After more than a decade near or at the top of the game, Jacobs is no longer the angst-ridden outsider. He's on the road to becoming one of fashion's legends, and retailers and style watchers from Des Moines to Kyoto wait to see what surprise he'll pull next from the sleeve of his dapper new suit.