Here is an origin tale of which a brand can be proud: In 1832, a 10-year-old boy in Jura, an eastern region of France, loses his mother, a hatmaker. His farmer father remarries a cruel woman, dies soon after, and the boy, now 13, leaves home to seek his fortune in Paris. Working odd jobs along the way, it takes him more than two years to walk the 292 miles. The boy’s name is Louis Vuitton, and in two decades he’ll make trunks for the Empress of France; 200 years after his birth, his name will appear in rap lyrics and red carpet credits.
“It’s like a Cinderella story,” says Louis Vuitton’s artistic director for jewelry and watches, Francesca Amfitheatrof, reading your mind. Vuitton’s youthful journey was her inspiration for this year’s haute joaillerie, a staggering 90-piece collection dubbed Bravery, in celebration of his bicentennial.
I meet Amfitheatrof far from Vuitton’s France, at the Connecticut compound where she lives with her husband, Ben Curwin, a managing partner at an investment advisory firm, and her teenage children. The Litchfield County property, built in 1880, sprawls across nearly 15 acres and includes a small herd of white buildings (the main house, Amfitheatrof’s studio, a guesthouse, two barns), plus a pristine pool and solarium, behind which grows a pear tree that would make Cézanne salivate. We settle at a patio table; having just wrapped her Vanity Fair photo shoot, Amfitheatrof has changed into a loose silk dress that hits just above her knees. Her left ring finger glitters with two diamond bands, and on her opposite wrist she wears a black tag bracelet from the independent label she founded in 2019, Thief and Heist.
The juggernaut that is Louis Vuitton has long served as a metonym of wealth in pop culture, though typically in reference to the brand’s iconic leather goods (Audrey Hepburn, playing a jewel thief’s widow in 1963’s Charade, totes a set of Vuitton travel bags; Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem in 1988’s Coming to America has a fleet of them). Recently, the brand has amped up investment in its jewelry arm: Amfitheatrof’s hiring in 2018 was the starting gun. In early 2020, just months after Vuitton’s parent company, LVMH, acquired Tiffany & Co. for $16.2 billion, Vuitton made more waves in the gem world when it purchased the second largest rough diamond ever cut from the earth. The 1,758-carat Sewelo diamond, mined the year before, is so large that it could not plausibly fit inside a human mouth. If pop culture is any barometer, it’s telling that the first episode of Netflix’s label-loving reality show Bling Empire, which premiered in early 2021, centers not on a Vuitton bag but jewelry: called “Necklacegate 90210,” the climactic scene involves one millionaire wearing a one-of-a-kind pink sapphire necklace from Vuitton’s 2012 haute joaillerie collection to the home of another millionaire, who supposedly owns the same piece.
If one had to describe the designer in a single word, it might be considered. When making a point she tends to hold her interlocutor’s gaze while lowering her eyelids intensely, as though words do not quite suffice but telepathy might. Between her statement eyebrows and high cheekbones she resembles a Face Morph of Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra. Her voice is deep, and while she was born in Tokyo and spent her childhood in New York, Moscow, and Rome (a fittingly nomadic upbringing for a custodian of Vuitton’s legacy), the British accent she picked up at a girls boarding school in Kent—and cemented at London’s Royal College of Art, and subsequent decade-plus residing in that city—has stuck. She has served as the consulting creative director at Wedgwood, the head curator of Florence’s Museo Gucci, and as Tiffany design director. Of her work-from-home wardrobe, “I can’t say that I was hearing heels,” she says, “but I wasn’t in sweatpants.”
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