By the early 19th century the advent of regular rail and steamship travel had taken much of the danger and difficulty out of long-distance voyages, and traveling for pleasure became de rigueur for those who could afford it. Travel then was an elegant, more drawn-out affair, a far cry from the sweat-suited, round-trip jaunts that 21st-century travel has adopted as its hallmark. Even the intercontinental set with their caches of clothing peppered in palaces around the globe were not immune to lengthy voyages between wardrobes. These poor souls needed ready-made solutions to their first-world problems – and they found them in the capable hands of Parisian luggage manufacturers.
While the traveling trunk was nothing new – Chinese depictions of rectangular boxes being pulled along by animals date back well over a thousand years – it was not until the 1800s that demand boomed for them as an item of luxury rather than necessity. Though trunks were available in many shapes and sizes, it was a large, rectangular model with a flat top – often known as a “steamer trunk” in homage to the boats on which many were carried – that became the most iconic. The steamer trunk had several advantages: its flat top allowed multiple trunks to be stacked easily for transport, and while in use they could serve both horizontally as a stowage piece or vertically as something of a traveling armoire.
Many notable trunk makers – Malletiers as they were known in French – did swift business offering standard and custom trunks to the new traveling class, but there were two which stood out above the rest and continue to produce luggage considered the pinnacle of luxury to this day: Goyard (which lists the title “Trunkmaker” in the headline on their webpage) and Louis Vuitton. (A third company, Moynat was at one time held in equal esteem, though they had ceased production for several decades until the brand name was revitalized by LVMH in 2011.)
Pierre Goyard and Luis Vuitton, respective founders of their namesake companies shared a similar background. Both had traveled from the provinces to Paris at young age and found themselves apprenticeships as layetiers, workers who specialized in packing the valuables of wealthy customers for transport and storage. Goyard apprenticed for Maison Morel, one of the most respected malletiers in Paris at the time, and he eventually inherited the workshop when his mentor passed away. One of Vuitton’s earliest clients was Eugenie Montejo, a Spanish countess who appointed him as the official layetier of the court when she became Empress of France through her marriage to Napoleon III.
Both men would become well-respected malletiers with a long list of bold-named customers, and each decided to go into the retail trade to capitalize on the travel boom; Maison Goyard opened in 1853 and Louis Vuitton in 1854. Both companies covered their wooden trunks in canvas, making them both lightweight and waterproof. By the 1890s the two companies had begun producing proprietary patterns for their canvases which would make them immediately recognizable – a three-dimensional chevron pattern for Goyard, and the Daimier check and later LV monogram for Vuitton. Customers would often further embellish the trunks with their own initials, family crests, or heritage stripes to beautiful effect.
The companies stayed in family hands, receiving a secondary boom in business with the widespread adoption of the automobile around the turn of the 20th century. Many cars did not come with their own storage compartments so it became common for early auto owners to affix luggage to the rear of their autos with burly leather straps – little coincidence that we refer to the rear storage compartment as the “trunk” today. The aforementioned Moynat along with Alfred Dunhill would be some of the first malletiers to manufacture luggage and accessories specifically for the automobile, but many of Goyard and Luis Vuitton’s most loyal clients would begin purchasing custom trunks for their own cars. At the time it was not uncommon to see the Rolls-Royces, Duesnenbergs, and Delahayes adorned with the iconic canvas of monogrammed trunks lashed to their backsides.
As travel time shortened (thanks airplanes) and economies soured, the long, luxurious trips for which the steamer trunk was originally utilized became fewer and farther between. The hulking trunk soon found itself replaced with smaller, more portable suitcases. Yet the steamer trunks, with their ties to a more decadent age, have found resurgence amongst interior designers as a lavish piece of home décor. Many have been repurposed as coffee tables, side tables, or nightstands with pristine pieces from Goyard and Luis Vuitton easily fetching five to six figures from antique and auction houses. Those with logo canvases draw the biggest prices, original monograms and stripes only adding to the value.
It would be easy to consign the steamer trunk to a life of stationary elegance in the homes of the well heeled, but thankfully this is not entirely the case: Both Goyard and Luis Vuitton, and for that matter Moynat, still do a healthy business crafting custom steamer trunks for clients to this day. Below are a few of the most recent standouts:
- A Luis Vuitton commission from a well-to-do Chinese client was rather unusual: he wanted to be able to watch TV and make coffee irrespective of where his business interest took him – so they crafted a standing trunk with an espresso machine, flat screen television, and solar paneling.
- Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld has custom Louis Vuitton trunks made to store a traveling JBL stereo and a sprawling collection of iPods and iPads.
- Pharrell Williams’ Billionaire Boys Club display at parisian boutique Collette is housed in an oversized Goyard trunk.
- Publisher Assouline offered of a Goyard trunk filled with 100 of their most popular books, almost immediately selling out at a princely $20,000 per.