The name Louis Vuitton is synonymous with luxury. For more than a century, the French fashion house has sold extremely expensive luggage emblazoned with its iconic interlocking LV logo. Louis Vuitton products, which have always fallen under the “if you have to ask the price, you probably can’t afford it” umbrella, have been extensively counterfeited and presented as symbols of wealthy snobbery.
Louis Vuitton has been such a big part of the high-fashion world for so long that it’s easy to forget Vuitton—who was born in 1821, founded the company in 1854, and died in 1892—was an actual person. In honor of what would have been Vuitton’s 200th birthday, here are some facts about the man behind the logo.
Louis Vuitton was born in Anchay, France on August 4, 1821—but he wasn’t born into luxury. In fact, his family had working-class origins. Vuitton’s father was a farmer and his mother was a milliner. After his mother’s death and his father’s subsequent remarriage to a woman he didn’t get along with, Vuitton left home in 1835, when he was still just a teenager. He spent two years walking from his small hometown to Paris, picking up odd jobs and finding temporary shelter along the way.
When Vuitton finally arrived in Paris as a 16-year-old in 1837, he became an apprentice to Monsieur Maréchal, a craftsman who specialized in luggage boxes made to be carried on horse-drawn carriages, boats, and trains. Vuitton gained a great education and reputation for craftsmanship through this early job, working with Maréchal for 17 years before leaving to start his own workshop for his luggage creations.
In the 19th century, having a personal box-maker and packer was the height of luxury, and Vuitton took on that enviable—and highly specialized—role for none other than Napoleon III’s wife, Eugénie de Montijo, the Empress of France. Vuitton was responsible for elegantly packing the Empress’s clothes for travel. With this impressive job, Vuitton and his products officially became a part of the era’s elite class.
In 1858, Vuitton designed his first branded steamer trunk. The design—waterproof, flat, and easy to stack—was far more practical than the rounded trunks that were popular at the time. Surprisingly, Vuitton’s original designs didn’t sport the famous LV monogram but were covered in a durable gray canvas known as Trianon.
Vuitton introduced a striped canvas pattern for his luggage in 1876. Twelve years later, he came out with the Damier print, a classic checkerboard pattern that the fashion house still uses today. Vuitton designed these patterns in part to prevent counterfeiting, which was already a thing before the LV monogram was even created.
During the violent political upheaval of the Franco-Prussian War, demand for Vuitton’s goods slowed and his atelier was looted and destroyed. Within months of his shop’s destruction, Vuitton devoted himself to rebuilding his business, setting up camp in a new, more luxurious location in the heart of Paris in 1871.
Louis Vuitton has always been a family business. Vuitton’s son, Georges, patented an innovative lock system for his father’s trunks in 1886. The locks were so effective that Georges challenged none other than Harry Houdini to escape from a locked Vuitton trunk (the great magician and escape artist declined to respond). The junior Vuitton’s lock design is still in use today. That isn’t all he contributed to the brand: In 1896, a few years after Louis’s death, Georges created the famous LV monogram as a tribute to his father.
Vuitton’s work was truly an integral part of his life. In 1878, he and his wife had two houses built in the garden surrounding his workshop, so that he could be as close to his craft as possible. The family home still stands today and even retains its original decor; it’s now part of a private museum, which would be a fun place to visit provided you can afford one of those trunks.
Vuitton advertised his wares with the phrase, “Securely packs the most fragile objects. Specializing in packing fashions,” but he didn’t actually design any of those fashions, just the elegant cases that were meant to hold and protect them. Handbags didn’t become part of the Louis Vuitton brand until the decades after the designer’s death, and clothing came much later. In 1997, designer Marc Jacobs became creative director and came up with Louis Vuitton’s first ready-to-wear clothing line.
Vuitton won a bronze medal for his innovative trunk designs at the 1867 Exposition Universelle, a famed world’s fair in Paris. Vuitton went on to win a gold medal two decades later, at the 1889 Exposition—the event for which none other than the Eiffel Tower was created. It’s hard to believe that Vuitton’s designs are even older than the ultimate piece of French iconography.