WSJ Magazine: Trunk Life

IN THE HISTORIC Louis Vuitton atelier in the commune of Asnières-sur-Seine, next to an elegant 19th-century villa filled with Art Nouveau antiques, a longhaired man with a skull ring and a scorpion tattoo is hard at work. Éric Leroux, 54, was named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 2013 for his role in mastering and preserving the art of trunk making. At the moment, he’s focused on a custom-made box destined to encase a client’s prized tourbillion watch. “You can make 10 of these, but you’ll never be able to make the same one,” he marvels of the intricately crafted case, which will cost upward of $5,400.

This is a time-consuming yet relatively simple commission for Leroux, whose repertoire is eclectic and varied: everything from a Chinese checkers case to a snowboard travel case (with room for boots). His most memorable commission? Keith Richards’s guitar case. “I was over the moon,” he says of the 2008 piece; the case was made to measure for the rocker’s instrument and took six months to complete. “It’s just a guitar case—we know how to do it, and we don’t get worked up about it—but what we liked was that it was for the guitarist for the Rolling Stones.” (A custom job like this operates on a price-upon-request basis, but an “off-the-rack” guitar-size case from the men’s spring/summer 2015 collection retailed for around $61,500.)

The founder and namesake of the label, Louis Vuitton, built the workshop in Asnières in 1859, adding on the three-story home—a wedding present for his only son, Georges—20 years later. In the century that followed, his descendants lived and worked on this site. Today, Georges’s fanciful living rooms, which he furnished in daring fashion with floral motifs climbing the walls and stained-glass windows blooming with irises and ranunculuses painted by Paul-Louis Janin, are preserved in time. The last full-time occupant moved out in 1964, but the former home is still filled with fresh-cut flowers every Monday.

Reflecting on the brand’s evolution in the 21st century, Burke notes that the main variable has been size, not craft. “What is especially noticeable is that trunks keep getting smaller,” he says. “Last year’s bestseller was the Petite Malle [handbag] that [artistic director] Nicolas Ghesquière invented. It’s very small, but it has all the attributes of the old trunk. The idea is still: ‘I keep my most precious possession in the container that Louis Vuitton sold me.’ It’s still the same story—nothing has changed in 160 years, except that today the most precious possession is often a person’s phone. So now we only need to carry and protect a phone, which is what we do.”

LEATHER CRAFTSMAN Christine Chartier, 51, started working here in her late teens. She began with the rudimentary stages of leather preparation (flattening the leather by machine, hand-painting the edges) before being trained in quality control and then finally graduating to cutting. Learning to cut with precision took her seven years of training, because with precious leathers like python, lizard, ostrich, alligator and even stingray, there are no second chances. “In total it will be 34 years this fall, but there are others who have worked here longer than me—I am young,” she says with a laugh, examining an enormous stretch of white cowhide destined to become a Milaris, a square and roomy handbag, retailing for over $10,000, from the maison’s Haute Maroquinerie line, which allows clients to customize pieces.

Each day, Chartier operates an enormous cutting machine, which maps out the separate pieces digitally and then faultlessly cuts through everything from cowhide to precious alligator leather with mechanical blades. She points out a few imperfections on the skin—a few creases and one or two dark marks—but she’ll cut around those. “The most difficult is the crocodile,” she says, because of the skin’s diminutive size. “You also have to use several different leathers and piece it all together like a puzzle.”

While Chartier and many of the leather craftsmen began their careers here, the atelier often recruits and retrains people from other professions. Chilean carpenter and leather craftsman Darwin Quezada Escobar, 34, had worked as an engineer before he started here in 2015. As a result, he brings great precision to his task, in which measurements are painstakingly minute. Today he’s working on the frame of a trunk, for which he first cuts and sands down the planks of wood (a mix of okoumé, poplar and beech) and then assembles the form. This trunk will have enough compartments, some of them secret, to accommodate 30 watches. On his workbench lies a color sketch of how the finished product will look: masculine, with royal-blue microfiber lining and the LV monogram on the outside. Next to the sketch sits a 3-D vector illustration of a portable DJ booth he’ll start working on next. “Before starting a carpentry project, we study each piece,” he says.

Escobar’s role, and that of the other carpenters in the ground-floor wood workshop, is just the first step in the assembly line. Next, the trunk will travel upstairs to be upholstered by artisans like Éric Ruez, who carefully lines each trunk in velvet, microfiber or other materials. Ruez, who was an architect for 15 years before he joined the workshop, has just started on the interior frame, or carcasse, of a new wardrobe from the permanent collection. “There was the need to make something with my hands, and I love the finality of projects here,” he says of his career change. “It’s very close to architecture but smaller—very Parisian.” He estimates that a large trunk like the one he is working on will take the atelier about 150 hours to complete. Some smaller styles that he has worked on, such as the Supple Rigid case designed by Ghesquière for the fall/winter 2016–2017 runway collection, take about 10 hours. 

It is here, on the top floor of the atelier under a glass roof, that the final hard-sided products (including Ghesquière’s Petite Malle) are furnished and brought to life. This is Leroux’s domain, as well as that of another of the atelier’s most esteemed team members, Michel Dufrenoy. An earnest man of 57 who has also been named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Dufrenoy has worked here for nearly 30 years and oversees the training of many of the new craftsmen. He’s currently assisting a younger colleague who’s having trouble with a small box designed to hold an 18-ounce dish of caviar and four spoons. He maintains that the team could produce just about anything, although it has had to draw the line on one occasion: “There was a man who asked us to do a coffin, but we said no, because all the items we make here are for travel,” Dufrenoy says, chuckling. “The client explained that it would be for his final journey, but we told him that you should carry the luggage, not be in the luggage.”

Vogue: The Changing Couture Calendar

WSJ Magazine: A Tuscan Marble Studio