In 1853, a little-known luggage-maker named Louis Vuitton was hired by the last empress of France, Empress Eugénie, to design and pack her trunks. Soon, Louis Vuitton’s luggage could be seen throughout high society, from aristocratic manor houses to the private planes of Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Ernest Hemingway commissioned a library trunk to bring on his travels, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who were known to love a great party, traveled with a wardrobe trunk. The original Noé bag — introduced in 1932 — wasn’t made for wallets and keys, but to pack five bottles of Champagne, according to brand’s website.
To this day, the LV monogram telegraphs old money and closed circles, even if the accessories bearing it have become much more widely available. The bags conjure images of French heritage, cobblestone streets, and globetrotting luxury. But the brand's newest factory in Johnson County, Texas raises questions about the value of an origin story so tied to one geographical location.
On Oct. 17, LVMH CEO and chairman Bernard Arnault, accompanied by President Donald Trump, hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Texas workshop. The factory sits on a ranch with 14 heifers (for decoration, not to be made into bags) and a bull named Michael, just an hour’s drive away from Dallas. For some Vuitton enthusiasts, this locale takes away some of the magic they associate with the label.
Louis Vutton products made in Texas. Think about that. I don’t know how many craftspeople are in Texas that could produce a $9,000 purse.— Richard Chartrand (@ChartrDavid) October 17, 2019
Rather than recruiting “petites mains,” the French artisans traditionally employed by Vuitton, the brand is recruiting Texas locals — no experience needed — and training them for two weeks before putting them on the line at the new factory. Though this isn’t the first time the brand has moved from individual hand-craftsmanship to assembly-line manufacturing, this move has led some to resist the idea of an LV bag bearing a “made in the USA” label.
According to a 2011 article entitled ‘Louis Vuitton, the Industrialist’ by legacy French business magazine L'Usine Nouvelle, in the 1970s, there would sometimes be two-hour waiting lines with unseemly shoving matches at the brand's only two boutiques (Paris and Nice). In 1977, LV had those two stores, 100 employees, and $14 million in sales. Ten years later, Louis Vuitton merged with Moët Hennessy to form LVMH, and two years after that Arnault took over. By 1989, those numbers had swollen to 135 stores, 2,500 employees, and close to $1 billion in sales, according to The New York Times. Machines and additional factories were a requisite part of that growth, both to meet the push-and-shove-worthy demand, and to increase productivity and profits.
In the 1970s, a U.S. supplier named The French Company was licensed to manufacture Louis Vuitton bags, and in 1990 the brand purchased that San Dimas, California-based supplier and opened its first U.S. workshop. A second factory was opened in Irwin, CA in 2011. Perhaps lovers of the brand don’t know the bags in their collections could already be heralding from elsewhere in the States. But, according to Liz Sennett, handbag expert at The RealReal, there’s an easy way to tell just by looking at each Louis Vuitton product: its date code. The first two letters in the date code indicate the specific factory where the bag was made, such as “SD” standing for San Dimas. Each bag also has a "made in" stamp identifying the country in which it was produced, and the Texas bags will have a “made in the USA” label.
Yuliya Zabavska, a 19-year-old college student in California, bought a Speedy Bandouliere 35 in July for $1,530, her first and only Louis Vuitton bag. Now the proud owner of one, she says she prefers bags with a “made in France” label, because luxury is meant to feel slightly unattainable — and Texas is just a little too attainable. “I think consumers think of luxury as something foreign. When I think of France in particular, I think of fashion. I think of designer brands and the Eiffel Tower,” she says. “I think that the U.S. strives for quantity over quality, so, yes, the products coming out of Europe feel more luxurious than a manufactured good from the U.S.”
According to Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, shoppers who prefer a “Made in France” label have bought into ‘marketing wizardry.’ “The marketing has been about this heritage: ‘we have this savoir-faire,’ a word that goes back to the kings. Professing that where it’s made is what matters has painted [brands] into a corner. Even if you say it’s made in France, it doesn't really mean anything,” she says.
Twelve out of 30 Louis Vuitton manufacturing facilities are outside of France. Not only does the brand have two workshops in California, but it also has workshops in Spain, Portugal, and Romania, to name a few. In 2017, Vuitton caught heat when The Guardian revealed the brand’s shoes were produced in Transylvania but bore a “made in Italy” label — because that's where the soles were attached. This is thanks to the “Reguzzoni-Versace law,” written in 2010 by Italian politician Marco Reguzzoni and Versace chairman Santo Versace, which says that if two steps in the manufacturing process take place in Italy, the item can carry a “made in Italy” label.
When contacted, LVMH did not respond with a comment for this story, but to be sure they are far from the only luxury brand outsourcing production to keep output high and prices low (enough for their consumer). Balenciaga’s famous Triple S sneaker is made in China. Gucci has produced some sneakers in Serbia, and as of 2011 about 20% of Prada’s collections were made in China, according to The Wall Street Journal. As Miuccia Prada told The New York Times in 2010, "Made in Italy? Who cares?”
Some Louis Vuitton collectors share Prada’s sentiment. Stella Connolly, a New York-based flight attendant, owns 13 Louis Vuitton handbags and 13 small leather goods. She has been collecting the bags since 2007, when she got her first as a college graduation gift. Her most expensive purse is the $2,950 Dauphine MM.
“Originally, I preferred bags ‘made in France,’ but I’ve come to realize over time that the quality of the handbag in my opinion is the same regardless of what country its made in. I’ve had bags ‘made in France’ [from various brands] with clear defects on them and bags ‘made in USA’ that are perfect.”
“I think originally there was a lot of meaning to producing in Europe because it was associated with artisanal work, high quality, and precision,” says Olga Pancenko, Chief Operating Officer at Perrin Paris and a luxury market expert. “But sourcing quality leather and hardware is becoming harder and harder. Styles are becoming more intricate.” A company has two choices, then, Pancenko says: either they price their products extremely high, or they outsource production.
In the case of the Louis Vuitton Johnson County facility, an additional factor makes quality standards easier to meet: only six styles will be produced in that location. According to The Dallas Morning News, the styles include the Neverfull tote, Artsy shoulder bag, Iena shoulder tote, Graceful hobo bag, Palm Springs backpack, and NéoNoé bucket bag. “We’re talking about the high demand, basic bags. We’re not talking about intricate, complicated designs,” Pancenko says. “Two-week training doesn’t seem very short if you’re working with a machine, because it’s not something that’s entirely done by hand. I don’t think a company such as Louis Vuitton would compromise on quality in any way.”
Pancenko believes that a hesitation in buying luxury bags manufactured in Texas could boil down to a buyer’s level of experience in luxury goods. “I think there are going to be two types of people. I think there is the consumer who is in the first luxury product acquisition phase. And this is the consumer who dreams about their first Louis Vuitton bag,” she says. “They’re probably going to Paris on a trip and will purchase their first bag there [at the Maison Champs Élysées flagship store.] I think that kind of consumer, who is just entering the brand, will find it more important to get a ‘made in France’ Louis Vuitton bag.”
Massachusetts-based teacher Fabiola Guzman, 34, is one of those “types.” She has bought five Vuitton bags over the last four years and says she checks the “made in” label before she commits to a purchase. “When I buy a Louis Vuitton bag I call the store and ask if they have the one I’m looking for, and if it’s made in France. It’s mostly because I feel like it just makes the bag more special knowing that it’s from France,” she says. Morgan Parlett, 25, follows the path of a consumer who once cared deeply about the label, but has sort of moved on. The first of her 13 LV bags was a Speedy 35, which she received as a Christmas present from her boyfriend in 2011; she bought herself a $900 Nice BB travel bag in January. “For me, I have such a special love for the brand that I trust their products. The ‘made in France’ label doesn’t necessarily mean as much to me as it would have if it were my first or only piece.”
On the other hand, Pancenko says, consumers may end up seeking out a “Made in the USA” label. “Maybe they will think, ‘I will support a Louis Vuitton made in my country. I’m going to support production in Texas,’” she says. Brittany Good, 31, who works in sales in Texas, and owns four bags, likes the idea of her state being associated with the history of Louis Vuitton. “If I didn’t live in Texas, I probably wouldn’t want a Texas bag,” she says. “But for me it would actually be cool to get a piece with a Texas date code on it.”
But what’s in a tag, anyway? A luxury handbag YouTuber who goes only by Cindy and owns 25 Louis Vuitton bags has come to separate the value of a bag from the words inside. “Honestly I had a lot of issues with bags made in France,” she says. “I know that quality can vary.”
If date codes and “made in” labels have any impact on a brand’s value, it’ll be seen in the reseller market. Experts there have not seen made-in-America Louis Vuitton bags being snatched up any slower than their European counterparts.
“We don’t see a difference in demand on the secondary market for items that are produced in France versus the U.S. Demand is tied more to the style of a bag than its origin,” says Sennett, of the RealReal. “Resale value for any brand is primarily impacted by demand and current retail pricing.” The RealReal also hasn’t seen any impact to demand or resale value for Louis Vuitton following the media buzz over the opening of the Texas workshop. In fact, as noted in its recent Resale Report, Louis Vuitton is The RealReal’s “No. 2 Most Searched Brand,” just behind Gucci.
Once upon a time, though, outsourced production of LV bags did result in lowered quality. Caitlin Donovan, handbags specialist at Christie's in New York, describes bags produced by a U.S.-based luggage maker called, confusingly, The French Company. These came out between 1970s to 1990s and “varied in style to the traditional bags that were adored and collected around the world." The monogrammed print was the same, she explains, “but the materials and technique varied.”
When clients bring in these particular bags, Donovan will sometimes say that she unfortunately cannot accept them. The French Company bags don’t have a date code, but a paper-like Tyvek tag sewn into the seam that states the purse is a Louis Vuitton product made under a special license. Besides the tag, other tip-offs include the hardware being plated nickel instead of brass, and some of the purses’ patches aren’t embossed with the Vuitton logo. Nothing reported thus far indicates present-day Louis Vuitton products made in America will have any changes to quality or structure.
The provenance of a bag (and the stats sewn into its label) aren’t the only factors that impact its value over time, of course. Some shoppers have eyes on the political implications of their purchases. “The ‘where’ means nothing in a global world, but the ‘how’ is what matters,” Thomas, author of Fashionopolis, says. “Are the workers well trained artisans that went to leather-crafting school? Are they paid a fair wage and have benefits and work normal hours?”
She raises these questions because Louis Vuitton’s Texas workshop has an hourly wage that starts at $13, and according to The Wall Street Journal, some have reported sweatshop-like conditions there. Also: Its association with Donald Trump landed LV on the #GrabYourWallet companies to boycott list.
“Creating jobs is not an excuse to ignore morally repugnant behavior,” Shannon Coulter, the movement’s co-founder, told Business of Fashion. Nicolas Ghesquière, Louis Vuitton’s artistic director for womenswear since 2013, attempted to distance himself from his brand’s connection to the president. “I am a fashion designer refusing this association," he wrote on Instagram on Oct. 20, closing with the hashtags "#trumpisajoke" and "#homophobia."
It's important to note that LVMH is a conglomerate that owns 75 houses, including Sephora, Dior, Marc Jacobs, Fenty, and Benefit Cosmetics, to name a few. According to LVMH’s 2019 half-year results, it recorded a revenue of 25.1 billion euros in the first half of 2019, up 15%. And so the real question is whether those who buy $4,000 day bags are the same people who care about a Trump association (or poor factory working conditions) enough to stop. “I think that the type of customer base that would want a Vuitton bag isn’t swayed by boycotts. They want it because they want it; they're not affected by political influence. Those that protest might be the most vocal, but they’re not the largest consumer base,” says Cindy, the YouTuber who owns 25 Louis Vuitton bags.
For Johanna Lopez, a 30-year-old aesthetician in Dallas, the political is personal. Lopez owns between 25 to 30 Vuitton bags, and says she won’t be picking up any more. "I am Hispanic, and I know what Trump stands for, and I don't relate to his beliefs," Lopez says. "I have decided to not buy Louis Vuitton anymore for that reason." Now she says she plans to sell off some of her collection — and the resale landscape has some good news for her and others who are inspired to offload their Louis.
“We don’t typically see controversies affect secondary market demand," Sennett says. "For example, with the recent stir around President Trump’s involvement in the opening of Louis Vuitton’s Texas workshop, we didn’t see any impact to demand or resale value for Louis Vuitton." In closing, she says: "The brand’s legacy and heritage are strong enough to prevent individual incidents from having a noticeable impact on the value of its products.” And that's to say a Louis Vuitton is the Champagne lifestyle, in a bag. It always has been, and — at least for now — it still is.