PARIS — Visiting the Paris headquarters of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton rivals a trip to a top European gallery, a hulking Richard Serra sculpture anchoring the courtyard, the hallways lined with works by the likes of Ugo Rondinone and Mark Rothko.
Art is a passion for Bernard Arnault, LVMH’s chairman and chief executive officer, and he spoke about its links to fashion, and the mission of the new Louis Vuitton Foundation.
WWD: Why did you choose to name the foundation after Vuitton, rather than another brand or company name?
Bernard Arnault: Since the 19th century, there have been strong links between the brand Louis Vuitton, its founders and artists — and it has endured ever since. We’ve participated in numerous artistic events, world fairs, and as you know [Vuitton’s first artistic director] Marc Jacobs collaborated with many artists. [Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince and Yayoi Kusama.]
WWD: Is there any parallel between the foundation’s mission and Vuitton’s?
B.A.: The mission of the foundation is art patronage, while the success of Louis Vuitton is based on creativity — creativity coming from stylists, designers or even scientists developing product compositions, as they do for cosmetics. Since I arrived at LVMH, I thought it would be a good idea to pay homage to the creative realms that have brought economic success to our business, Vuitton in particular.
RELATED STORY: The Art of Arnault — Louis Vuitton Foundation Bows in Paris >>
WWD: Besides hosting fashion shows there, how else might the foundation celebrate fashion?
B.A.: This foundation is mainly oriented towards art — with one exception: The Louis Vuitton fashion show, as the foundation carries its name. But it is a foundation for art that was not meant to be specifically related to fashion.
WWD: Do you plan to sell any fashion products in the gift shop?
B.A.: The handbag Frank Gehry designed especially for our project celebrating the monogram, but that’s it, no fashion products.
WWD: How might the museum impact the way people perceive the Vuitton brand — and you as an entrepreneur?
B.A.: This foundation reflects the values of the group, three in particular: Creativity, that’s obvious because this building is extremely creative and a fine example of architectural imagination. That’s why I asked Frank Gehry to design it. Quality is also a very important value of the group, and this building is a technical feat, requiring about 30 construction patents. Finally, an entrepreneurial spirit because this company has delivered an innovative building to Paris, something not seen in a generation. An entrepreneurial approach was needed to surpass all the obstacles, and to achieve the technical feats needed to realize what Frank Gehry had imagined.
This project cements the morale of our employees and gives them something to celebrate that transcends the usual benchmarks people talk about: figures, revenues, fashion reviews.
WWD: French President François Hollande attended the opening. Does that suggest the political world is paying more attention to the fashion business?
B.A.: It’s culture. It’s more than fashion. It’s more of a celebration of le génie français [“French ingenuity”]. It’s about creativity, the success of a French name in the world, and something that I am giving to France, this foundation, which I think will be emblematic for Paris.
WWD: Fashion and art have forged closer ties in recent years. How do you see this relationship evolving?
B.A.: There is no particular link between the art programming at the foundation and fashion. Fashion is an applied art. Fashion designers are not artists — sensu stricto — but they are connected to the world of art. They can have dalliances with art that are sometimes very fruitful, but they’re temporary. It’s not something systematic.
WWD: Does it surprise you that artists seem so willing to collaborate with fashion brands?
B.A.: Some definitely have an interest in fashion, it depends on the artist. I think the first time I met Jeff Koons it was at a Donna Karan show.
WWD: Vuitton is a pioneer inviting artists to interpret its icons. What do you think of the trunk Cindy Sherman did for your monogram projects, with drawers full of fake noses and such?
B.A.: I love it. I bought a trunk for myself. I think I’ll display it in my office.
WWD: Why do you think artist collaborations appeal to consumers?
B.A.: Because it’s very innovative, very original. I think when something’s done in an artistic way without commercial considerations and in a very limited series, consumers are drawn in by the creativity, the originality. Artists have a certain eye, and they twist things, producing surprising results. That’s what attracts people.
WWD: I understand you collect art based on intuition and what you like, not future investment value. Do you take the same approach choosing designers for your heritage brands?
B.A.: When you choose a designer, it’s an investment for the long term. It’s the same with artwork. When I buy a piece of art, I think to myself, I will live with this work of art for decades. Today, young designers live in a world that is changing rapidly, where communication is instantaneous. What interests me is taking the long-term perspective.
Take the example of Marc Jacobs. When we bought the company in partnership with Marc, it was doing maybe $20 million in 1998. Today, we do more than $1 billion, so it’s long term. I saw the potential with Marc, a great, great designer, and now we are working with him towards — in the next two years hopefully, if the market allows — an IPO.
WWD: You once told shareholders you weren’t sure people would be using iPhones in 20 years, but that they would surely still be drinking Dom Pérignon. Do you think they’ll be carrying luxury handbags — and buying art — 20 years from now?
B.A.: I think people will need clothes, and they’ll need luggage to put them in. So I think Vuitton will still be very successful in 20 years.