"It's the one shocking outrageous luxury I allow myself," confessed Laura Hahn, a secretary from the State College, Pa., as she added a $55-Louis Vuitton memo paper box to her pile of Louis Vuitton purchases. "Look at me, I've come here wearing a 10-year-old Robert Hall Miniskirt but I feel great because I've go my Louis Vuitton scarf and handbag full of accessories."
Nearby, Claude Vuitton, great-great-grandson of Louis Vuitton and heir to the multi-million-dollar French status luggage and accessories business, was quietly delighted. "See," he whispered to a bystander, "my customers tell the whole story for me."
Vuitton has his reason for being pleased. On a tour across the United States, he had stopped at Saks Fifth Aveune's Chevy Chase store to check out business and perhaps spur a few customers on to ever greater splurges. As if any prodding were needed.
For despite uncomproising prices, mystique to his vinly-sprayed canvas embellished with fleurons and great-great-grandfather Louis' initials. It has been carried by kings and queens, the Duke of Windsor, New YOrk models, housewives at supermarkets in Bethesda, the nouveau riche and the old-money crowd.
It's the quality, the hand workmanship, the durability and the flexibility. But most of all, at prices of $315 for a suitcase, $180 for a shoulder bag and $3,000 for a trunk, it's the snob appeal. It's the feeling that "I paid an outrageous amount of money for this and I want the world to know it."
And it's the assurance that Louis Vuitton never goes on sale.
"I have to be honest," admits Louise Oberle of Annandale, "I like it because it's Louis Vuitton. It says 'status.' When you see somebody carrying it, you look twice. It feels good. Plus, cats can claw on it and chewing gum comes off it easily."
"It's the French name," adds Claude Vuitton. "It is snobbish to buy a French bag. Your friends will think you've been to Europe." (Ironically, a good number of the Vuitton bags sold here are made in California.)
"It's an idea whose time has come," says Roger Goring, vice-president of women's accessories at Saks Fifth Avenue. "All signature designer goods are hot now, but Vuitton was first with the signature. It's our biggest-selling designer name."
At Saks' Chevy Chase branch alone, the handbag department stocks 60 styles of Louis Vuitton bags from $105 to $750. The best-seller in the small-leather-goods department isn't even made of leather; it's the $68-vuitton canvas wallet. And in the luggage department, where Louis Vuitton originally made his name, it's 50 per cent of the department's business. Goring says that at Saks Fifth Avenue nationwide, Louis Vuitton products have risen from a quarter of a million dollar business 10 years ago to a multimillion-dollar mainstay.
The Vuitton story begins in the 19th century when Louis Vuitton was dress packer to Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III. He created the vinylcovered canvas and made it into luggage for the empress and her friends. With the built-in status of having the same bags as royalty, the demand for the luggage grew, until in 1898, Vuitton was forced to brand his initials on the canvas to discourage the knock-off copies which were plaguing him.
Vuitton started selling in the United States in 1902, and his son, his grandson and now his great-great-grandson have expanded the business to include hundreds of different Vuitton-emblazoned items.
"However," Claude Vuitton states emphatically, "we have no plans to expand into any other areas. We are strictly only a luggage and travelling products company."
He admits to problems with knockoff products. "People buy the $35-tennis-racket cover and use the canvas to make shoes. The canvas is not strong enough for the shoes and it's not good publicity for us." There have been stories of toilet seats lined in Vuitton canvas. Saks is so careful about having the fabric fall into "the wrong hands" that any bag that is returned to them with a defect is shredded immediately.
Women are anxious to have Claude Vuitton hear the stories of their love for their "Louis," as they affectionately refer to their Vuittons. He listens patiently and willingly autographs a handbag, instantly catapulting it into the woman's private Fashion Hall of Fame.
Vuitton tells stories of women with 108 pieces of Vuitton luggage who rent hotel rooms just to store all of them, of an Egyptian king who had 18 Vuitton trunks made specially with red and green Egyptian colors, of his shock at a photo in France's "Lui" magazine showing a model with only a Vuitton alleviating her nakedness. He says he and his wife have less than a dozen pieces of Vuitton luggage themseleves, while ladies file through the store, unzipping their $350-purses stuffed with Vuitton wallets, card cases, keyrings and checkbook covers.
Many of the women at Saks are not at the Vuitton counter for the first time. Most have come to see with their own eye this "LV" whose initials they tote day in and day out. (Claude's middle name, as well as that of his father and grandfather is Louis, to keep the tradition going.) Some also pick up a few essentials from the Vuitton line such as the playing cards, jewelry boxes, scissors or another handbag, "maybe one for the beach," as one shopper put it. Seeing a Vuitton in the flesh seems to whet their appetite for more vinyl.
Admits Laura Hahn: "In a way it's ugly, but that's what makes it beautiful. And it makes me feel beautiful, too."