NEW YORK — It was tough to be a billionaire in the worlds of luxury, design and media in 2002.

Twenty three of the wealthiest members of those industries collectively shed $4 billion from their net worths last year, according to the reporters of Forbes, which today publishes its annual list of the globe’s billionaires. The biggest loser in this constellation was Nike chief executive officer Phil Knight, who watched $1.5 billion of his fortune disappear (he still has $4.2 billion left). Swatch owner Nicolas Hayek was a distant second in the loser stakes, shedding $800 million, or a third of his net worth. The Limited’s Leslie Wexner also suffered last year, losing $500 million as his worth slumped to $2.1 billion.

This story first appeared in the February 28, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The biggest winner was Inditex founder Amancio Ortega, who gained a cool $1.2 billion to $10.3 billion on the back of his just-in-time inventory approach to fashion retailing at such chains as Zara. Its American archrival, Gap, has struggled (although it appears to be finally turning around), but catering to the mass market still paid for principal shareholders Donald and Doris Fisher, who each saw a $100 million bump in their respective $1.6 billion fortunes.

The only other fashion families to flourish did so at the high end of the fashion spectrum — Miuccia Prada, Giorgio Armani and Chanel owners Alain and Gerard Wertheimer all added to their fortunes, albeit in small amounts. Prada gained $300 million in 2002, for a total of $1.4 billion (which includes the net worth of her husband, Prada ceo Patrizio Bertelli); Armani gained just $100 million to $1.7 billion, and the Wertheimers added $300 million to their now-$4.5 billion fortune. But at least they prospered — Ralph Lauren lost $200 million of his fortune, which fell to $1.9 billion, while Luciano Benetton saw his wealth fall $300 million to $4.6 billion (maybe that’s why the family is scaling back on fashion to go into highway operations).

“It’s a reflection of how difficult it is to stay on top in the fashion business,” said Forbes executive editor Paul Maidment. “It’s hard for anyone to keep winning year after year.”

Bernard Arnault and François Pinault can attest to that. The disappearing profits of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and the Gucci Group, majority owned by Pinault’s Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, carried over to their principals: each watched $300 million worth of their respective holdings dissipate in the stock market. But the Forbes list at least gives Arnault those all-important bragging rights over his rival: Arnault, with $6.7 billion remaining, is still worth more than twice Pinault’s $2.8 billion.

But Arnault better be slightly cautious in his boasts: he’s worth less than half that of L’Oréal’s Liliane Bettencourt, who, with $14.5 billion, remains the wealthiest person in this fashionable world (not counting Wal-Mart’s Walton family, of whom five members are each worth $16.5 billion). Bettencourt still lost $400 million last year, worse than either of the Lauders, Leonard and Ronald. They lost $300 million and $200 million, respectively, leaving them with $2.6 billion and $2.2 billion each.

As for the fashionable media that covers this world, 2002 was still a good year for a few moguls, even if it wasn’t so hot for their companies. Advance Publications’ S. I. Newhouse Jr. and his brother, Donald, watched their net worths surge $2.7 billion each, to $7.7 billion apiece (Advance owns WWD parent Fairchild Publications); New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg added $400 million to his now $4.8 billion fortune, and Oprah Winfrey, whose success in magazine form has certainly enriched the Hearst family’s trust, breaks onto the list for the first time with $1 billion — the same fortune exactly as William Hearst 3rd.

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