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Object of Desire: A Handbag That Has to Be Made Perfectly on the First Try

By Nancy Hass

François CoquerelPhotographed in Louis Vuitton’s workshop in Ducey, France, the Petite Malle is constructed similarly to the brand’s steamer trunk, starting as a wooden box whose interior is lined with soft beige cotton and padded with the house’s signature lattice malletage (above). The exterior is wrapped in leather and embellished, for this newest edition, with 18-karat gold and sterling-silver rivets.

Louis Vuitton, the man who in 1854 founded the French leather-goods company that bears his name, began his career not as a malletier (trunk maker), as one might imagine, but as one of the world’s most rarefied packers. His first job in Paris involved folding the clothes of Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III, to fit snugly into her custom travel cases. Once out on his own, Louis Vuitton created a flat-topped, stackable, voyage-ready chest; before that, trunks had rounded lids to protect against the rain.

The exquisitely rendered details of that very trunk, unaltered for more than 150 years, are what inspired Nicolas Ghesquière, Louis Vuitton’s artistic director of women’s collections since 2013, to create a miniature evening-purse version called the Petite Malle. Over the seasons, Ghesquière has reimagined it in a plethora of colours, often imaginatively embellished, many incorporating Louis Vuitton’s signature monogram canvas.

The construction of each, by artisans primarily in the company’s workshop in Ducey, in rural northwestern France (a team of about 30 people is dedicated to this style alone), is ticklishly difficult and time-consuming, but this special edition proved a true challenge to the atelier because of its unique use of 18-karat gold and sterling-silver studs on extremely fragile black leather.

The Petite Malle is made in the same fashion as the full-size trunks: The poplar wood box is assembled first, its interior lined with a thin layer of cotton, and is then “dressed” with Louis Vuitton’s signature malletage, the geometric embroidery pattern found on the inside of most of the company’s wares. Meanwhile, a craftsperson decorates the material to clad the box.

In the case of this particular Petite Malle, the operation is especially nerve-racking because the heavy rivets must be situated perfectly on the first try or risk marking the skins. New tools and a special armature were developed so the surfaces could be further decorated once the studs were placed. After the ornamentation is complete, the leather is fitted to the box, its edges secured by Louis Vuitton’s lozinage technique, in which tiny brass nails are individually hammered into the border. Finally, wooden slats are added to the exterior, just as in the full-size version, and the metal latches and locks are positioned and secured to the structure by hand.

Unlike the actual trunks, the Petite Malle isn’t made to hold all of your beloved belongings — it’s barely big enough for a phone and a lipstick, and a few credits cards slipped into a tight interior pocket — but it carries, nonetheless, the same precious cargo within its tiny dimensions: history, unchanged.

Petite Malle bag, S$7,050.