How and why Louis Vuitton are trying their hand at fine pens.
When Louis Vuitton decided to complement their offering with writing instruments back in 2013 many pen aficionados frowned. It was seen almost like an invasion of a pure dominion by the commercialization of big fashion brands.
Why would Louis Vuitton go on to manufacture writing instruments? And was this good or bad news for the writing instruments community?
When Marc Jacobs assumed the creative director position of the famed Louis Vuitton a new era was beginning for the French Maison. An American with a keen sense of fashion but also a brilliant businessman with a global vision, Jacobs refreshed the image of the company. Over the course of his time at Vuitton, he established many successful partnerships with leading artists, like Takashi Murakami or Stephan Sprouse that translated into tremendous success for the brand, and its parent company LVMH. This fecund direction pushed the brand into the 21st century.
One of the new pillars in the world domination strategy was branching out into all categories you could imagine: small leather goods, accessories, ready to wear, shoes, jewellery and timepieces, eyeglasses, books and writing even. So Louis Vuitton expanding into writing instruments wouldn’t come as a surprise really. However it is more to it.
After years of prosperous expansion into the Eldorado of East Asia, Louis Vuitton’s image back home in its European hinterland had begun to suffer. Whilst in Asia the brand has become one of the hottest possessions to have in Europe and other Western markets Vuitton came to be associated with conspicuous consumption and excess. The western society whilst has spawned most of the big bucks – big name brands is surprisingly restrained. Understatement is an intrinsic part of style and elegance. Big flash monograms are rather bad taste.
Any strong brand has to refresh its image from time to time. “You have to surprise and amuse, otherwise you become boring,” declared Marc Jacobs the Paris Fashion Week in 2012. So a good way to refresh that image is to go back to roots and come out with a new narrative. And here is where luxury pens come into scene.
The aim is not to take on Montblanc as some suggested. Writing instruments present a unique opportunity to build an image of patron of arts and culture. Making a profit is probably secondary (having said that I’m sure it is quite profitable). What is important is to consolidate the image of the brand. The timing is good as the nostalgia of travel, exploration and of course writing is making a comeback. Nostalgia is a powerful tool in marketing.
In 2012 Louis Vuitton inaugurated in Paris, a temporary literary exhibition entitled L’Ecriture est un Voyage (‘Writing is a Journey’) displaying artwork and a selection of books on the theme of literature and travel.
Off the back of that exhibition in 2013, the brand has opened an experimental one year only boutique dedicated to writing instruments and stationary. Called Cabinet d’Écriture it was based in the fashionable Saint Germain des Prés. The location made sense at it was the traditional area where intellectuals would meet to exchange ideas and create history in the process. The famous Café de Flore, where Ernest Hemingway or Truman Capote scribbled in their notebooks is just round the corner. Moreover Hemingway himself had a custom made trunk by LV in which he kept this precious writing accoutrements and books. So literature, writers and writing instruments have been associated with the brand since long ago.
To celebrate the opening of the new store, the House commissioned a dozen French novelists to write short stories for a collection based on the historic Gaston-Louis Vuitton’s trunks.
When Breguet decided they want a fine pen they went to Montegrappa. When Smythson of Bond Street wanted a fine pen they went to Yard-O-Led. Louis Vuitton went to S.T. Dupont. The deal is rather sizable for Dupont but both companies refused to disclose any details regarding the deal.
The new range of writing instruments promised innovation, quality and luxury. The fountain pens have a patented system (it’s unclear if it belongs to S.T. Dupont or LV) which prevents them from leaking when travelling in style at high altitude. It is known that fountains have a messy habit of leaking due to changes in air pressure. The finish, pattern and design is Dupont level but Vuitton feel. In my opinion a fortunate marriage of quality and style.
The resolutely modern and innovative instruments incorporate aluminium, gold, palladium finish, iridium tipped nibs, guilloche, enamel, exotic skins and more. Some are made in France whilst other in Germany.
There are three collections Spirit of Vuitton, Cargo and Grand Tour; plus a model for agendas. Each collection consists of a different reference to travelling. Cargo and Grand Tour are obvious whilst the Spirit of Vuitton references the Louis Lindbergh plane.
To retain the exclusivity there are no half measures. The inkwells on offer are made in Baccarat crystal. The choice is rich and creative. Brun Ténébreux the emblematic colour of Vuitton is available along other poetically sounding inks like Gris romantique, Blue sibylin, Violet malicieux, Blue rêveur, Rose espiègle, Rouge gourmand and Or audacieux. We are told that the reason why the ink flows very well is because it is specially formulated with colorants that do not clog the nib and feeder of the pen.
If the right spots are found the company plans to open writing instruments and stationary stores in Tokyo and New York. This indicates the brand’s commitment but also has commercial rationales. The luxury stationary brand Smythson of Bond Street is a good example of prosperous luxury stationary business.
Whilst old school pen lovers might remain suspicious towards big fashion brands we believe that this is the way forward for writing instruments. Reinvent themselves, much like the luxury watch industry in the ’90s, from utilitarian objects into cool fashion accessories or risk becoming outdated, irrelevant and die like so many historical pen companies.
Iunal Giumali is editor of Penficionado ([http://www.penficionado.com]), the premiere online source of writing instruments and one of the most original providers of pen related content.
Iunal has more than ten years experience in luxury goods, five of which he spent working in Harrod’s writing instruments and watches departments.
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Article by Iunal Giumali