While I was in Paris last year, I stumbled across a Moynat boutique while roaming around Le Bon Marche. I had never heard of Moynat, much less seen these bags that looked like Hermes and trunks that were reminiscent of the vintage trunks I’d just been admiring at Louis Vuitton. Since my visit to the boutique, I’ve researched Moynat and now my admiration for this brand has grown even more.
Moynat has been making trunks in Paris since 1849. This French luxury leather goods heritage brand has stayed relatively under the radar, so today I’m going to focus on the history and beauty of this Parisian brand.
Paris in the mid-1800s was in the midst of a brutal war: the war of the train trunk. Like better-known Louis Vuitton and Goyard, Moynat got its start as a 19th-century French trunk maker. Louis Vuitton, founded in 1854, claims to the be founder of modern trunks, but there was also Goyard and Moynat. While Louis Vuitton and Goyard have earned global brand recognition, Moynat didn’t, but still kept creating trunks and handbags in Paris.
At the time, travel and tourism to faraway lands took many days, even weeks, and where companies prided themselves in the quality of service and most particularly in the beauty and design of travel accessories to accompany such adventure. Luxury was reserved for the privileged few who possessed the means to discover the world.
Moynat, from the beginning, has appreciated modernity and open mindedness. Known for their traditional know-how and skills in handcrafting made-to-order luggage and travel goods, the house became famous for its designs for railway travel and automobiles, as well as for its technical innovations such as making its trunks lighter and waterproof canvas. Moynat was born at a time of sweeping changes in France, around travel and around a way of living.
Pauline Moynat founded Moynat in 1849 with manufacturers and trunk-makers Octavie and François Coulembier, to open the first store of avenue de l’Opera. Pauline Moyant was the only woman trunk-maker in history and set out to transform the male-dominated trunk making industry.
As a pioneer in the automobile adventure, Moynat specialized in custom-made trunks that fit the contours of the car. The most famous example is the Limousine trunk patented in 1902, lovingly made by hand with a wooden frame, has a curved bottom edge and flat top. No less than a thousand individual nails, spaced 10 millimeters apart instead of the craft’s traditional 16 millimeters, provide the discrete signature that has spelled Moynat for over a century.
It was the friendship that Pauline shared with famous actress Gabrielle Réjane that crystallized the Parisian spirit and commercial success of Moynat. Réjane was a woman of character, full of charm and humor, and who inspired the first handbag for women created by the Maison. In 1903, Moynat created the Réjane bag in her honor; it was the first bag to pay homage to a celebrity that’s still in rotation today.
Moynat continued making custom trunks and luggage throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. But Moynat had a rupture in its history from the 1970s to 2010 when ownership and manufacturing halted.
In 2010, LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault acquired Moynat under the family-owned Groupe Arnault to revive the brand. Unlike LVMH’s brands, Moynat flies under the radar with accessories for people who are feeling mass-market fatigue but want the quality and heritage of LVMH and the overall sophistication and leather quality of Hermès.
Bernard Arnault, of Louis Vuitton-Moet Hennessy (LVMH), dreamt of re-awakening the sleeping beauty, and found CEO Guillaume Davin and Creative Director Ramesh Nair to navigate the brand revival. Ramesh Nair has focused on updating its designs for the modern traveler. Though the House of Moynat is more than 160 years old, the Gavin-Nair team infused it a new soul. The house’s designs now include shoulder bags, totes, and—of course—hard-sided trunks that feature whimsical and luxurious details.
But it didn’t come easy. When Arnault took over, Moynat had no living memory of the brand after its rupture, which is usually carried by owners, employees, or artisans. Moynat needed to extrapolate details from vintage ads and pieces, not only the techniques that were specific to 19th and 20th century trunk making, but also those techniques that were specific to the House of Moynat. Moynat scoured the Parisian workforce for talented individuals who had the potential for the level of craft and re-training artisans in the ‘Moynat way’ in trunk making, but also the makers of metallic parts, nails, closures, cabinetmakers, and other crafts. Luckily, there’s no shortage of these artisans in France, given the wide range of luxury brands with ateliers (Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, etc.) in Paris.
Moynat applies ancient trunk-making techniques to modern handbags so that these skills are not lost and remain relevant. Because of Ramesh Nair’s history at Hermès, he knows how important it is to teach leather technique to carry on the traditions of leather making and artistry.
Some of the techniques Moynat uses are angle-stitching, the marquetry technique originally used in wood, and Cuir Impérial, a recreation of a mythical Russia leather, which was lost following the Russian revolution of 1917. The original Russian leather was made in a guarded process that took about 18 months and cured with birch tar oil and myrrh among other ingredients. Moynat Cuir Impérial is finer than the original Russia leather, but has the same oily, silken suppleness and cross hatch grain.
In the boutique, one of things that caught my eye were small leather pouches with a little car on them. At first, they looked like a painting on leather, but I quickly realized it was more than that. Leather marquetry is an 18th century technique best known in woodworking, where each piece needs to be expertly cut to fit precisely into a specific shape, like a puzzle. Each piece fits seamlessly to the eye and touch. Moynat Artistic Director Ramesh Nair decided to bring back this European technique to interpret it for the contemporary era, collaborating with Pharrell Williams to create modern shapes.
Moynat makes about 30 bags a week—which are all individually crafted by hand. Each bag (which take about 3 to 7 days to make) is made from start to finish by a single artisan, instead of an industrial or assembly line approach. Moynat has a small workshop in a southern town that was once the capital of the French shoemaking industry; its trunks are made in the city of Limoges, traditional home of cabinetmakers. This approach means that each artisan must be trained in many different techniques.
When I first walked into the Moynat boutique, the Sales Associate told me about Moynat’s history has a women-led business and makes sure to hire women artisans in their ateliers, which are located entirely located in France. Agathe Havlicek, a 30-year-old Moynat artisan, works in a small atelier above the Paris boutique, spent years learning her craft at a French artisan school that’s existed since the Middle Ages.
Using ancient techniques has helped Moynat’s heritage to create truly bespoke bags.
When a client requests a custom bag, there is no catalogue of styles, colors, or linings that the client can assemble the custom object from: not just assembling previously prepared components. Each component is hand made, including metal parts and closures specific to each trunk or bag.
Moynat’s lineup of available handbag designs isn’t extensive: instead they focus on quality instead of quantity. There’s a top handle, satchels, flap shoulder bags and travel pieces, including their signature trunks and totes, all of which can be personalized by in-house artisans. Their bag line-up includes a variety of styles: the Pauline, Limousine, Swing, Cabotin, Heaven, Rejane Saddlebag, Ballerine.
As you might suspect, the brand keeps their pricing and purchase opportunities pretty private because each piece is handmade. Moynat’s two most popular bags today, the Pauline and the Rejane, sell for about $4,000 each, depending on leather, hardware, and exact specifications. The house lists its lineup of bags on its website and displays some of the available colors, but to find out prices or purchase, you’ll have to send an email inquiry or visit on of the brand’s handful of boutiques in Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Hong Kong or Taipei.
“Luxury was never a rush. With us, when you put a deposit on some bags it can take between two to six months before you receive it. Luxury is about the craft and the exclusivity, and we want to be an emblem in the world of real luxury.” — Guillaume Davin, CEO of Moynat