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PARIS — Yves Carcelle, the dynamic French executive who spearheaded Louis Vuitton’s transformation into a global powerhouse, on Monday was remembered as a visionary manager who shaped the entire luxury sector.
That’s how colleagues described Carcelle, who died Sunday at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris following a battle with cancer. He was 66.
This story first appeared in the September 2, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“A tireless traveler, Yves was a pioneer who embodied the image and values of Louis Vuitton. Always curious, passionate and in motion, he was one of the most inspiring leaders of men and women whom I have ever had the privilege of knowing,” said Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of Vuitton parent LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. “Today, the LVMH group has lost one of its closest and dearest friends and I join in the sorrow of each of us as we mourn Yves’ passing, but also importantly in our collective appreciation for his life, his work and his legacy.”
One of the fashion industry’s most admired executives, Carcelle stepped down as chairman and ceo of Vuitton in 2012 after a tenure that spanned more than two decades.
“He was a visionary, an inspiration to his teams, a friend,” Antoine Arnault, ceo of Berluti and chairman of Loro Piana, told WWD.
The young Arnault started his luxury career at Vuitton in 2002, and “he [Carcelle] welcomed me with a lot of intelligence, and I quickly saw he spoke to me as a manager, not as a shareholder or member of the board. It was very appreciable because it put me on board immediately, and gave me a lot of confidence,” Antoine Arnault said.
Carcelle kept a relatively low profile since exiting Vuitton, serving as chairman of the future Fondation Louis Vuitton, a Frank Gehry-designed art museum slated to open in October on the leafy fringes of Paris.
When LVMH revealed his departure in 2011, the luxury group said Carcelle would remain on its executive committee and undertake “strategic roles” alongside Bernard Arnault. Among them, he devoted himself to the global expansion of the landmark Milan café Cova, leveraging his knowledge of retail developments around the world.
According to sources, Carcelle was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer in mid-2013 and faced limited treatment options. Active right until his death, Carcelle recently visited his vineyard in southern France and only entered the hospital on Saturday, according to sources.
A driven, indefatigable executive with a thick crop of salt-and-pepper hair and a ready smile, Carcelle traveled the world to scout, open and manage Vuitton boutiques in such far-flung locations as Mongolia.
In 1997, he famously recruited American designer Marc Jacobs as Vuitton’s artistic director to thrust the historic trunk maker into the modern fashion age by adding ready-to-wear, shoes and other product categories.
He was always at his desk by 6 a.m. — if he wasn’t on a plane to Shanghai, Tokyo, Moscow, Hawaii or Houston.
Under his leadership, Vuitton consistently posted double-digit sales gains, opened ever-larger and more sumptuous boutiques and expanded into new categories of business such as eyewear, watches and fine jewelry.
Carcelle commanded strong loyalty among the Vuitton rank and file, and was admired for his decisive nature, upbeat spirit and infectious energy. He also cultivated strong relationships with major retailers around the world.
When Antoine Arnault was at Vuitton as communications director, he marveled at how Carcelle managed to be involved in every aspect of the company, while allowing employees freedom and inviting input.
“Constantly on the run, he was proud to have visited all of the Vuitton retail network — some 400 stores on every continent — and to know every single product in the offer,” Arnault said. “His teams were entirely devoted to him, and he of course had the last word, but he was completely able to listen to counter-arguments and include them in his decision-making process. The duo he formed with my father was a great one. They had different personalities, of course, but had enormous respect for each other.
“He could speak to Marc Jacobs for an hour about his next show, and then present his budget for the next hours, mastering every element of marketing, finance, and h.r.,” he added.
“It is indeed a huge loss for us thousands who have been inspired and led by such a visionary and charismatic person,” added Pietro Beccari, chairman and ceo at Fendi. “Yves loved to say that life is short and we need to make it as large as possible. We will live by his legacy, keep trying to enjoy life, be curious and experiment.”
Dead serious in business, Carcelle was known as a bon vivant in his off hours. His hobbies included sailing, and making his own wine and olive oil at his country home in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region.
In June 2012, Kim Jones, men’s style director at Vuitton, dedicated the brand’s sailing-inspired spring 2013 collection to Carcelle.
While strong in business, Carcelle also forged rapport with creative people.
“The best moments in my couture house days belonged to his presidency because of his natural enthusiasm, vision, passion,” said Christian Lacroix. “He was very special in the LVMH landscape, both bright, brilliant, redoubtable on one hand, and human, warm, close to any people in the house, with sincerity, on the other hand, always the first organizing a party with workers, dancing on tables on St. Catherine’s Day, remembering names.”
Donna Karan, who completed the sale of her trademarks to LVMH in 2001, said her rapport with Carcelle was immediate.
“When I met Yves, I went into his apartment and I saw a beautiful Buddha there,” she recalled. “He was about family, about compassion, about authenticity, about the world.…There was the human heart with Yves, he was far more than fashion.”
Karan said Carcelle saw “both sides of the picture” — the business and the creative input that fuels it.
“You see that in his relationship with Marc Jacobs. He allows someone to express themselves and be who they are, but at the same time overseeing how to make it grow,” she said in an interview. “He had a real holistic view of fashion. He was so influential in branding.”
Vuitton’s wholesale partners held him in special esteem, with Paolo de Cesare, chairman and ceo of Printemps, asserting that Carcelle reshaped the entire luxury sector, transforming it from an artisanal, wholesale business concentrated in Europe and parts of the U.S. into a thriving, global industry.
“He has created the concept of modern luxury,” de Cesare said, estimating Vuitton multiplied tenfold under Carcelle’s stewardship, ushering in the era of the mega flagship and the mega fashion show. “He was the first one to really look at the world as his playground,” said de Cesare.
“He had gut and instinct and was resilient but charming,” said Marigay McKee, president of Saks Fifth Avenue. “He was a great entrepreneur a great merchant and so driven. He was in love with his brand.”
Echoing other observers, McKee spoke of his exceptional people skills.
“He made everyone feel special and like the only person there — with dignity and integrity,” she said. “His charm made every meeting or encounter fun.”
Like Bernard Arnault, Carcelle touted a long-term view on the luxury business, convinced that business success is the natural result of quality products and elite service.
“Productivity is a word that I hate,” he told WWD in 2010. “I want to improve the experience of the customer entering the store — that is what is important to me. I’m not interested in the financial figures. I prefer to look at customers’ happiness.”
Yet he took it for a given that Vuitton must strive to be a dominant player. “Each product category that we enter, we want one day to be the leader. And we need to consolidate our leadership in travel and leather goods,” he said in 2010.
Adrian Joffe, ceo of Comme des Garçons International, recalled approaching Carcelle in 2008 about Rei Kawakubo designing a store for Vuitton that would last one year, having heard he was a “risk taker and visionary.”
“Such a thing was almost unthinkable, but we dared to ask and Yves dared to accept. Working with him on the special products we made for the shop was a delight. He never ceased to amaze us with his openness and also his strength,” Joffe said. “In the tough, bottom-line-obsessed, luxury mega corporate system, Yves shone through because he saw long term and could balance a brilliant business mind with something that was beyond that, something indefinable — that something extra which is crucial to true creative success.”
A graduate in mathematics and business administration from elite French schools École Polytechnique and INSEAD, Carcelle joined LVMH in 1989 from French bedding giant Descamps, taking the helm of Vuitton a year later.
In the late Nineties, Carcelle relinquished the ceo position at Vuitton to take on a broader role in the LVMH group, overseeing brands including Loewe, Céline, Christian Lacroix, Givenchy, Kenzo, Berluti, Stefanobi, Marc Jacobs, Emilio Pucci, Fendi and Thomas Pink.
He was seen as instrumental in LVMH’s investment of a one-third stake in Michael Kors in 1999 and its acquisition of Donna Karan International two years later.
He returned to the helm of Vuitton in 2002 as it embarked on a powerful push into emerging markets such as China, South Korea and India.
Jordi Constans, an executive from French food giant Danone SA, was recruited in 2011 to succeed Carcelle following a year in his shadow learning the ropes. Constans encountered health problems of his own that forced him to step down in December 2012.
LVMH veteran Michael Burke, who had been ceo of Bulgari and Fendi, was brought in to helm Vuitton and drive the brand upscale.
In a note to employees on Monday, Burke expressed regret about the loss of “this great man and figurehead.”
“Yves was instrumental in making Louis Vuitton an iconic brand around the world, a true incarnation of French luxury at its best and most admired,” Burke said. “He devoted all his energies to the development of our company and in doing so wrote what has become one of the most brilliant chapters in the history of global luxury. He achieved this through his own talent and qualities, and also by identifying and nurturing the talents of his teams and with the support of LVMH.”
Christophe Girard, mayor of Paris’ fourth arrondissement and longtime strategy director at LVMH, said Carcelle had a way of “making people share decisions and projects” that was extremely motivating and inspiring.
“He would have been so happy to see the opening of the foundation. It’s one of the things I regret for him,” Girard said. “The lesson for my generation, who work so much, who spend so much time on planes, in meetings, inaugurations and launches, we have to take care of ourselves, because one day you pay. Work, of course, but in a realistic manner.”
Didier Grumbach, who recently stepped down as president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, called Carcelle a “man of power, both humble and popular. He was unanimously respected by his colleagues and competitors.”
The two men shared a passion for contemporary art. “He was one of the first managers who put contemporary art at the center of his interests. He gave a chance to artists, with Bernard Arnault’s blessing. It was quite new to build the bridge between art and fashion,” Grumbach said.
Carcelle is survived by his ex-wife, Rebecca, and their two sons, plus three children from a previous marriage.
The funeral is scheduled for this week for intimate family only, at Carcelle’s request, with a memorial service for friends and colleagues at a later date.