Helen und Alain Zisul own a shop called Le Monde du Voyage, on Paris‘ antiquity flea market Saint Ouen, selling luxury vintage suitcases and trunks. They’re doing such a good job indeed, Louis Vuitton, Goyard and Hermès are actually buying them back from them for their archives. I talked to the woman behind the business about style, luxury and famous customers. (this interview was published in German on modabot.de)
B.R.: How did you get into the trunk business and why did you stay?Helen Zisul: When I was a child my Mum would drag me around antiques shops and I hated it! I never ever imagined that I would end up working in the largest antiques market in the World! I came to France as an English teacher and expected to just stay a couple of years but I met Alain and my plans changed completely. His parents already had the shop so over the next few years I got to know more about the fleamarket and vintage trunks and bags they sold but neither Alain nor I thought we would take the business over. Then my father-in-law became ill so we helped my mother- in-law in the shop at the weekends and found we really liked it. When the time came for Alain’s parents to retire in 1997 we decided to take the business over. I left my teaching job and Alain left his job in finance. We don’t regret our choice one bit!
B.R.: Who are your customers?
Helen Zisul:There isn’t a ‘typical’ customer but the majority are foreign. We regularly sell to many different nationalities. We have a lot of Americans and also more and more Chinese customers. The Japanese have always liked our products and we get quite a few other Asian clients as well. Paris is a very popular destination for a weekend break with other Europeans so we see a lot of Brits, Germans and Italians. Some people know what they want and come especially to us whereas others find us by chance and like what they see. As we sell luxury French items they make excellent souvenirs of a stay in Paris – it could be a vintage Hermès scarf which is easy to pack in a suitcase or it might be a large Vuitton trunk from 1900 which we ship to their home.
B.R.:What is the most exciting part of your work for you?
Helen Zisul: There are two things -Never knowing what we will find next and never knowing who we will sell to next (the market is a favourite destination with celebrities)
B.R.:You’re working at (one of) the world’s most famous fleamarkets, what do the „puces“ mean to you?
Helen Zisul:The Puces is an amazing place and some of the dealers are real characters. There are many individual markets which make up the Puces and each one has it’s own atmosphere. The range of things you can find here is incredible, everything from collections of magazines from the 50s to sculptures by world famous artists. The place has evolved and grown over the past 100 years and it really is unique. It isn’t a collection of buildings, stalls and alleyways but a living, breathing being which sleeps in the middle of the week and wakes up every weekend!
B.R.:Tell me something about the stickers often found on these old trunks. what did they mean? do they add value or lessen the price of a vintage trunk?
Helen Zisul:Trunks are fascinating. You can’t help but wonder where they have been and who they were owned by. Sometimes there are clues – labels. Some labels were put on to indicate if a trunk should be put in the hold of a ship or in the cabin. Others relate to customs duty to be paid but the majority were put on by the hotels where the owner stayed and served in some way as free advertising for them. Among the concierges of the big hotels there was a sort of code using luggage labels. Depending on where the label was stuck on a trunk or suitcase and whether it was straight or at an angle signified the sort of customer you were – difficult, generous with tips, demanding etc. This meant that at your next hotel the staff would know immediately how to treat you! Personally I do not think they do anything to change the value of a trunk, you either love them or prefer trunks without them.
B.R.:How do you think the manufacturing has changed when you compare the trunks you’re selling to today’s products?
Helen Zisul: There are many differences. For example the early trunks had either a metal or leather trim whereas today it is a composite material which is more hard wearing than leather. The monogramme today is essentially plastic where in the past it was either a woven cotton or a waterproofed linen. Then as now the top of the range trunks were leather but in the old days it was a smooth calf leather which was very beautiful but a little fragile. The epi leather which is used for trunks today is much more hardwearing but for me it doesn’t have half the charm. Having said that there is still enormous skill and care which goes into a suitcase or trunk made today.
B.R.: How has the idea of „luxury“ changed?
Helen Zisul: Actually I don’t think the idea of luxury has necessarily changed. For the lucky people who travelled with Vuitton or Goyard trunks it was just ‘normal’. They were the super rich and were used to the best so they did not consider these items as luxuries. They did not have to dress themselves but had their valet or maid to do it for them, they never had to pack or unpack anything and they certainly never had to transport the trunks. It would be the valet, chauffeur or butler who had to carry the luggage who would consider it to be a luxury.
B.R.:How did the Louis Vuitton trunks evolve in the early years? Noteworthy changes in Material/ Monogram/ Innovations?
Helen Zisul: Traditionally trunks had domed tops, many credit Vuitton as being the first to make trunks with flat lids so they could be stacked one on top of the other. Vuitton is also the man who invented the upright trunk. Previously all trunks had pull out trays and dresses would be stored flat. This meant the maid would have to iron all clothing before it could be worn. Through his friendship with Charles Worth, the couturier, he knew that ladies’ dresses were getting narrower so designed a trunk with hangers which made the life of the maid much easier.
The monogramme motif was only created in 1896 whereas the business started in 1854. Vuitton’s first trunks were in plain grey then in 1872 he introduced a red and beige striped canvas. Four years later he changed the colours and the stripe became a light beige on a darker brown. In 1888 the damier or checkerboard appeared and at about the same time the trunk lock was improved and became ‘tamperproof’ taking the form we know today.
B.R.:How do you recognize the period they were made in?
Helen Zisul: Dating a trunk before 1896 is easy as there were several different designs of canvas but the monogramme has been going now for nearly 120 years. When we date a monogrammed trunk we look at the addresses on the interior label and the lock as these changed over time.
B.R.:What was your most interesting piece so far?
Helen Zisul: There have been so many but one which sticks out was a Vuitton trunk with hangers in an orange canvas. We were able to trace it to Grand Duc André, a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, and his wife Mathilde Kschessinskaya. Mathilde was quite a woman – she was a famous ballet dancer and was the mistress of the Tsar. When he tired of her she became the lover of several of his cousins. Finally she married André and they were lucky enough to get out of Russia during the revolution. They settled in Paris with very little money and she set up a ballet school in their home. Grand Duc André used to answer the door to the students!
B.R.: Goyard and Hermès have obviously taken a very different angle on luxury, yet they maintained their high quality and status. What do you have to say about these different approaches to luxury and fabrication?
Helen Zisul: Goyard and Vuitton had similar beginnings, Edmond Goyard took over his boss’s trunk business in 1853 and Louis Vuitton set up in 1854. Making trunks of equal quality both were favourites with the discerning traveller. Vuitton, however, had a larger output and expanded more internationally. The popularity of the aeroplane meant that in the second half of the 20th century fewer and fewer people needed trunks. The Vuitton family sold their business and it became part of the LVMH group. Goyard remained a family company and was largely forgotten about but it was sold by the heiress in the mid 1990s. The man who took over Goyard is an avid collector of luggage and discovered the brand while collecting. He took his time and relaunched the brand turning back to the hand-painted canvas used in the 30s. Over the past decade and a half Goyard has become the trunkmaker to go to for special orders and is appreciated by customers who are tired of the monogramme and want something a little more discrete.
Vuitton and Hermès are very different companies. Clever marketing in recent decades, a concentration on bags and accessories and a massive international expansion mean that Vuitton is one of the most recognisable brands in the world. Hermès has always been a family company with the majority of the shares held today by some 30 cousins. Originally a saddlemaker founded in 1837 it has been making hand and travel bags out of the best leather in an artisanal fashion for over 100 years. Generally a Hermès bag is more expensive than a Vuitton but it is mainly hand-stitched and has taken hours to make. The quality of the product means that people are sometimes prepared to wait for 2 or 3 or even 5 years to have the bag they want in the particular colour and leather they want. Due to the training and craftsmanship needed to produce each bag Hermès cannot just increase production overnight even if there is demand. I don’t believe they would even if they could as the scarcity of their bags makes them the most desirable on the planet.