Fashion

Delphine Arnault

The executive vice president of LVMH has made it her mission to foster emerging designers under the umbrella of a brand that prizes quality about all.

The executive vice president of LVMH has made it her mission to foster emerging designers under the umbrella of a brand that prizes quality about all.

Since joining her family’s luxury goods conglomerate, LVMH, 15 years ago, Delphine Arnault has become a quiet force within both the company and the fashion industry at large. As the eldest child of Bernard Arnault, it may appear she has been groomed from the start—and that’s certainly true—but she has largely paved her own way, proving to be one of the savviest managers in fashion today. After a stint working for McKinsey & Company, she assumed the position of development director of the John Galliano fashion house in 2000. A year later, she became Dior’s managing director, where for a decade she ushered in strong growth and oversaw the hiring of Raf Simons as creative director. Now 40, she’s currently the executive vice president of Louis Vuitton, a position she has held for the past two years, and she sits on the boards of three brands under the LVMH umbrella: Céline, Loewe, and Emilio Pucci.

Arnault has a keen eye for spotting new talent, not just with Simons, but also when she brought designer Nicolas Ghesquière on board as creative director of Louis Vuitton in 2013 (after his much discussed departure from Balenciaga). The same year, she was also instrumental in the hiring of J.W. Anderson to his post at Loewe and was closely involved with the purchase of British shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood’s brand.

It’s not all business for Arnault, though. Last year, she launched the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, creating the opportunity for international talents under 40 to pitch their brands directly to the company’s leaders. The competition, which recently wrapped its second iteration, features a panel that includes Simons, Ghesquière, Anderson, Riccardo Tisci (Givenchy), Karl Lagerfeld (Fendi), Marc Jacobs, Phoebe Philo (Céline), and Humberto Leon and Carol Lim (Kenzo), plus Arnault and LVMH executives Jean-Paul Claverie and Pierre-Yves Roussel. Each year, the winner receives a prize of 300,000 euros and a one-year mentorship from an internal team at LVMH. Last year’s winner was the brand of Canadian-born, London-based designer Thomas Tait; this year’s was another London-based label, Marques Almeida, run by Portuguese-born designers Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida.

Surface recently met with Arnault at LVMH’s Paris headquarters to discuss the prize, the new Frank Gehry–designed Fondation Louis Vuitton building, and more.

I wanted to discuss your current role at Louis Vuitton. I’m sure there’s no average day for you.

No. [Laughs]

Without oversimplifying it, how would you describe what you do?

Well, I’m in charge of the products. Not from the design perspective, of course, because Nicolas [Ghesquière] and Kim [Jones] are in charge of that. [My role] includes leather goods, the ready-to-wear, the shoes, and all the accessories. It means, in large part, also making certain that our vision and strategy are very clear and cohesive: where we want to go and what we want to develop. I work a lot with Nicolas and Kim on the products— again, not from a design perspective, but from a business one. I look at what markets need and want. I also work on the pricing and the margins, and on the merchandising until the products arrive in the shops.

What’s your relationship with the creative side? How do you work with Nicolas?

Nicolas is extremely talented with what he does—and what he has done—for Vuitton. He has a great vision, he’s very clear. Season after season, show after show, you have a clearer vision of the Louis Vuitton woman, what she looks like, who she is, what life she lives. I think that he’s not only a very gifted designer, but also very hard worker. He has a great team around him, composed of a lot of women. He likes to see different types of women, how they’re dressed and what they think, what bag they carry, what accessories they like. He’s very much inspired by the women he surrounds himself with, like Natasha Ramsay Levi or Camille Miceli. He’s working a lot on the different categories: ready-to-wear, of course, but also leather goods, accessories, and shoes. He’s also involved in communication and advertising. He has done an amazing job since he arrived in November 2013. Almost two years! I think it’s really an exciting moment for Vuitton.

It seems like you’re this bridge between the creative and business sides of the company. Are there any workplace mantras you follow? How do you balance the sort of right-brain/left-brain tension?

I’ve been in this industry since I was quite small. I started going into shops when I was 10. I’m used to going into shops on the weekend. Talking about the luxury environment, it’s been really part of my life for almost 30 years. As for the right brain/left brain, I think it’s really exciting to work at the same time with a creative director and an accountant or the CFO.

I don’t hear that it’s exciting to work with an accountant very often.

[Laughs] I know, but I find it very interesting to work with different personalities and people. To work at the same time with Nicolas, who’s extremely creative but also listens a lot—he wants the product to sell— along with someone from the atelier that has been working on the handbags at Vuitton for 30 years and has an amazing know-how of how you construct the bag, all this complexity really interests me.

Unlike a lot of people in positions similar to yours, you tend to shy away from the spotlight. Is this intentional?

I think it’s part of your personality, whether you like it or not. [Laughs] I don’t really like it.

Well, thank you for meeting with me, in that case.

I like meeting journalists. But it’s just that I prefer to work rather than to talk about work or myself.

Everything’s moving so quickly in fashion these days, but there are still products that are made and developed over longer periods of time that are meant to last. What’s the importance of this “slow design,” in a world where fast-fashion brands like Zara and H&M are producing products to fly off the shelves that won’t likely be wearable within a year?

At Louis Vuitton, there is no compromising quality. We produce our leather goods in our own ateliers. We have our own people who we’ve trained for years. Louis Vuitton is made in France. You’ll never see us do any markdowns. Everything that we sell is at the utmost quality. This has been our philosophy. It’s a mix of innovation, quality, and creativity. You were talking about products that take a long time to manufacture—for example, our trunks. They’re really the history of Vuitton and how we all started. The trunks sometimes take a lot of time to produce. Last year, we did a collaboration called Celebrating Monogram. Cindy Sherman did a trunk in a limited edition of 25 that was sold for 130,000 euros each. In our atelier, artisans who have been working with us for 30, 40 years made them. Some pieces are still being delivered, so it takes a lot of time to produce.

The Celebrating Monogram project involved a wide mix of collaborators, including Rei Kawakubo and Frank Gehry. How did that come to be? Frank Gehry is an obvious choice—he designed the new Fondation Louis Vuitton—but…

It was of the first projects I worked on when I arrived at Louis Vuitton, and it was great to work with them: Christian Louboutin, Frank Gehry, Cindy, Karl [Lagerfeld], Marc Newson, and Rei Kawakubo. It was really people who are “iconoclasts” and really in the moment—geniuses who are so relevant today. When you see the bag and the trunk of Karl, or the bag of Frank, or the backpack of Marc Newson, they’re each using our icon, the monogram. It’s had a great interest from our customers who were really interested in the product and also in the story around why we chose those designers and how they interpreted the brand and the monogram.

Louis Vuitton also has the ongoing Objets Nomades collection, which this year debuted new collaborations with three design studios—Raw Edges, Gwenaël Nicolas, and Damien Langlois-Meurinne—and has done pieces with the Campana Brothers, Patricia Urquiola, Barber and Osgerby, and others.

It’s very legitimate for Vuitton to collaborate with artists and to always invite geniuses or personalities who are outstanding to be a part of our brand and work together. Louis Vuitton is a brand that has a very big vocabulary.

When you were at Dior, the brand collaborated with the artist Anselm Reyle. How do you view the connection between art and fashion? Some people say fashion is art, which I think is absurd.

I don’t know if fashion is art, but at Vuitton there’s this history of collaborations with artists. It’s natural to invite personalities who are so relevant for a generation, or even for a century, to come and work on projects with us.

Let’s talk about the Fondation Louis Vuitton, which was largely your father’s project. What does it mean to you, both as his daughter and now that you’re in this top-level position at Louis Vuitton, to have a building like that and the art collection it houses?

Actually, it was very moving when it opened, because we had been hearing my father talk about it for 10 years. In France, things can take a lot of time. [Laughs] I think it’s something exceptional and spectacular. When I was there on the day of the inauguration, I was thinking of how important this building is, a beautiful gift for Paris because in 50 years it’s going to belong to the city.

I find the layout fascinating: You lose yourself in it. In a way, I think it’s a sort of metaphor for Louis Vuitton. The brand is so big, with so many facets and surprising collaborations around each corner. Both are also about fantasy. You’re losing yourself through the experience of exploring the museum or wearing something from the brand. These are obviously very separate worlds, but the idea of this dreamlike experience or mental escape could be where fashion and art connect. Do you agree?

What’s interesting about the Fondation is that each time you go, you discover something new, be it with art or even with the spaces. Each time I go there, I see something that I hadn’t noticed before. Frank Gehry said, I can’t wait for the Fondation to live, to have all these nationalities here, just filling the place up, and coming and visiting and having their own experiences. I could spend a lot of time there. The Fondation is a magical place.

In addition to being on the LVMH board, you serve on the boards of Emilio Pucci, Céline, and Loewe. You seem to have an affinity for the designs of Jonathan Anderson, Loewe’s creative director. When did you discover him?

Actually, it was Nicolas Ghesquière who discovered J.W. He said, “There’s someone you have to check out!” Nicolas was the first one who mentioned him, and then a lot of other people did.

Loewe’s been in the company’s portfolio since 1996, but under Jonathan Anderson it has changed drastically. Were you involved with that change? Where do you see Loewe going in terms of its business?

Well, Loewe is an extraordinary brand with a formidable heritage, especially as a leather goods company. The brand was founded in 1846, and it has been really important in the culture of the Spanish people. I think that Loewe needed a bit of modernity. Jonathan Anderson is really fascinated by this idea of heritage and modernity. He’s putting a lot of excitement into the brand. He’s been working really, really hard. He has both Loewe and his own [eponymous] brand to develop.

Loewe has a great retail network with a lot of stores and great locations in Asia. A little bit less in the U.S., but it’s in process. I think there’s a lot of potential for the brand.

What about Céline and Pucci?

At Pucci, there’s a new designer [Massimo Giorgetti], who just arrived. At Céline, Phoebe [Philo, its creative director] is fan – tastic. I’m a big fan of Phoebe. She really has a vision. When she took Céline in 2008, she completely transformed the brand. The vision for the brand is extremely clear. It’s really for a contemporary woman, for a young woman. Her work is anchored in a real and true vision of what a woman’s life is today. It’s perfect. I love the brand.

The use of Joan Didion in the ad campaign earlier this year was really smart—so unexpected but spot-on.

Everyone looks at what Phoebe does. She is so directional and influential.

Last year, you established the LVMH Prize. What was the impetus for starting it?

We had been thinking about doing it for a long time. We think that as the leader of our industry it’s our responsibility to find young talents and to help them grow. That’s the spirit of the prize. When I was first thinking of it, I was working at Dior—this was in 2013 — and I spoke a lot to Raf [Simons] about it. He helped me with finding the talents. For example, he had the idea to ask all the designers of the group to be part of the jury, and to have the best jury in the world. It’s something only LVMH can do, to have all these amazing designers who work for LVMH give their opinion and their point of view on the future designers.

During the deliberation, each finalist presents for 10 minutes in front of the jury. They each have two or three models wearing their clothes. We see the clothes on the models, and then they explain what their vision is, how they started, how they’re structured, and things they want to see for their brand. The jury then asks questions. After that, we have lunch with my father, and vote for the winner. For the votes, we discuss each candidate. We have little cards that we put in an envelope, so it’s kind of a secret vote. The lunch is a great moment because we’re all together and we can discuss and express our different points of view. The one who has the most votes wins.

And how do you choose the special runner-up honorees?

Also in the vote.

So whoever gets slightly fewer votes is a runner-up?

Yeah, exactly. So Marques Almeida won this year, and the special prize was given to [Simon Porte] Jacquemus.

Is there a dialogue between the judges and the presenting designer?

After their presentation, there are questions asked about the vision of their brand, or it can be about what department store they’re stocked at or anything about production. It’s really random questions.

For part of the selection process, LVMH works with a huge committee of editors and stylists from around the world. How did you put together that group of people, and what’s their role?

The prize is quite open, because each designer applies through the Internet. Anyone can have access to it, regardless of nationality. You have to be under 40 years old to apply, and your brand has to have at least two collections. This year we got more than 1,000 applicants. There’s an internal committee of people from LVMH and outside who look at all the applicants and reduce the list to around 25—this year, to 26. Next, we ask the opinions of a panel of around 40 what we call “experts,” such as Carine Roitfeld, Marie-Amelie Sauvé, Franca Sozzani, Patrick Demarchelier. This panel consists of editors, journalists, stylists, photographers, models, makeup artists, department stores’ executives, and buyers.

For the designers, even if they don’t win the prize, they get to meet all these people at once. During March Fashion Week, we organize an event where we invite all the experts, plus a lot of people from the industry, and each designer has a booth to show their clothes. The personalities come and look at what they do. It takes place at the LVMH headquarters on Avenue Montaigne. For two days, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., the 40 experts can come, take a moment in between the shows to look at the clothes and meet the designers. At the end of the two days, they have to vote for the eight designers they prefer out of the 25. This year we had seven finalists who went in front of the jury. Even if you’re not the finalist or don’t win the prize, you get a lot of exposure.

How long does it take from beginning to end?

We started the applications in January and closed them in late February. From there, we reduced the list to 26, and then in March everyone voted following the showroom viewing. A week later, we knew who the seven finalists were. In late May, we did the quick presentations to the judges, voted, and then announced the winner.

This year, the winner was Marques Almeida. What drew the jury to them over the rest? Why did they stand out?

I think that their work is full of energy and very creative. They have a very interesting and unconventional use of colors and materials; their work with denim, for example, is outstanding. They also have a very good selling track with retailers who carry their collection.

So these contestants need to be designers who can also create things that make sense in the marketplace.

Yes, it’s not only creativity; it’s also being able to have a consumer buy your clothes. There needs to be a commercial response to the creative process. That is, of course, taken into consideration in the process.

What made the 2014 winner, Thomas Tait, take the prize?

He’s extremely creative and draws very well. He had prepared a little book for the jury with a lot of drawings. At the time, he really needed the prize. When you’re the winner, you get 300,000 euros, and on top of that—a one-year coaching by LVMH professionals, which is, I think, the most important thing. They help the designers with decisions that they have to make for their business. You always have a ton of decisions to make when you’re a young designer: How should you price your clothes? Should you do leather goods and shoes, and if so, where should you produce them? Should you produce in Asia or somewhere in Italy? Where should you be stocked?

There’s all the press they get, too. The value of the press, just from winning the prize, is enormous.

Yes, in just one year, Thomas Tait multiplied his sales by two. We helped him find a good factory to produce his clothes and also on legal matters, like owning his trademark in different countries.

One of last year’s special prize honorees, Hood by Air, has become a rather large presence in fashion. Do you think the prize played a role in this?

Yes, but when [Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air] won the prize, he was already a very promising success. The prize helps you a lot, but you need to have the talent and the willingness to grow. Actually, after winning the prize, Hood by Air said they would come to Paris more often, and they did.

One of the main problems for young designers is the cash flow, because they need to pay for the fabrics and the production way before they’re paid, way before department stores receive their collections. They have a moment when the cash flow is negative, so they need the financial help. It’s really useful for them. A lot of the time, their company is a bit financially unstable because of that.

On rare occasions, LVMH has acquired a young brand. Nicholas Kirkwood and J.W. Anderson are two examples of that. Both were promising designers given an opportunity.

We’ve always done that, even with Marc Jacobs at a time. We’ve always been supporting talents.

Is there an in-house team constantly looking for new talent?

No, we have many teams looking for new talents.

How does that work internally?

Well, we have a dedicated team who is, for example, very involved with Nicholas Kirkwood and J.W. Anderson, and who is also coaching Marques Almeida and coached Thomas Tait and Hood by Air. This team is used to seeing smaller businesses and identifying areas where they need the most help and support.

They work within the companies, in order to help either the CEO or the designer when they have questions. In the case of Thomas Tait and Marques Almeida, they don’t have CEOs. It’s the designer who does everything. One of the important elements of the prize is the coaching part.

From your perspective, what responsibility does LVMH have, if any, to support emerging talent and help build the world of fashion outside of the brands it owns?

Well, we’ve always been extremely supportive of young talents and giving a chance to young people. So it’s really in the culture and in the philosophy of the group. It’s our responsibility to help young designers.

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