In the Louis Vuitton atelier in Sarras, France, a sweet-faced, middle-aged man is carrying, as proudly as if it were his first grandchild, a vivid pink handbag. Beige-coated, bespectacled, he beams with pride. This is someone who gets such satisfaction from what he does that, when asked to pose with his “newborn”, he does so gladly. Our meeting was too brief for me to find out his name. He is simply one of the anonymous artisans who carry out the myriad steps involved in making a Capucines handbag. Sarras is a small community close to the west bank of the Rhone River. Go there today and you will either whoosh across France by rail on a TGV or drive, at a more moderate 130 kilometres an hour, on the autoroute. But not that long ago, if you were travelling from Paris to the Côte d’Azur (and let’s face it, anyone who was anyone did, from F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway), you would have left your pied-à-terre in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, clambered into your gleaming roadster, and driven south down the Route Nationale 7. The RN7 is a mythical road that even today is synonymous with heat, glamour, and poplar trees. And as the sound of cicadas and the smell of thyme and lavender increased, you would have eventually arrived on the French Riviera, where—assuming you were a traveller of elegance and sophistication—you would have unpacked your Louis Vuitton luggage.
It’s no small wonder, then, that the man himself, Louis Vuitton, set up shop in Nice in 1908. It was his third. His second had been in London (which, astutely, he saw was a gateway to America and the British Empire). His first was in Paris, near Place Vendôme, on a small street called rue Neuve-des-Capucines, later renamed rue des Capucines. In one of those engaging jump-cuts often found in history, the street name, many years later, would be reincarnated as a handbag.
Debuting last summer, the Capucines bag has enough old-money elegance for the 16th arrondissement, but it can also look modern, embodied by actress Michelle Williams in the company’s current advertising campaign. It is also, to be frank, extremely practical. Smartphone, wallet, iPad, makeup bag, miscellaneous shopping—there is room for it all. Marrying classic with fashionable can be hard, but the Capucines is a very clever bag, a deliciously soft but still structured design that, when it was first unveiled, seemed a totally new departure for Louis Vuitton. Except that, for the 160-year-old company, crafting leather handbags was not so much a new destination as a journey home.
Mention Louis Vuitton and most people think of monogrammed canvas. But the company created a department dedicated to leather goods with, yes, handbags as far back as 1880, and a collection of them appeared in a catalogue in 1892. Then, in the early 1920s, there was the Keepall, which you could call either a small piece of luggage or a large handbag. Still in existence, it has always been made in a variety of materials, leather included. In fact, leather bags have been a consistent, if low-key, element throughout the label’s history.
The atelier in Sarras is a modern, cream-coloured building set in green surroundings. Close to 250 people work here and in the building opposite, and on average, employees have been here 24 years. The amount of accumulated experience of the workers here is humbling. To put it another way: if the atelier were concentrated in one artisan, he or she would have started working for Louis Vuitton about 3,900 years before Cleopatra was born.
Rather more recent is the display of vintage equipment just inside the building: a machine for stamping holes for studs, and a hefty wood workbench that features a functional belt made of leather. It is thick and worn, and it bears signs of considerable use. The leathers here, the raw material for the Capucines, are somewhat different.
Louis Vuitton handbags were formerly made of “structured” leather, logical when you remember that he was originally a malletier—a maker of luggage. Some years ago came a move to the soft leathers that had occasionally been used in runway shows. The Parnasséa collection, launched in 2013 and now including a number of different styles, was a return to the origins of what high-quality leather should be. Touch an earlier, more-structured bag, and then handle a Capucines; even with eyes closed, you can tell the difference.
Creating a bag like this is a four-step process that, in haute cuisine terms, is analogous to buying first-rate ingredients, planning, preparing, and finally, with your hands and keen senses, putting it all together. Great cuisine starts with the best meat, fish, and vegetables. In the case of Louis Vuitton, it’s really good leather, often from France but also from Spain, Italy, and northern Europe.
The whole skins are dyed before they arrive at Sarras. Cream, chocolate, fresh green, and other hues are stacked and draped; every square centimetre of each one must first be checked. Over 250 individual handcrafted operations and thousands of steps go into creating the Capucines, and the one-week journey from skin to finished bag begins with the practised eye of the leather controller. Let’s call him Jacques, and remember that he has over 20 years of experience and that, even now, he is training the next generation. Watch as he spreads out visibly supple black calfskin on an examination table.
Although all skins have commonalities (areas such as around the neck, being less than optimal), each is unique. Jacques will gauge softness, colour, and evenness of grain and consider natural aspects such as scars and wrinkles before pronouncing his verdict. Later, a machine checks the thickness of the skin. The top surface has been peeled off in the tannery, as well as a lower, fragile layer, known as croûte. What is left is fleur—the desirable “flower” of the leather, between 2 and 2.4 millimetres thick.
Now the raw material undergoes its first step to becoming a bag. Up until recently, Louis Vuitton artisans used paper and chalk to assemble their cutting map. Today, it’s neon-green lines on a computer screen; technology developed for the company shows the best placement for pattern pieces. Fast and accurate, this approach is much easier on the craftspeople for whom the art of cutting leather used to involve moving and lifting hundreds of kilograms of metal each day.
Over 250 handcrafted operations and thousands of steps go into creating the Capucines, and the one-week journey from skin to finished bag begins with the practised eye of the leather controller.
Colour inspection is hugely important. Watch the cutter; he knows that front and back must match exactly, but that the base of a bag can be slightly different (although you or I wouldn’t know it). Even a single skin can display minute differences from one area to another. Checked and cut, the elements that make a Capucines then go to the atelier across the road, where teams of six to 10 work on each bag in a large area filled with individual workstations. The atmosphere is, to use French words because they describe the ambience more accurately, conviviale, geniale, and amicale. Each day means a different colour, and you can’t help wondering if that affects the mood of the workers. Today everyone is handling cheerful pink bags, with three artisans all involved in the third stage of production, putting together what might be called the Spanx of a handbag: the invisible elements key to shape and silhouette.
Elsewhere, others are making the Lockit bag from soft veau cachemire leather. In another nod to the company’s heritage, this is the 2014 rebirth of a 1958 style (it was first reinterpreted in 2006) that features a padlock and a subtly curved top. Evidence of modernity is its interior double smartphone pocket and removable strap.
Technical details: the Capucines is made from full-grain taurillon leather and lined with soft calfskin. It originally came in two sizes, GM and MM, with the newest and smallest model aptly called the BB (pronounced bébé in French—and let’s not forget that “BB” was shorthand for “Brigitte Bardot”). Identical to its larger siblings right down to its two interior pockets, this baby is the right size for day use, yet small enough to double as an evening bag, with a removable strap that can be worn bandolier-style. Perfect, then. The Capucines comes in black, off-white, beige, red, and pale pink, some with a contrasting interior. Seasonal colours stretch the palette for a brief three months. April saw the launch of electric blue, jade green, cobalt with fuchsia, and fuchsia (BB is also available in these April colours). July introductions include cobalt and, carrying over into fall, a vibrant poppy red.
Whatever the hue, attaching two pieces of leather means showing their undyed edges. To remedy this, fastidious hands carefully hold the edges against a machine that applies a clear base, shapes it to create a slightly rounded profile, and then applies custom-blended colour. The leather is air-dried, and then dried again at 46ºC. (The technique stops damaging humidity getting into the leather.) Louis Vuitton also employs a traditional technique known as filetage, which uses a burning iron that brings oil to the surface to add protection. Try it; it’s not easy. First you secure the leather handle with one hand. Then, with surgeon-like precision, the iron is to glide in one swift unbroken motion along the miniature precipice of the other side. Like most of the actions performed here, it takes months, if not years, to learn how to get it right.
The bones of the Capucines, the areas that take the most strain, are its handle and flap, the latter of which needs strength to cope with the constant bending back and forth. What sets the Capucines apart is a smart concept from the design team in Paris that features a logo that is only apparent to those in the know. Tuck in the flap and all you see is a subtle LV, the initials sheathed in leather and inserted into claws set into the bag. Fold it over and voila! It’s the outline of a monogram flower. Simple enough in theory, but astute engineering is needed for the flap to keep its shape. Cutting the inside section shorter maintains the curve, the degree of it checked in a boat-shaped form. Another mould puts the two pieces together. Behind every machine are skilled eyes and hands.
Moving on to the assembly area, deep yellow plastic trays holding the components of the two Capucines that one really good skin can produce. Two production lines are at work, each shaped like a long U, so that everyone can see his or her co-workers and lend a hand elsewhere on the line if needed. Each artisan knows enough to manage at least half the process; some can handle it from beginning to end.
It is all about details. Interlining the soft interior with canvas. Adding the jewellery-like rings that connect handle to bag. Reinforcing the ends of the Capucines with leather stitched into place. Using three-ply nylon thread for strength (the ends will later be secured by burning at 400ºC). Watch the seamstress as she prepares to sew five layers of leather together. They must be perfectly aligned before she turns the wheel that lowers the needle. Think about what it takes to do that. Beside the workstations, close-up photographs, with danger areas signalled in red, are constant reminders of how precise her stitching must be.
The Capucines is almost finished. There is one final quality-control checkpoint that examines the bag inside and out, from all angles. And then it joins the daily shipment of completed bags to Louis Vuitton’s main warehouse near Paris in what is literally a return to its roots.
Photos Gérard Uféras ©Louis Vuitton.