NEW YORK--Bernard Arnault says his U.S. business is just fine; he's not particularly threatened by the democratic turn 57th Street is taking, and his new building here reflects an interest in "artistic development." But when it comes to persistent rumors that his LVMH conglomerate is in talks to buy John Galliano's business, Arnault is still not saying much. When asked whether LVMH is in talks to buy the Galliano house from its current backer, John Bult, chairman of PaineWebber International, Arnault, chairman of LVMH Mot Hennessy Louis Vuitton, said, "I love that question, but I make no comment." He was certainly willing, however, to talk about his plans for a 23-story tower on East 57th Street, next door to the new Chanel building. The LVMH building, at 17-21 East 57th Street, will be the home of an 8,000-square-foot Louis Vuitton flagship, as reported. It will also house the U.S. corporate headquarters for LVMH's companies, which include Christian Dior, Givenchy, Kenzo, CAline, Guerlain, Christian Lacroix and Loewe. The wines and spirits group will remain in Stamford, Conn. "I'm happy to be here to present the project," said Arnault, at a press conference Wednesday morning. "New York is a center of style and fashion, and our companies are very fortunate to be part of this town's history." Arnault called 57th Street "one of the best and most eclectic shopping areas in the world. In French, we call this a mAlange." "Where else could we have Nike, Tiffany and Warner Bros. next to Louis Vuitton?" he asked the crowd assembled in a raw space on the second floor of 590 Madison Ave. The room was directly opposite LVMH's site, so guests had a clear view of the large hole in the ground where excavation has begun, and the Louis Vuitton banner that workers had nailed to posts above the site Tuesday night. "The U.S. market is going pretty well right now," Arnault said in an interview with WWD after the presentation. "Fifty-seventh Street is definitely one of the best places in New York for our type of stores." Arnault doesn't seem to mind the downscaling of 57th Street, but said the mix works only in New York. Entertainment-oriented retailers, he told WWD, would not be welcome near the Louis Vuitton store in Paris. Vuitton has signed a lease for a store on the corner of Avenue George V and the Champs Elysees, opposite the famous Fouquet's restaurant and cafe, as reported. The company also signed a lease for an 8,000-square-foot store on New Bond Street in London. "Warner Bros. and Nike are fine because it's New York," said Arnault, whose last trip to Manhattan was two months ago. "Paris is different, as you know." The building on East 57th Street will be made up of three abstract surfaces of etched glass that look as if they have been superimposed over the main structure, which peeks out toward the top and is constructed of green tinted glass. "We could not do something anonymous," Arnault said. "We wanted special architecture. The group is very much interested in artistic development. We support artists in France." Christian de Portzamparc, the French architect who designed the tower, said he was inspired by sea shells on the beach. Portzamparc took pains to draw distinctions between the LVMH building and the new 18-story Chanel building next door. "We were not making just a twin of the Chanel building," Portzamparc said. "If we followed the urban code, the two buildings would have been parallel lipsticks. It would have finished like a joke. We had to find a way to fit within the recess law but have a shape that would not just be a bottle of perfume between buildings stacked like books." Portzamparc was referring to the building code for East 57th Street, which stipulates that buildings not extend into the sidewalk. Construction of the building will cost in excess of $20 million, Michael Burke, president of Louis Vuitton NA, said in an interview on Tuesday, adding that that figure does not include outfitting the store, offices and showrooms, or the cost of the property. "Our group is a federation of medium-sized companies, which must keep their spirit, even though LVMH is the largest French company on the French stock exchange," Arnault continued. "Every company is run independently, and that is why they are so successful." Portzamparc is designing the building so that each floor will be different. That way, the individual firms can maintain their identities. In addition to its interesting design, the LVMH tower will have several unique features. An asymmetrical room made of blue glass will jut out eight stories above the retail space. Portzamparc called it "a strange meeting room with blue glass." The top floor will have a "magic cube," a glass-enclosed penthouse with 30-foot ceilings. "It will be used for fashion presentations of Lacroix, or secret meetings, or even business. I don't know," Portzamparc said. As for Arnault, the building will celebrate LVMH's business in New York, past and future. "This tower represents permanence," he said.
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