NEW YORK — What’s the difference between Bernard Arnault and Leonard Lauder?
Not much, according to Pamela Baxter, president and chief executive officer of perfumes and cosmetics Americas at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, president of Christian Dior Couture and a former top executive at the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.
“Obviously, one is very French and very reserved. Leonard is very gregarious and very social. Both have huge passions for art, huge collections and the money to back that up. One built a museum to put his art in [referring to Fondation Louis Vuitton] and the other donated his art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,” Baxter said in a conversation with Rose Marie Bravo at 21 Club here Wednesday as part of the Fashion Group International’s “The Tastemakers” series.
“They both have an attention to detail that is unlike anything you would ever see,” she added. “Bernard Arnault redesigns cosmetic counters at Bergdorf Goodman. If you did store tours with Leonard, he knew the beauty advisers and he would get behind the counters to rearrange how the lipsticks were merchandised.”
As a farewell gift, Lauder told Baxter she could take one executive with her so that she would have someone to watch her back. She said she decided on Terry Darland within seconds. Baxter described telling Darland about her new job while they were at Macy’s in Glendale, Calif. “We walked by the Dior counter, which was royal blue with Christian Dior in gold script. An “i” was missing and the lacquer was coming off of the case. The beauty adviser was about 70 years old. She shuffled out from behind the counter wearing bedroom slippers. Terry looked at me and said, ‘You are out of your mind,”” Baxter said. “I said, ‘No, I’m not. You are coming with me.'”
When Bravo asked how working for an American company differs from a European one, Baxter said, “The French are very analytical. They like to study everything. Since the time they are very young, education is very important, so they like to debate. They don’t make decisions very quickly. We Americans tend to make decisions quickly, we act on instinct, we take more risks. Both have a very entrepreneurial spirit.”
Stressing the importance of reinvention, Bravo pointed to Raf Simons as a “huge talent,” praising how he has redefined Dior. (She also gave Burberry’s Christopher Bailey — who Bravo hired when she was ceo of Burberry — high marks for his creative and aggressive digital efforts.) To highlight how Christian Dior has changed since her time at the company, Baxter said its fashion and beauty teams used to be housed in different offices “and weren’t even talking to each other.” At one point Dior had more than 500 licenses and an average handbag price of $750, until Arnault spent 15 years shedding licenses to refine the brand’s DNA and “to take up” the label’s quality and craftsmanship, she said.
In terms of couture, Christian Dior has added about 20 clients from the U.S. in the past four years. “They’re coming from Texas, California, Florida and they’re younger — in their 30s and 40s. They’re not just buying gowns for special occasions. They’re buying dresses and suits,” Baxter said. “I would say the number-one customer in couture today is probably Asia followed by the Middle East. Younger customers are being made, especially Chinese and Japanese. It’s really very healthy. There are a lot of art lovers who are really viewing couture as just another expression of their art.”
Baxter said, “We’re French so we don’t sell any fashion online. We haven’t gotten into the digital age yet with the fashion business — never say never. The thought process is, as you said, they’re afraid of the accessibility when you’re talking about $5,000 handbags. But the differentiation of product, having one-of-a-kind, super high-end fine jewelry are so important. We just had a beautiful showing of 50 pieces of fine jewelry in Paris where one of the necklaces was $2.7 million.”
Bravo reminded attendees to have supporters who will encourage big decisions. “When I took the job at Burberry it was quite a different role for me. In the end it was great, but it was a big giant step. Sometimes having somebody around you to push you to make a decision really helps. I was thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m not interested in any of this — raincoats, moving to London, British and plaid. I hadn’t worn any plaid in my life.'”
Baxter agreed, “Don’t be afraid to take a risk. For me, whenever I have made a career move it’s been because I was scared to death. If you’re really passionate about it, you’ll figure it out.”