Photographer: Patrick Gries, © Louis Vuitton Malletier


The Bizarre, Secret Obsessions of a Luxury Fashion Icon

The collection of Gaston-Louis Vuitton has just been unearthed.

When Gaston-Louis Vuitton died, the contents of his office were packed up, stored away, and eventually forgotten.

Vuitton (1883- 1970), the grandchild of the luxury trunk maker Louis Vuitton, ran the eponymous company for more than 50 years and was “the aesthete of the family,” said Patrick Mauriès, a French writer and historian. Over time, as the head of a company that made suitcases, he amassed “a bizarre assemblage of objects related to travel, which he kept in his home and his office,” Mauriès, said. “It was sort of a mess—it was stacked by the door, around his desk, and so on.”

The collection included board games (Jeu de Paris, a French version of Snakes and Ladders), 19th century carpet bags, and more than 800 tsubas, a Japanese sword guard that is often composed of an ornate piece of metal that delineates the sword’s edge and its handle.

Courtesy Thames & Hudson

Because his heirs chose to store it away rather than sift through it, the collection—left untouched for decades—became a sort of time capsule from one of the company’s most vital, creative periods. Now, the company, which at this point is owned by a luxury goods conglomerate controlled by Bernard Arnault, has “rediscovered” Gaston Vuitton’s collection and catalogued all in a new book, Cabinet of Wonders: The Gaston-Louis Vuitton Collection, edited by Mauriès. (The book will be available for purchase on Sept. 17.)

A 17th century tortoise shell box from Vuitton's collection.
Photographer: Patrick Gries, © Louis Vuitton Malletier

The reasons, at least from the company’s perspective, for publishing it are straightforward: The collection harkens back to the days when Louis Vuitton connoted creativity, not airport kiosks. “I think they’re trying to show every aspect of the Louis Vuitton history,” Mauriès said. “So with this, they’re now trying to show something that’s less well known, let’s call it the company’s aesthetic aspect.”

Vuitton's membership cards, 1913-1970.
Photographer: Patrick Gries, © Louis Vuitton Malletier

For those less interested in a luxury chain’s brand identity, the book still has value. Page after page of Gaston’s collection—much of which is of negligible monetary value—reveals a cross-section of the aesthetic and material concerns of a highly cultured European, the likes of which are rarely seen in such comprehensive, unsparing detail.

“Gaston’s taste was bound to a certain period,” Mauriès said. “For the first half of the 20th century, you have these collectors who were interested in the artisanal component of creation.” At the time, he said, “the collection didn’t seem that remarkable, but now people are beginning to see that even if the objects seem a little dated, they have a coherence, and they’re worth showing as a whole.”

Vuitton's own sketches for a shop window design.
Photographer: Patrick Gries, © Louis Vuitton Malletier

As the first male heir of the third generation of the family, Vuitton was destined to work at the company, but he developed a broad range of hobbies: designing furniture, sketching landscapes, and taking photographs. He also began to collect art, ranging from African masks to Art Deco crystal, and he was a prolific reader, dazzled by the fiction of writers such as J.K. Huysmans.

Despite the fact that two world wars, the Russian Revolution, and a devastating recession kept his company in a near-constant state of flux, Vuitton found time to exhibit his paintings and to design perfume bottles. The book includes several of his sketchbooks, many of which were colored in on graph paper.

“L'Arbre pleureur” an enameled crystal perfume bottle with a design by the artist Camille Cless-Brothier, commissioned by Vuitton in 1922.
Photographer: DROITS RESTREINTS/Phototheque Louis Vuitton

He was, though, first and foremost a prosperous merchant, and his extracurricular passions invariably found their way into day-to-day-commerce. His membership in the Société des Artistes Indépendantes lead to collaborations with lesser-known artists. André Ballet, best known for his book plates, designed crystal bottles for Vuitton; Roger Foy, brother of the illustrator André Foy, carved African-inspired ivory knobs for Vuitton walking sticks; and Gaston Le Bourgeois, best known as an Art Deco sculptor, painted panels for Vuitton’s London store.

An iron-bound, studded strongbox, with an elaborate system of bolts on its lid.
Photographer: Patrick Gries, © Louis Vuitton Malletier

It was in his store’s window displays that Vuitton’s collection really came in handy. Over the decades, he collected hundreds of trunks—everything from massive steel cases to tiny, 16th century embossed metal and red silk boxes from Switzerland. A lovely, early 17th century leather trunk Vuitton bought in 1922, for instance, was “one of the most exhibited items in the collection,” appearing multiple times in the windows of the Vuitton store on Paris's Champs-Élysées and in the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.

While other objects displayed in the book, such as wooden figurines, dolls, and model cars, served a similar purpose, much of the book comprises ephemera that, until recently, was probably considered solely of interest to Vuitton alone. A few pages are devoted to vintage handsaws, and more than a few are dedicated to monograms of clients that Vuitton kept in his archives. It’s a far cry from Louis Vuitton’s current iteration as a fashion behemoth with from $8 billion to $9 billion in annual sales.

A “railway” carpet bag from the 1840s.
Photographer: Patrick Gries, © Louis Vuitton Malletier

There are also delights: A spread in the book highlights some of the magnificent covers of L’Oeil, the influential art magazine run by Georges and Rosamond Bernier. Elsewhere are fabulous nécessaires, or toiletry boxes, including a stunning 60-piece set from around 1815, which contains silver, crystal, and mother-of-pearl accessories.

It’s an esoteric, oddly personal collection of objects, one that evinces the hobbies and preferences of Vuitton better than any hagiography ever could. “You can’t see this collection in person, just in the book,” Mauriès said. “It’s about a very specific kind of taste.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.