No matter where you travel about Bangkok, and most big cities in Asia, you will see the sign VUITTON. Known for it fine luggage, it al also an institution a tradition.

   Until the middle of the l9th century, few people traveled for pleasure. Then horsepower was replaced by steam engines, which could drive trains and ocean liners around the world, and the travel industry was born.
   In 1838, the year the first steamer crossed the Atlantic and Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, 15-year-old Louis Vuitton apprenticed himself to a Parisian trunk maker whose specialty was dress-packing. Vuitton's skill at arranging bustles, crinolines and hoop skirts to survive ocean crossings without a wrinkle led him to be appointed the exclusive dress packer for Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III.
   Vuitton opened his own shop in 1854 and immediately persuaded the Transatlantic Company's founder to show him plans for his new ships and explain how the holds would be loaded. Vuitton then designed the first flat-topped trunks. Traditionally the shape had been domed, the better to shed rain when lashed on top of a stagecoach. Vuitton's new trunks were designed for stacking in the baggage compartments of ships and trains, and were covered with varnished canvas, lighter and more waterproof than leather. He was immediately successful —and widely imitated.
   The innovations of Vuitton and his son, Georges, who joined the firm in 1872, and Georges's son, Gaston, who became a partner in 1907, continued unabated clever systems of compartments, straps and drawers for packing everything from top hats to toiletries, and an unpick able five-tumbler lock invented by Georges in 1890.  Since that time, every owner of a Vuitton trunk or hard-sided suitcase has been given a personal combination that is logged in the company's confidential archives.  One’s entire luggage can be opened with one key, copies of which are issued only to original owners, although subsequent buyers or inheritors can obtain new locks of their own.
   Along with an evolving line of trunks, cases and bags for every eventuality, the firm's joy was—and is—the creation of custom orders.
   Champagne-drinking Ms. X is but the latest in a long line of discriminating travellers who have ordered special cases for their jewels, wine, wireless sets, fishing tackle, encyclopedias, photographic equipment and grand pianos.  In the golden age of travel in the 1920s and '30s, the rich boarded luxury liners and railroad cars with 30 to 50 pieces of luggage, and Vuitton wares were so ubiquitous that owners began painting personalized coloured stripes on their luggage so it could be quickly identified on the dock.
   The legendary soprano Lily Pons travelled between opera houses with a set of custom-made Vuitton steamer trunks, including one that had not the usual 30 pairs of shoes but, as her feet were so tiny, 36 pairs. In 1936, conductor Leopold Stokowski ordered a trunk that opened out into a desk, three drawers for musical scores, two bookshelves and a compartment for a typewriter.
   The maharajah of Baroda became known for taking a Vuitton case fitted with equipment for afternoon tea on tiger hunts in the '20s. But Vuitton had been supplying adventurers since 1879, when Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza set off to explore the Congo with a Vuitton trunk from which unfolded a bed with a hair mattress, two blankets and four sheets.
   A French woman travelling to Persia in 1910 feared the vehicles might be primitive, so she ordered a collapsible tilbury (a light, two wheeled carriage) that could be packed into three trunks, plus canvas dust covers for the wheels, an item that is preserved to this day in a private collection in Paris.
   Vuitton made a line of water tight, camphor wood-lined zinc trunks "for India or the colonies," and, for long treks through the bush, replaced handles with rope so that trunks could be carried suspended from bamboo poles.
   The company also outfitted two great expeditions undertaken between the world wars, the first trans-African car expedition in1924 and the first crossing of central Asia by car in 1931.
Georges Vuitton was sure as early as 1897 that the automobile was the wave of the future, and the firm began making waterproof and dustproof trunks to fit on the backs of cars. This escalated into complete designs for car interiors, including the first foldaway seats and backseat bars.  Along with a series of car trunks to stow clothes, mechanic's gear, medicines, and men's and women's hats, Vuitton created a wash basin with a three-sided mirror that popped out of an auto's rear door, and even a large tent that attached to a car to provide Living room, bedroom and a guest loft on top.
   The Vuitton family was fascinated by the new technology of travel — and by speed. While Georges and Gaston crafted special suitcases for hot air balloons and a floating trunk for flying machines in case of emergency landings on water, Gaston's 18-year-old twin sons closeed themselves in a factory warehouse and built a car and a helicopter. In a similar spirit, Vuitton today sponsors three antique auto shows a year and the challengers' trials for the America's Cup yacht race.

The increasing accessibility of world travel for pleasure whetted a public taste for the exotic. In 1931, the year of the Colonial Exhibition in Paris, which included a full-scale reproduction of the Cambodian Buddhist temples at Angkor Wat, Vuitton was commissioned to deign two trunks in elephant hide (one lined in red and one in green), and a toilet case with the skin of a dant African toad set into its lid.
The standard of elegance, however, was a crocodile toilet case lined in blue Morocco leather with tortoise accessories. Since tortoise was one of the company's most sought-after materials, in a moment of publicity-minded madness Vuitton installed an enormous vivarium in the window of the Champs-Elysees store, and large crowds gathered at feeding time for the two giant tortoises on view. Unfortunately, the tank sprang a leak, the store's carpeting was reduced to sponge and the window displays were never again quite so dramatic.
_ In the first of many attempts to foil imitators, Vuitton switched from the gray canvas with which Louis had originally covered his trunks to red-on-beige stripes in 1873. That was followed by beige-on-tan stripes in 1876, brown j checks on beige in 1888 and finally, in 1896, the famous monogram pattern that is still used and was the first to be properly copyrighted —a fact that is no shield against the $70 billion a year counterfeiting business that dogs famous names such as Vuitton, Cartier and Rolex. Vuitton today devotes about two percent of its $4.5 billion annual turnover to the fight against fakes.
Although changing canvas patterns has never done much to discourage imitators, it helps modern collectors of vintage Vuitton to date their finds. For example, the "Orange Vuittonite" canvas seen on some pieces was created in 1900 for Vuitton's aristocratic Russian customers.

In these days of quick hops and carry-on bags, the old trunks are bought to use as furniture. Annette Agace Leite de Castro, perhaps the premier dealer in old Vuitton trunks and hard-sided suitcases (best suited these days to private jets), sells to the trade and the public from her shop in the Paris flea market.   
   Over 24 years in business she has seen trunks belonging to Gypsy Rose Lee, Mary Pickford and Irving Berlin, and unusual pieces whose uses even her experienced eye cannot fathom, such as a trunk within a trunk.
    Prices are high and competition is fierce. What's the appeal?
"It's the schoolboy dream of many a man to sail on an ocean liner," says Agace. "They're buying that dream." She has furnished an Austrian baron's entire house with vintage Vuitton, and she recently sold an unusual piece with secret drawers to the biggest collector of all: the Vuitton company itself

The Company collection began about 1910, fueled by Gaston Vuitton's passion for trunks. He gathered historic examples—a 15th-century black leather box with elaborately inlaid wooden drawers, 17th-century French trunks covered in studded patterns, an 18th-century lacquered Japanese case—and the best of his own art, even buying back trunks from his own customers on occasion.

Gaston organized the first traveling exhibit in 1926, which included a chest belonging to Marie de Medici, a sharkskin-covered Japanese trunk, and some of the company's own clever designs. The exhibit at the Fall Antique Show is, in fact, the latest of these peripatetic travel exhibitions.

Another segment of the Vuitton collection is on permanent display at their own small Musee du Voyage, a set of upstairs rooms in the family's former residence at Asnieres, about 30 minutes from the center of Paris. There one can see, among many traveler's treasures, Lily Pons' shoe trunk with drawer labels such as "blue kid with silver and enamel buttons"; an exquisitely fitted dressing case from the 208 with crystal-and-silver bottles and Art Deco ivory handled brushes meticulously slotted into place so that their bristles don't touch the red watered silk lining; Stokowski's folding desk; Pierre Boulez's crocodile music case with a compartment for his Walkman; and a custom-made vodka and caviar carrying case.

Next to the house is a factory that until 10 years ago produced all of Vuitton's goods. Rapid expansion of their business in soft luggage and handbags (Vuitton had two shops in 1977 and has 160 today) led to the opening of nine other plants. The Asnieres factory now turns out only the signed and numbered hard-sided luggage and approximately 600 custom orders a year, some in the monogram canvas (since 1959 a tough but flexible PVC-impregnated material) and some in various leathers.
   When I visited the factory recently, craftspeople were working on a difficult-to-shape oval tea caddy in grained blue leather for a Japanese master of the tea ceremony; a picnic case fitted to hold china, crystal and silver for the most elegant of outdoor repasts; and a computer case of plain but perfect undyed cowhide that will age like a fine wine (barring spills of same).
One hide in one thousand i8 chosen for the natural cowhide pieces, which connoisseurs—including Patrick Vuitton, the last remaining family member with the company—consider the most elegant.
The factory is a light and airy space where the products are hand crafted following the traditional trunk-maker's art. Linings and outer layers (the LVs always centered and never sliced apart) are cut, glued and smoothed with bone spatulas onto hand-nailed poplal wood frames that have been allowed to dry for seven years. Tops and bottoms are joined with continuous cloth hinges (metal hinges can pinch clothes and twist out of alignment).
Two men assemble the famous personalized burglar-proof locks; three women do nothing but polish the solid brass nails, corners and latches on each finished case. Finally, the handsewn natural cowhide handles of each suitcase are encased in little curved, zippered covers to keep them spotless until they reach the customer, who never sees these perfectly fitted—and disposable—protectors, the sort of touch that marks the master of the art of travel equipage.
The Vuitton museum and factory portray in miniature the enterprising development of the trunkmaker's craft—and the elegant evolution of the art of travel.

Harold Stephens
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (

Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.