Behind the most iconic handbags of the last century are the best materials and at the upper-echelon of the best materials is French leather. France is the world leader in calf and exotic leather production. The country is also the third largest exporter of leather goods in the world! Leather crafting in France has a long history that is linked with the inauguration of famous houses like Longchamp, Goyard, and Hermès to name just a few. Today, France is regarded as the home of luxury leather.
In this article, INSIDR takes a deep dive into the world of French leather. We discuss how France became a global epicenter for leather production and the fashion houses that put French leather on the map. We’ll also take a look at the top French leather houses on the market today and provide a review of the most iconic French handbags of all time. If you love fashion and fashion history, you can’t miss this article. Welcome to the complete INSIDR guide to French leather!
The uniqueness of French Leather
The beginnings of French leather in Paris
Though leather has been used in the production of clothing and other articles for centuries, it was not until the 1800s that leather took on its modern visage. It was during the end of the 18th century that many French fashion houses emerged, initially focused exclusively on leather production. Among them were the famous houses of Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Goyard and Longchamp. At their conception, these houses focused on producing leather goods for travel like suitcases and bags, and for practical use, like furniture upholstery and riding saddles.
The preservation of French leather-crafting ‘savoir-faire’
Although companies like Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and Longchamp started producing goods at a higher volume of products, they did not sacrifice the traditional savoir-faire of French leather craftsmanship. The popularization of French leather has spurred the preservation of leather crafts, with institutions like the Parisian school of La Fabrique offering specialized courses for leather ateliers. Many of the designers and craftsmen behind houses like Longchamp and Louis Vuitton undergo rigorous training at these institutions in order to prepare for their careers as French leather maroquinier.
The French-leather industry’s worldwide influence
Today, French companies, both large and small, boast exceptional savoir-faire when it comes to the production of fine leather. France is the world leader in calf and exotic leather production and the third largest exporter of leather goods in the world. The industry comprises some 9,400 companies, employs roughly 130,000 people and generates an annual revenue of 25 billion euros. If you’ve ever bought something made with fine leather, there’s a good chance it was made by traditional French ateliers.
The best French leather-crafters
Longchamp, founded in 1948 by Jean Cassegrain, is one of the few French luxury companies that are still family-owned. You’d be surprised to hear that Longchamp’s beginnings were from Cassegrain’s father’s tobacco business. It wasn’t until the 1950s when Cassegrain introduced the world’s first luxury French leather-wrapped pipes which proved to be a huge success. That then led to the creation of more high-quality French leather accessories like wallets, passport covers, and bags for men and women.
Showing true innovation and technique, Longchamp was the first company to create bags out of nylon. This was their answer to the boxy and heavy suitcases popularly used then which became a huge success. Today, Longchamp has a broad collection of travel accessories and ready-to-wear womenswear and despite their global presence with 300 boutiques, they still make most of their products in France to maintain original craft and heritage. In fact, Longchamp is one of the select French companies that have been awarded the prestigious “Entreprise du patrimoine vivant” by the French state. This is a label that distinguishes French companies that uphold French craftsmanship and industrial excellence.
Apart from their signature travel accessories and handbags, Longchamp stays ahead in fashion by collaborating with well-known artists and brands, with Japanese design studio Nendo being the latest one. Visiting the Longchamp flagship store on 404 Rue Saint Honoré is a truly singular experience. The store is spread out over three floors in the heart of Paris’ historic fashion district. At the flagship, store you’ll find limited edition bags, a dedicated accessories floor (featuring wallets, jewelry, coin purses, scarves), shoes, ready-to-wear and an entire floor filled with the complete collection of Le Pliage bags in every shade possible.
INSIDR Tip: Did you know that you can enjoy a VIP shopping experience at the Longchamp Flagships in Paris? What the VIP shopping experience includes:
- a tour of the flagship
- a glass of champagne
- complimentary embossing of your handbag or wallet purchase
- a free gift
- Longchamp – Saint-Honoré: 404 Rue Saint-Honoré, 75001
- Longchamp – Champs-Elysées: 77 Avenue des Champs Elysées 75008
Hermès is one of the oldest leather ateliers in the world. Established in 1837, the luxury house was initially concerned with the production of high-quality harnesses and bridles for the carriage trade. Today, Hermès is known best for their handmade luggage and handbags. Just one article takes anywhere between 18 to 24 hours of work to complete. Their bags are so in-demand that customers may find themselves waiting up to a year to receive one of the house’s signature bags. However, the long-awaited goods come with some amazing perks. The bags are so high-quality and so hard to come by that the purchase of one actually constitutes a viable investment as the bags accrue value over time. Plus, if an Hermès bag accrues any damage, the owner can ship the bag to Les Ateliers Hermès in Pantin, France for repair.
The best Hermès shopping experience can be found at the flagship store located at 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré. The shop has been owned and occupied by Hermès since the late 1800s and remains all of its old-world charm. You can also visit their Left Bank boutique located in the former swimming pool of the luxurious Hôtel Lutetia at 17, rue de Sèvres.
The brand Louis Vuitton was founded in 1854 on Rue Neuve des Capucines in Paris, France. Louis Vuitton himself began his career as a ‘malletier’ (trunk-maker) who created travel luggage for the wealthy. His big break came in 1858 when his box-shaped Trianon trunk proved to be a success for its design and utility.
His designs were so popular that Vuitton was spurred to create his signature LV label and trademarked his name. In 1896, the company launched its signature Monogram Canvas featuring the LV initials, quatrefoils and flowers that are still used today.
The most iconic Louis Vuitton boutique in Paris is the Champs Elysées flagship opened in 1913. Make sure to go in the morning before it gets too crowded. You can also shop Louis Vuitton in the stunning Galeries Lafayette Haussman building where a large corner of the department store is dedicated to LV bags and accessories.
Goyard is the oldest leather goods brand still in business. It was established in 1853, just one year before Louis Vuitton and is still privately owned. Goyard is also the only major luxury brand in the world that doesn’t sell any products online. Like Louis Vuitton, Goyard is famous for their monogrammed French leather bags and suitcases. Goyard bags are made with the highest quality French leather using the same techniques as when the company first began. Their most iconic bag is the Marquages, a monogram bag which features your initials front and center.
In Paris, the Goyard store is located at 233, rue Saint-Honoré in the 1st arrondissement. Here you will be able to order your very own personalized Marquages bag. The bag usually takes 4 weeks to complete as each one is hand-painted to respect their 200 year old technique.
The most iconic French leather bags in history
The Le Pliage by Longchamp
Since its release in 1993, Longchamp has sold an average of one million Le Pliage totes around the world each year for the last 20 years. In France, Le Pliage is the number one best selling bag among women of all ages. Introduced by the original founder’s son Jean Cassegrain after a trip to Japan, the Le Pliage bag was inspired by the folding art of origami. In fact, ‘pliage’ translates from French to mean ‘folding’. The Le Pliage is incredibly lightweight and durable making it the perfect travel accessory or daily-use bag. It’s no wonder Le Pilage is already counted among the top iconic bags of our time.
Today, a soft buttery leather version of the classic Le Pliage is also available in a multitude of colors and sizes. Longchamp also often collaborates with emerging and established artists to modify the classic tote with bold new designs in a range of styles and patterns. The new edition is made with traditional French leather using the same techniques that originally put Longchamp maroquiniers on the map.
The latest collaboration was together with Japanese design studio Nendo who has created different shapes of the classic Le Pliage to celebrate 70 years of the brand. You can buy these limited edition designs at the Longchamp flagships on Rue Saint-Honoré or on Avenue des Champs-Elysées.
Paris flagship locations:
- 404 Rue Saint-Honoré, 75001
- 77 Avenue des Champs-Elysées, 75008
- Longchamp Website
The Birkin by Hermès
The iconic Birkin Bag by Hermès is so coveted that the purses are argued to be not just an accessory but an actual invetsment. It’s been said that the bag’s value increases about 14% in value each year. It is considered the most luxurious bag in the world where only the ultra-rich and famous get to carry one. The purse was launched in 1984 and was specially designed by then Hermès CEO Jean-Louis Dumas for actress Jane Birkin who specifically requested for a travel-friendly bag that can stand on its own. Today, the Birkin bag has definitely reached its iconic status not only for the symbol and price tag it comes with but also for the expert craftsmanship each bag is made with.
While it’s rumored that you have to join a waiting list in order to purchase a Birkin, it is in fact possible to buy one of the bags in-store at the Faubourg Saint Honoré boutique in Paris. You can increase your chances of purchasing a Birkin if you show up already wearing Hermès. In order to visit the Faubourg Saint Honoré Hermès, you’ll need to book an appointment with the store directly.
- Address: 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 75008 Paris
- Hermès Faubourg Saint-Honoré Website
The Speedy by Louis Vuitton
Compact and convenient, The Speedy by Louis Vuitton entered the market as a luxury travel bag. The Speedy was made specially with soft cowhide French leather for actress Audrey Hepburn after she solicited the company to produce a miniature version of the LV Keepall for daily use. Since its release in the 1930s, The Speedy has become one of LV’s most successful models, helping establish Louis Vuitton as one of the most iconic handbag producers of all time.
Unlike the Birkin or the limited edition Longchamp bags, you can get your very own Speedy bag pretty easily at any of the LV stores in Paris.
- Address: 101 Av. des Champs-Élysées, 75008 Paris
- Louis Vuitton Website
The 2.55 bag by Chanel
The Chanel Classic Flap Bag is undeniably one of the most influential accessories in fashion history. If you’re wondering why it was named “2.55”, it was because the bag made its debut in February 1955. It was the first shoulder bag to take the world by storm. Up until Coco Chanel released The 2.25, it was considered distasteful to carry one’s bag over the shoulder. The bag, with its delicate chain strap and fine quilted French leather body, was deemed elegant enough to break the rule. Today, the Chanel Flap Bag is one of the most coveted, classic bags on the market.
Different iterations of this bag are always available at Chanel boutiques in Paris.
- Address: 31 Rue Cambon, 75001 Paris
- Chanel Website
The Lady Handbag by Dior
The Lady Handbag by Dior earned its name by royal association. In 1995, French First Lady Bernadette Chirac gifted one to Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, during a royal visit. Diana loved the handbag so much that she promptly ordered duplicates in every available color. Princess Diana was photographed with the bag all over the world quickly jettisoning the purse to worldwide fame. Today, the Lady Hadbag is available in different French leather materials and sizes.
Visit the Dior flagship in Paris to see the bag’s wide range.
- Address: 34 Avenue Montaigne, 75008, Paris
- Dior Website