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Relying On Old Artisan Ways, French Brand Makes Itself Anew

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Relying On Old Artisan Ways, French Brand Makes Itself Anew

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Relying On Old Artisan Ways, French Brand Makes Itself Anew

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This summer, NPR has also been telling comeback stories. We took you down the Cheat River in West Virginia, reported on a Broadway star made new again, and even tasted beloved New Orleans hand pies. Today, we go to Paris, specifically to the luxury leather goods maker Moynat. It was founded in the mid-19th century and largely made travelling trunks for the rich. Though a pioneer in its field, it fell on hard times and closed in the 1970s. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports on the resurrection of this fabled French company.

GUILLAUME DAVIN: (Foreign language spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I'm being led up the back stairs of Moynat's flagship boutique by the company's CEO, Guillaume Davin. He opens a door to a room on the second floor above the shop, and my eyes fall upon dozens of beautiful vintage trunks stacked up against the walls covered with those romantic old travel stickers. So these stickers are real?

DAVIN: Oh, they are.

BEARDSLEY: My God.

DAVIN: This trunk belonged to the president of Venezuela in the '20s. And the last trip he took was from Le Havre to Panama. This was, of course, a made-to-order trunk, and it was developed especially for him.

BEARDSLEY: Every trunk here has a rich story. Moynat patented the first waterproof trunk in 1854, covering it with an Indonesian sap called gutta-percha.

DAVIN: So it's one of the oldest in the collection.

BEARDSLEY: Founded in 1849 by Pauline Moynat, the company created trunks for grand transatlantic crossings. But it hits its stride when the automobile came into fashion, crafting individual pieces to fit car interiors, like hugging a wheel well.

DAVIN: These are trunks that were exactly fitting the width and the shape of the first automobiles. And they were also lacquered in the color of the car, and this is why you see the base is concave. We have to say that Moynat was founded by a woman, and she brought a bit of femininity in the world of trunks.

BEARDSLEY: The aerodynamic curves and array of colors are what set Moynat apart from its competitors 100 years ago, and it's the company's signature today, says designer Ramesh Nair, whose handbag designs mimic the trunks made for cars.

RAMESH NAIR: Yeah, that's what gave me the idea of doing the little bag called Pauline, which is one of our favorite bags. It's exactly the same curve.

BEARDSLEY: One of the very first leather goods houses of its day, Moynat was known for its traditional knowhow and handcrafting skills. But by the 1960s, the trunks weren't selling so well, and the name wasn't in fashion anymore. Moynat closed shop in 1976. Resurrecting the company is the personal passion of French billionaire Bernard Arnault who also owns luxury house LVMH, maker of another luxury leather line, Louis Vuitton.

So why another expensive handbag? Because Arnault considers Moynat part of French cultural heritage. So he tasked luxury veterans Davin and Nair to take the project on. After a 35-year absence from the market, they had to put the Moynat story together again.

DAVIN: We spent a lot of time in libraries. We spent a lot of time in antique shops, flea markets.

BEARDSLEY: And not surprisingly, antique car shows.

DAVIN: Vintage car collectors and trunk collectors were very knowledgeable.

BEARDSLEY: Working together, they rebuilt Moynat by going back to the roots of the craft, says Nair.

NAIR: Especially because we didn't have anything to look back on. We had a few pieces, but we really didn't have anybody to tell us the story firsthand. So we had to do a lot of digging, a lot of, like what Guillaume calls the Jurassic Park moment. You know, we had to find things out, look at the DNA, find codes and then structure it. So it was really starting from zero, and like, I'd say zero.

BEARDSLEY: Today, Moynat makes about 30 handbags a week, mostly women's handbags and briefcases, which are all individually crafted by hand. Thirty-year-old Agathe Havlicuk works in a small atelier above the Paris boutique. She hammers the stitching on a handbag, a traditional leather goods making step that's not practiced anymore. Havlicuk spent years learning her craft at a French artisan school that's existed since the Middle Ages.

AGATHE HAVLICUK: (Through Translator) This is passionate work because no bag is alike. And when you're creating a handbag with the designer, you really have to get inside his head and figure out what he wants.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

BEARDSLEY: Other artisans stitch by hand with long, colorful thread or ever so slowly on a sewing machine. Staying close to a skilled work pool is important for the company. Moynat has another small workshop in a southern town that was once the capital of the French shoemaking industry, and its trunks are made in the city of Limoges, traditional home of cabinetmakers. Moynat's two most popular bags today, the Pauline and the Rejane, sell for about $4,000 each. But listening to Davin describe what goes into making a briefcase, you realize what you're paying for.

DAVIN: The lining is nailed. It's not glued. The case is made of one piece of wood that is sculpted so that it perfectly marries the lid. The nails, there are over 450 brass nails in this briefcase, and they are all hand nailed. It's called the cat's tongue.

BEARDSLEY: Davin clicks the bag shut with the specially patented and hand-cast cat's tongue lock. But the company doesn't advertise, and you can't buy a bag online. The only way to get one is to come to Paris and visit the Moynat boutique at 348 Rue Saint Honore. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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