The first time I travelled overseas, at 22, I arrived in India with so much baggage that the hordes at Bombay airport must have taken me for a white coolie. My body was slung with luggage - four heavy pieces in all, plus a sack of duty-free grog - as I staggered through the hangar and into a throng of raven-eyed taxi wallahs. "Aha!" they probably thought. "India wirgin. Ripe for picking."
Two days later, I got my first valuable lesson in packing when, en route to New Delhi, Air India managed to lose my bags. All I had left was the daypack I kept with me in the cabin. I soon realised that was all I needed. I had to buy some toiletries and a few clothes to get by, but the bonus was I no longer needed to labour like Atlas to move from A to B. Bliss.
Unfortunately, many years later, I never remember that first lesson when packing. I find it impossible to leave home without a full spectrum of outfits from cocktail suit to polar-class trench. These are not random examples but outfits I do, in fact, own, and I do, in fact, take away with me on a regular basis. You just never know.
To see me arriving in foreign ports, you'd think I was some 19th-century Romantic trapped in an age of steamer trunks and penny-a-bag porters. Except, in my modern incarnation, there are no monogrammed cases and no porters, just a poor white guy shadowed by one of the largest suitcases known to mankind. It is so enormous that on a recent cruise a fellow passenger saw me lugging it on board and exclaimed, "That's not a suitcase - that's a mobile home!"
Clearly, I need help. Luckily for me, it is at hand, in the form of Kazue Akiyama, a sales associate at the Melbourne flagship store of Louis Vuitton. LV has kindly agreed to give me a tutorial in The Art of Packing, a subject about which the company knows a good deal, given it was the original purveyor of monogrammed steamer trunks to 19th-century Romantics.
Kazue is waiting for me beside a bench laid with an empty case and a cache of precious Louis Vuitton merchandise with which to fill it. She emphasises that the key to successful packing is organisation. Take time to consider the season, the number of days you're away and what you will need. Lay out on a bed or table all the items you think you will take, then cull those you are not sure about. "If you just pack at random, you tend to forget what is already in there," Kazue says.
She makes a good point, and one I've been told before, but I think the other key to successful packing is knowing when to stop. I get the organisation bit; I often lay out my clothes beforehand. But I just keep shoehorning them in until my case looks like something a refugee might throw together in haste before fleeing to safety.
Kazue is the ideal person to teach me how not to pack like a refugee. Like all LV staff, she has been drilled in the most intelligent and elegant ways to fill various styles of luggage, from soft leather overnighters to suit bags and traditional cases. She then passes on these tips to customers who've just spent $7800 on a hard-sided 60cm Alzer. "Most people find it amazing," Kazue says of the tutorials. "It's a wow-factor thing. Louis Vuitton's heritage is as a trunk maker so we know these things."
The first sensible thing I learn is that toilet bags should not be shoved in last as you race out the door to catch the airport cab. Heavier items always go at the bottom of the case so they don't crush your clothes. In LV world, heavy items means anything from vanity bags to portable jewellery cases, umbrellas, shoes and, no doubt, a gold ingot or two to cover unforeseen foreign exchange dealings.
Kazue has two pairs of shoes ready to pack, one casual and one dress. The toes of both have been padded with paper to keep their shape and then the shoes are placed in cloth bags to protect them. Incredibly, I also put my shoes in bags. What I didn't know is that the hard base of the shoes should be placed against the hard sides of the case for better protection.
Kazue recommends any gaps between the heavier items be stuffed with undergarments to minimise movement, but this being Louis Vuitton there are no smalls on display during my lesson. I simply imagine where they might go.
Next, layer a jacket on top. Open the flaps and place any delicate blouses, skirts or pants folded in the middle of the jacket. Then pop the collar up - this helps it keep its shape in transit - and close it over the other items. Kazue demonstrates this neat trick using a chic cream jacket the likes of which no one I know would ever be able to afford. "It's actually cashmere," she explains, "with a mink collar." Rest assured, it works equally well with garden-variety suit coats.
One of the great baggage mysteries has always been what to do with those straps that flop around inside better-quality cases. It's clear they are meant to secure something, but I never understood what until Kazue grabs the straps and neatly fastens them over the first layer of packed items. Clever thing.
If you had one of LV's Alzer cases at home, it would have an insert tray that you would, at this point, place on top of your base layer to protect it. If you are without an Alzer, you will just have to imagine there's a tray and place one of your more delicate dresses on top, with the skirt hanging over the side of the case. Layer the dress with knits and other soft items, then fold the skirt over them neatly. Then place a trans-seasonal shawl on top of the dress, just to keep things nice. "That way, when you open the case, everything looks beautiful," Kazue says, by way of conclusion.
I can't help staring at the impeccably arranged contents and wondering who or what could survive a holiday with such a slim wardrobe. I'd need two cases like that for a week away, three for anything longer.
The tutorial continues as we move on to other luggage styles - overnight bags (or "keepalls" in the LV lexicon), suit bags and business trolleys. The rules are much the same, although rolling clothes is more important with keepalls because it maximises space.
Kazue teaches me many handy folding tips but some of them are, in her own words, like "little origamis", so, while I have my notes of the experience, I still can't fathom how to interfold two shirts or how exactly to interweave trouser legs on a hanger to stop slacks slipping to the bottom of the suit bag. (My notes say, "Put one leg over the hanger then pull the other one over the top and fold it over the first leg." Good luck with those instructions. I have just tried following them at home, six times, and still have no idea how to do it.)
The basic tip with shirts is to keep the central panel of the shirt perfectly flat and protected so that even if the rest of it crumples like a hobo's, it still looks good under a jacket when you arrive.
Speaking of jackets, to keep them looking fresh, Kazue recommends turning them inside out. Put your hands in the shoulders and flip it inside out. Then reach into the sleeves and pull them inside out as well. Then fold neatly, and pop the collar up. The thinking is that inside-out jackets protect the exterior fabric from creases.
Kazue travels once or twice a year and describes herself as a very good packer, an assessment I would fully endorse.
"I am a Virgo," she explains. "The process of packing is a pleasure for me."
That's funny. I'm a Virgo too. Pleasure is not a word I would use in that sentence. But at least now I have some idea how to arrive at my destination without looking destitute.