After Louis Vuitton came to Paris at 16, he apprenticed at the workshop of the trunk-maker Marechal. For the next 17 years, Vuitton worked in Marechal’s shop and gained a reputation as a skilled artisan. In these times, trunk-makers were also responsible for packing them for the owners, who were often aristocrats. After the re-establishment of the French Empire in 1852, Vuitton became the personal trunk-maker and packer for the Empress of France. Soon after, he left Marechal and started his own workshop. 150 years later, Louis Vuitton is at the centre of the largest luxury goods empire in the world. In that time, the industry has changed vastly. 

LVMH (named so after Louis Vuitton merged with Moet and Hennesy) is no longer owned by the Vuitton family. Fifth and sixth-generation Vuittons do have roles within the company, however only great-great-great-grandson Pierre-Louis Vuitton is still a craftsman. The man who does run the company, Bernard Arnault, is not an artist. Trained in engineering, Arnault is a businessman who started by revamping his father’s company into a French real-estate giant after college. Then, over the next five decades, Arnault changed the way luxury worked by building a conglomeration that forced everyone else to either adapt or perish. 

Whether you buy jewellery at Tiffany’s, leather bags at Dior, or a watch at Bulgari, you are buying something from LVMH. Their website lists 75 Houses, with products that range from fine wines to expensive perfumes, and everything in between. Arnault built this company with focus and vision, and in this process changed the companies around him. Between 1999 and 2001, he was involved in an ugly and intense takeover-bid for the house of Gucci. 

Following Maurizio Gucci’s death, the house had been run by Harvard-educated lawyer Domenico De Sole. Arnault launched a hostile takeover attempt by buying large numbers of shares. This pushed De Sole to instead ally with Francois Pinnault, one of the wealthiest men in France. Pinnault guaranteed De Sole and Ford autonomy, and in turn bought Gucci before Arnault’s bid could succeed. In 2004, both De Sole and Ford left Gucci and started their own label because, as Gucci got absorbed in a corporate structure, they lost the autonomy they had wanted. 

Corporatisation and homogenisation is now the bread-and-butter of the luxury industry. Spearheaded by the bullish Arnault, this trend has seen a host of lawyers, businessmen, and marketers take over from the artisan-executives of the past. Younger companies like Armani are exceptions that stand out—most luxury brands are helmed by executives who are hired because they can look at the numbers and please the investors. Individual style is expensive and risky, so the conglomerates homogenise.

Being seen as different risks alienating consumers who identify a certain style of store architecture or messaging as luxurious. This is why all the Luxury flagship stores in New York are designed by Peter Marino, if it’s worked for Dior then it simply makes sense for LV to adopt it and minimise risk. When houses were run by owners and heirs, they had distinctive voices reflecting strong individual vision. Now, houses are run by committees and reflect whatever consumers believe is luxury. 

In some sense, this was inevitable. The consumers LVMH caters to are not the same consumers that Louis Vuitton catered to in the 1800s. Older luxury houses, all the way to the Second World War, would cater to the rich and the aristocratic. Modern luxury houses cater to the bourgeoisie, the middle and upper middle classes that have expanded in the past hundred years. As such, broad appeal and accessibility is essential. At one point, owning an object with the LV logo would have been a sign of extreme privilege. Today, the logo is more broadly accessible to individuals with disposable income. Suits, bags, perfumes—you can buy whatever fits your budget and own a piece of the LV logo. 

You buy it for the myth of exclusivity that comes along with it. It is a carefully built myth, constructed around our collective cultural nostalgia for quality products built by hand. As such, it is a myth held together tenuously by saddle-stitched paradoxes. Houses uphold “tradition” while also following the most “modern” approach. They flaunt the craftsmen that work by hand the way it’s always been done, while also bragging about their advanced robotics technology. They claim that they have the best materials and the highest quality technique, but they also produce en-masse and sell at low prices compared to a time when they did indisputably have these. They are both relics to a time past and sleek modern profit-driven corporations. 

On the assembly line, workers manufacture goods like clockwork. The processes have been optimised, the prices for the raw materials negotiated down as far as possible. There is extensive quality control—customers pay large sums of money and a single mistake can hurt the brand as a whole. The systems in place are designed to extract the most out of the people present. Brands do not reveal how much work is done by hand, how much uses instruments like sewing machines, and how much is completely automated. 

In the luxury goods industry, the idea of family-owned workshops selling beautiful high-quality goods is simply an illusion. 

Gucci’s first global tagline, “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten,” was announced in 1947 when Guccio Gucci was still alive. In 1993, the last of the Gucci family was ousted from the firm. Christobal Balenciaga shut down his House in 1968 and died in 1972. His House was revived later and is now owned by the Kering conglomeration. The Cartier family sold the brand in 1964 and it is now owned by the Swiss Richemont group. 

Creative directors and designers step in and step away, and it becomes more and more difficult to say what differentiates houses and what unifies them. This is by design. In this homogeneity and corporatisation lies the potential for safely making the most of the high-margins in the industry. After all, in the first nine months of 2022, LVMH had a revenue of 56.6 billion USD and Bernard Arnault is currently the richest man in the world.