Call it the ultimate trunk show.
Stroll quickly through the lobby of the Sofitel New York, and you may think you’ve wandered into a Louis Vuitton showroom. But look closely at the array of travel trunks artfully parked atop side tables, tucked below the flower-filled console and stacked under a winding staircase, and it’s clear you won’t see these items circling on a baggage carousel.
The trunks are vintage Vuitton, the kind that sell for multiple thousands of dollars. A relatively common sight if you traveled First Class in the luxury liner/grand hotel days, they now show up mainly in stylish houses as eye-catching coffee tables, foyer consoles and foot-of-the-bed storage. And while these durable hard cases still look at home in a hotel, especially one that sports marble floors, wood paneling and French management, they’re a pop-up exhibition saluting “The Golden Age of Travel.”
Organized by the Well Traveled Trunk, a New York company that specializes in antique French trunks, the exhibit is a testament to the beauty of well designed functionality. The antique French steamer hails from a pre-wheelie time when ships, trains and horse-drawn carriages were the main modes of travel and luggage was built to withstand rough handling. Enter 16-year-old Louis Vuitton. Fresh from the provinces, he arrived in Paris in 1837, landed an apprenticeship with a master luggage maker, paid attention and in 1859 opened his own shop north of Paris in Asnières. He started with 20 employees, a number that rose to 225 by 1914.
And small wonder. Business was booming, fueled by a winning combination of good looks (the earliest bags were an elegant Trianon gray) and game-changing inventions like an unpickable lock and the stackable flat-topped trunk (previous trunks had rounded tops to promote water run-off). Competitors took note. LV knockoffs, it turns out, date from the company’s earliest days. In 1876, the company fought back, changing its canvas to beige and brown stripes, followed by a patterned case emblazoned with the logo “marque L. Vuitton déposée” (“L. Vuitton registered trademark”) and voila, the signature LV monogram interspersed with Japanese-inspired Victorian flowers in 1893.
The Sofitel exhibition includes a striped beauty as well as numerous LV monogramed examples. What’s missing are contextual notes explaining their unique place in travel history, not to mention as a hot collectible. But no matter. You can see them and imagine yourself as Isabelle Archer, the Duke or Duchess of Guermantes or Regina Lampert (aka Audrey Hepburn in “Charade”) getting ready for a trip. Time travel can be a welcome addition to real travel, as this show reminds us.