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Delphine Arnault has been quietly working her way up at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the French luxury group her family controls.
Quietly, that is, until now.
This story first appeared in the April 14, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
That’s because the eldest child of LVMH kingpin Bernard Arnault has something to crow about: the LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize, an initiative she spearheaded that will see one under-40 creator pocket 300,000 euros, or $412,500.
“I think it’s interesting to speak when you have something to say,” she reasons.
The contest has galvanized the industry around the challenges of upstart fashion businesses, and attracted invaluable attention to the 30 semifinalists—now narrowed to a dozen contenders—ahead of the big reveal of the ultimate victor on May 28.
The project has also shone a spotlight on a rising power player in the industry—a towering blonde with an infectious smile, a warm demeanor and a steely determination to make her mark. Very much in the mold of her father, Delphine Arnault delights in nurturing the creative sparks that fuel the industry, following design ideas through the multiple steps until they reach the sales floor.
Driven like him, she can often be spotted on weekends making the rounds of Paris department stores, and she confesses that she occasionally takes time out of her vacations to meet with young designers.
“I firmly believe that success lies in the combination of both talent and business savvy, and that the magic comes through partnership between both,” says Arnault, who just turned 39. “It’s important to see both sides, the business and the creativity.”
Schooled at the EDHEC Business School in Lille and the London School of Economics, Arnault began her career by spending two years at the international management consultancy McKinsey & Co., joining the family business in 2000 as a development director at the John Galliano fashion house.
Presenting a collection of scarves to a reporter back then, she revealed her passion for design and a knack for brand management—qualities that define top managers at the group. “There’s a marriage between the stoles you find here and the ready-to-wear, so everything’s coherent,” she said at the time, showing off a range spanning small scarf belts to large shawls with fringe.
Arnault moved to Dior in 2001 as a commercial director, also joining the executive committee of her father’s most treasured luxury property. Yet her role at the fashion house was more behind-the-scenes as she learned the ropes of the leather goods business at the elbow of Dior chief executive officer Sidney Toledano.
She ultimately rose to become Dior’s deputy managing director in 2008, and in 2011 orchestrated a vivid accessories line in collaboration with the well-known contemporary German artist Anselm Reyle.
“What’s interesting is to create products, and commercialize them,” she says.
Last September, Arnault was named executive vice president at Louis Vuitton, a commanding post that gives her purview over a broad array of businesses: not only leather goods, but also women’s and men’s rtw, plus watches and jewelry.
As second in command at Vuitton, Arnault is in pole position to help shape the next phase of the powerhouse brand under a new ceo, LVMH veteran Michael Burke, and acclaimed designer Nicolas Ghesquière, whom she helped select for the high-profile role after Marc Jacobs resigned as artistic director of women’s collections to focus on building his signature brand.
Her talent scouting goes further: She was instrumental in the recent hiring of leather goods designer Darren Spaziani for Vuitton, the majority acquisition of British footwear guru Nicholas Kirkwood, and minority investments in Italian designer Marco de Vincenzo and in rising London fashion star J.W. Anderson, who was also handed the design reins at Loewe.
She also has a new personal project: her infant daughter, Elisa, with French telecoms pioneer Xavier Niel.
(Delphine and her brother Antoine, 36, who helms Berluti and Loro Piana, are the children of Bernard Arnault’s marriage to his first wife, Anne Dewavrin. He also has three sons with his second wife, the Canadian pianist Hélène Mercier.)
In a wide-ranging interview, Arnault spoke about everything from her strong rapport with designers to her love of competition to the dynamic between her and her famous father.
WWD: There’s been a big focus on reviving heritage brands over the past decade or so. Do you think it’s time to create some new names?
Delphine Arnault: I think both are really important. At LVMH, we have amazing heritage brands and we put interesting talents in those brands, sometimes very young, like we did at Givenchy with Riccardo Tisci at the time, or like we just did with J.W. Anderson at Loewe, but also talents that are already further along in their careers, like Raf Simons at Christian Dior or Nicolas at Vuitton.
It depends on the personality of the designer. There are some who have their own brand, like Marc Jacobs, who have also worked for heritage brands. Then you have designers who prefer not to launch their own brands, so it depends how they choose to develop.
It’s always important to invest in young talents and the talents of tomorrow. As the leader of our industry, it’s important to nurture young people and to help them grow. It’s our responsibility.
WWD: Is creativity an essential fuel in the business?
D.A.: In the group we’ve always had a passion for creativity. Creativity is really at the center of what we do, it’s a mix of creativity, innovation and savoir faire that creates magical products.
WWD: Why do you think the LVMH prize has captured the attention of the industry, and what does it say about being an upstart designer?
D.A.: Today I find it’s extremely hard to launch one’s brand, and that’s also why we are helping these young talents. You have to be very brave and very entrepreneurial—you have to dare to create your own brand.
What’s really amazing about this prize is, of course, beyond the amount that you receive, the year of coaching by professionals that have worked at LVMH for a long time. When you’re a young talent and you want to launch your brand, you always have tons of questions: Where should I produce? Should I launch a second line? Should I do shoes, accessories? If you have someone who can coach you and give you advice and help you find the right supplier, it’s a big help.
Also, I think the composition of the jury [Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, Nicolas Ghesquière, Raf Simons, Phoebe Philo, Riccardo Tisci and Kenzo’s creative duo, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim] is also extraordinary and completely unprecedented. We have the best designers in the world at LVMH, so to be able to ask them to elect the young designer of tomorrow is obviously very exciting.
WWD: You’ve been instrumental in a lot of recent design appointments. How do you make such choices?
D.A.: I am not the only one who decides. I give my opinion, but it is my father, in collaboration with the brand president, who decides for LV, for Dior. We give our opinion, but at the end of the day, he makes the final choice.
When you face a creative change at the house, you have to start a dialogue, and talk with the designer about how he envisions the brand to make sure that you’re on the same page. It’s the way the designers talk about the brand, and what they see, and their emotions, how they perceive the house.
WWD: So was Nicolas Ghesquière the favorite for Vuitton?
D.A.: It seemed obvious that he was the right talent and the right person for the job. It’s about an exchange, it’s about a vision. He understood extremely well that Vuitton was a brand that was 160 years old, and he had a very clear vision of what he wanted to do.
It was the same at Dior, after discussing with Raf and Sidney Toledano and my father, the choice seemed obvious, also.
WWD: There must be fierce competition to find and secure the best design talents. How do you stay on top?
D.A.: I do this because it’s interesting for me. Competition, of course there’s always competition, and I like competition. But I don’t do that because of competition. I do that because new talents are the future.
WWD: You have a big empathy for designers. Do you feel maternal towards them, or more like a coach?
D.A.: It’s more like a dialogue, an exchange of point of view. Most of the time I learn things I didn’t know. When you spend time with Karl Lagerfeld, for example, you learn 30 things you didn’t know, his culture is vast.
I think that what’s interesting is the exchange, and the way they see things. It’s different than the way I see things because I’m more on the business side. I find it very enriching.
WWD: Are you more apt to listen to the opinion of a designer, or a ceo?
D.A.: It depends on the subject. I have a lot to learn from designers. I spent 12 years at Dior, and I learned a lot from Sidney Toledano, and from my father, and now I start this new chapter at Vuitton with Michael and Nicolas, and that’s what’s good about life—that you always learn. If you know everything, it’s the end, no?
WWD: Do you prefer to avoid the limelight?
D.A.: In the case of the LVMH prize, I’m very proud of what we’re doing. I was leading that initiative. But when I was at Dior, the people who were talking about the brand were the designers and Sidney.
WWD: What do you like to do in your spare time?
D.A.: I take care of my daughter, because my family is very important to me.
I have a passion for modern and contemporary art. I spend a lot of time in museums, I particularly like the Guggenheim, MoMA in New York or LACMA and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, for example. I cannot wait for the Louis Vuitton Foundation to open. When I need to relax, I love to go to the movies or watch a good TV series. I also practice a lot of sport, mostly tennis and swimming.
WWD: Luxury customers are getting younger and younger. What’s the best way to reach them?
D.A.: I think you need to know your clients. Clients are becoming more and more savvy. They know what’s happening in the brands; they know the new products that are coming out.
I try to visit stores because it’s important to meet the teams and to hear the comments of the salespeople.
At Louis Vuitton, we only sell through our shops, so the client experience is really, really important. It’s fundamental to go in the shops. It would be a mistake not to go. I often go on Saturday. It’s a big day with a lot of traffic. It’s important to feel what the customer is feeling when he enters the shop.
WWD: What’s your view on the technology explosion?
D.A.: It’s exciting, and it has impacted fashion a lot. All the shows are immediately on the Internet, on Instagram, on Twitter, it’s huge. Everything is live now, and for fashion, it’s very important. It’s not that it’s good or bad, it’s just like that and it’s not going to change so we have to adapt to it.
Technology gives big access, and you get more people who are interested in fashion. You can reach many more people now.
WWD: You’ve spent most of your career in leather goods. What do you like most about your job?
D.A.: Actually, when I started at Dior, I was more in footwear. And then Sidney taught me a lot about handbags, shoes and leather goods. They’re fascinating categories, and I enjoy the dialogue between creative people, industrial people, people in the factories and the sales staff in the shops.
There are so many different people working on the products, and this interests me a lot. From the first drawing until it arrives in the shop, many different people intervene. To make an idea become a reality is a process that fascinates me; otherwise it stays just an idea.
WWD: What motivates you on the business side, is it profits?
D.A.: It’s not the short-term result; it’s what Vuitton is going to be in 10 or 20 years that motivates me. It’s long term.
WWD: It sounds like you share your father’s long-range view on the luxury business?
D.A.: I’ve learned so many things from him. He’s taught us a lot, my brothers and me. I’ve been working in the group since 2000, so 14 years. He’s been an amazing mentor. He clearly has a unique vision of our industry, and he has shaped it over the past 25 years. It’s really interesting to work with him. It’s very reassuring to work with someone who has a vision that’s so clear and unwavering.
He’s really a visionary in everything that he has done, and he’s taught me a lot of things: to look at the details, but also the big picture. He’s put me in different jobs, and after succeeding you can move on to the next job. You have to prove your success in order to grow.
He’s also very generous. He wants to transmit his knowledge to my brothers and me, because I have four brothers, as you know.
WWD: What do you see as your next step?
D.A.: I started at Vuitton on Sept. 2 last year, 2013, so I don’t see a next step yet!