An immaculately be-suited, bespectacled and discreetly fragrant Patrick-Louis Vuitton sits at a leather-topped table in the reception area of London's newly opened Louis Vuitton store – or "maison", as the powers-that-be would have it be known.
This, double the size that it was before any refurbishment started, is, according to architect Peter Marino, the most luxurious example of its kind in the world. Certainly, it's a far cry from the original and rather more low-key London outlet that first welcomed discerning travellers in this city 125 years ago.
"Fantastique!" says M Vuitton, when asked, in one word, to sum up the Louis Vuitton heritage. And indeed it is.
Today, a Michael Landy kinetic sculpture that the artist himself has merrily described as made out of "junk" rubs shoulders with a honey-coloured leather briefcase lined in palest rose silk that once belonged to Princess Margaret – it still bears her handwritten name tag. In a similar vein, a suitably iconoclastic display of women's ready-to-wear – mannequins with bags on their heads wear "traveller"- inspired denim hotpants stamped with the famous LV logo, or even a Louis Vuitton nurse's uniform – is only a floor away from a wall of antique Louis Vuitton trunks dating back a century and more. As for the stairway, it's glass, embedded with an ever-changing, movement-sensitive LED display that flickers into rainbow-coloured life at the merest hint of a footfall.
Further testimony to the Louis Vuitton spirit of effortlessly combining innovation and a history steeped in fine craftsmanship is a "bag bar" where shoppers sit on stools and watch the latest LV 'it' accessories go by, as if on the world's most glamorous conveyor belt, and a polished marble floor is inlaid with hand-carved flowers. A caviar case – complete with gleaming stamped glass saucers and mother-of-pearl spoons – is laid out on one table; a Louis Vuitton poker case on another. There's costume jewellery – bling! Fine jewellery – bling! bling! High jewellery – mega-bling, and much of it costing over the £2m mark. And all on one floor.
Even at its most reasonable price point, this may not be the most accessible range of product the world has ever known. There is, however, a peculiarly contemporary democracy to the fact that it is under a single roof. That'll be a circular, mirrored, "breathing" roof if madam – or indeed sir – happens to visit the corner reserved for eyewear.
Not everything in this best of all possible (consumer) worlds is open to all, however. A status name is a status name, however upbeat and full of the joys it may be – and this is quite as upbeat and full of the joys as it is possible to imagine. There's a book store where limited-edition art publications are on offer, watches, men's wear, women's wear and, of course, more luggage than anyone might ever dream of for public consumption and even just prying eyes. It's not unlike the world's most upscale playground. VIP customers, though, will be whisked quietly up to the more sedate top floor, where a private apartment of interconnecting sitting rooms has walls lined with fine art, courtesy of superstar names including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons.
And in the midst of it all sits M Vuitton, the great-great-grandson of Louis, arguably the most industrious boy in French fashion history. Folklore has it that the man who founded this world-famous empire left the family home in the Jura region of France aged not quite 14, in 1835. Clad, in true fairy- tale style, in hobnail boots and a craftsman's tunic, he travelled on foot for no fewer than two years before arriving in Paris and undergoing an apprenticeship with one Monsieur Marechal, wooden-box maker par excellence. The Vuitton family hails from a long line of millers, carpenters and joiners which, even now, underpins the spectacularly successful business.
For his part, Patrick-Louis entered the company in 1973 at the behest of his grandmother. "She was the wife of Gaston-Louis Vuitton, the third generation, who wrote a letter to my father asking me to come to the Asnières workshop," he says. And so, for more than 20 years, Patrick-Louis Vuitton climbed up through the ranks crafting hand-finished luggage, much of which went on to be sold on the shop floor, before managing its manufacture and finally being given the title of head of special orders that he retains to this day. Great-great-grand-father Louis Vuitton's own big break came in 1853, when he was awarded the task of transporting Empress Eugenie's wardrobe.
The Spanish-born wife of Emperor Napoleon III was no wallflower, dressed in silks, satins and cumbersome horsehair petticoats crinolines of the day– all of which accompanied her on her travels. In 1854, her case maker set up in his own name, by that point also catering to her coterie of friends. Louis Vuitton gave the world first the revolutionary flat-top trunk – until then lids were dome shaped – that enabled the privileged classes to neatly stack their baggage for ease of transportation. Then came a waterproof, varnished-canvas exterior that was both lighter and less pungent than leather, ensuring no unseemly odour permeated any belongings. Later, Louis Vuitton introduced the tall trunk, an upright affair not unlike a travelling wardrobe. It is available to this day, to those prepared to spend upwards of £10,000 for the privilege. Inside any baggage were bespoke wooden compartments separating gloves, say, from shoes, gowns and the aforementioned underpinnings, all of which varied to suit each individual client's needs.
Of course, much has changed since that time. First and foremost, in 1990, Louis Vuitton was acquired by LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton), the world's largest luxury goods conglomerate. It has gone on to become the most profitable brand in the business by far, reporting double-digit growth in the first quarter of this year – and this despite an unstable economic climate.
Equally, it is today the famous LV monogram that attracts the most attention, found finishing everything from totes and purses to (a sign of modern times if ever there was one) cases on wheels. In 1997, Marc Jacobs was employed to introduce women's and men's clothing to the brand, which he has done to suitably high-profile effect. In his hands, these collections may, at first sight, seem irreverent. But they are inevitably connected to the Louis Vuitton heritage, however oblique his references may seem.
The designer, not at all backwards in coming forward, has also duly customised the famous logo with glossy cherries, neon graffiti and even magic mushrooms – all of which have sold like the proverbial hot cakes, introducing a younger and more fashion-conscious customer to the fold. Then there are the Louis Vuitton ad campaigns. A flexing of fashionable muscle that is second to none, these have by now featured everyone from Kate Moss to Mikhail Gorbachev, and Madonna to Maradona. Such marketing has reaped rewards. If the figures at Louis Vuitton didn't speak for themselves, the fact that shoppers regularly queue outside stores the world over is surely proof that this is a winning formula.
Still, Patrick-Louis, who as well as ensuring that a less ephemeral customer remains part of the story also acts as ambassador for the brand, insists that the core values of Louis Vuitton are intact.
"We have a wider range of product – ready-to-wear, watches, jewellery – than we did 30 or 40 years ago," he says, "but the spirit is the same. In each product we have an extraordinary mix of tradition and innovation. You can see yourself in this store. We have heritage trunks that are shown alongside the new products and you don't feel like there's any delineation between them. They are perfect together."
He himself spends his time between the Louis Vuitton workshop and in consultation with private clients. Among these is a woman who would rather drink from her own crystal champagne flutes than airplane glasses when she travels, for whom he has made one special case, and "a very nice English man" who insists on drawers in his baggage conceived to hold a perfectly matching shirt, tie and cuff links for ease of daily dress.
Such customers are never named – that would be nothing short of uncouth. It's perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the rather more banal issue of distinguishing counterfeit product from the real thing is easily dealt with by M Vuitton.
"For me, it's obvious," he says. "The Louis Vuitton product speaks for itself, for its quality. Through the elegance of the product and the elegance of the person who carries one can easily identify whether it is real." More specifically: "It's in all the details. Where we do hand-stitching, the counterfeiters never do, for example. Really, one can easily see the difference between a bag that was made in one hour and a bag that was made in 10.
"I represent 155 years of know-how," says Patrick-Louis Vuitton without batting an eyelid. "And so I think the clients are reassured. They know, meeting me, that we will make something extra-ordinary for them, quite extraordinary and unique. There are no other brands where a M Vuitton himself will come and design your luggage. That's very special."
And with that he's off back to Paris, most likely travelling with a prototype for a new design rather than anything more obviously rarefied. "Because the best way to test luggage is to travel with it," he says.