There is a hole in the heart of Paris and it was put there by the richest man in France. Just five minutes by taxi from the Arc de Triomphe, on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, the hole sits in Le Jardin d'Acclimatation, a park originally designed as a haven for Parisian haute bourgeoisie. Fifteen metres deep and the size of two football fields, the hole is lined with concrete. But it will soon be filled by the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, a three-storey, cloud-shaped edifice that will be a monument to the influence enjoyed by Bernard Arnault and the brand. Paris is full of art galleries and museums but only a tiny number are privately operated and none is on the same scale as the LV Foundation's project, which will consist of art galleries, workshops and archives in a US$200 million structure that could well rival the Eiffel Tower in popularity. The foundation's architect is none other than Frank Gehry, who was hand-picked by Arnault after the 60-year-old billionaire visited Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and was instantly smitten. 'I chose Frank from the beginning because I admire him and I'm touched by his kind of creative architecture,' says Arnault, who has eyes that are so piercing it's tempting to think he might be one of the X-Men. 'I think Frank is a genius. When we met the first time he immediately had the idea of a cloud.' Such is Arnault's magnetism - or perhaps the word is 'authority' - that Gehry began work on the foundation building as he flew home to New York, in the United States, frantically sketching cloud shapes in his doodle-esque style. One of those drawings can now be seen in the LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton) headquarters on the terribly posh Avenue Montaigne, where Arnault holds court in a fifth-floor aerie decorated with paintings by Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso and contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. A version of the drawing and a model of the new building will feature in a Foundation for Creation exhibition titled 'Louis Vuitton: A Passion for Creation', which begins an exclusive run in Hong Kong on Friday. 'The drawing downstairs is the first one he did on the plane,' Arnault says of the Gehry sketch that was selected for the project. 'Working with Frank is very easy, much easier than with many architects I deal with who are at a lower level. He has a point of view but I can give him advice and he will believe it.' There was a time when a human zoo occupied space in Le Jardin d'Acclimatation with exhibits from Africa. The Zulus and Nubians displayed in cages were popular with the Parisian public, who saw their captivity as reassurance of French dominion over a colonial empire. As home to the LV Foundation, Le Jardin will again display a manifestation of French power. The new building will stand as a monument to Louis Vuitton's burgeoning influence in world culture, which has been extended under Arnault to encompass fashion, cinema, art and music. Scheduled to open in 2012, it will house visiting exhibitions and permanent exhibits of work drawn from the collections of Arnault and Louis Vuitton, the latter being the most visible part of LVMH, the luxury goods company that Arnault controls and has built into one of the most influential businesses in the world. Arnault, as crown prince of the French fashion world, also oversees the fate of Dior, Loewe, Fendi, Kenzo, Pucci, Celine, Donna Karan New York and Givenchy. LVMH's other brands include Krug, Moet et Chandon, Hennessy, Cloudy Bay and Chaumet. And Arnault owns Les Echos, France's biggest financial newspaper, and the Bon Marche department store. In the world of modern art, Arnault's influence is akin to that of the Medici family during the Renaissance. Like the Medicis, especially Catherine de Medici, who was the de facto ruler of France for much of the 16th century, Arnault is a practitioner of the humanist philosophy that a prince's authority cannot be drawn from wealth or force of arms alone; it must also be rooted in the arts. Arnault's incarnation as a modern Medici began with a Monet, which he says was bought 'as a stroke of luck' when he was living in New York during the 1980s - a self-imposed exile that followed the election of socialist president Francois Mitterand. 'I went to an auction and saw a painting of Charing Cross Bridge in London. I still have the painting,' says Arnault, smiling at the memory. 'You will not believe it but, at that time, this period of Monet was considered too late and nobody was very interested and I was quite young at the time so I raised my finger and I got the painting.' Surprised to have topped the bidding, Arnault then had to figure out how to pay. 'It wasn't today's prices,' he says laughing. 'I had to work to put the money together. But I got it. And now this period of Monet has become the most sought after. I started to collect from this period and I went to Picasso and gradually moved to more contemporary painters. I bought the Monet because I liked it - I always buy a painting when I think it is a marvellous piece and I want to keep it forever.' Arnault, his second wife, Helene Mercier, and their three sons live in a magnificent house on Paris' Left Bank. It is stuffed with works from the early 20th century onwards, including pieces by Picasso, Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst and Maurizio Cattelan. There is also a Steinway grand piano; Mercier is a concert pianist. On one of their early dates Mercier asked the classically trained Arnault to play. He chose a difficult piece by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. Mercier has described Arnault as 'an aesthetic' who likes to be 'surrounded by beautiful things at all times'. This is evident in the conference room adjacent to his office, where he sits beneath an exquisite Picasso from the painter's early period. With so many of the foundation's exhibitions likely to be driven by Arnault's sensibility (The New York Times once called him 'a recognised authority in the field of contemporary art', a characterisation that makes him laugh), one wonders why it does not bear his name. 'Because my name does not mean anything for the planet, when the name of Louis Vuitton is understood all over the world,' he says. 'And Louis Vuitton is the brand from LVMH which has the most relationship with art.' That relationship began in 1859, when Louis Vuitton started his eponymous company. Just outside Paris lies Asnieres-sur-Seine. It's a typical French provincial town, despite its proximity to the capital, and on one of its undistinguished middle-class streets is the house that was home to the Vuittons until the mid-1980s. Behind a dull stone wall the family's property has a large courtyard that leads to the workshop where Louis and his son George laid the foundations of the Vuitton empire. In the flagstones near the front door is a plaque that marks the spot where a bomb dropped from a German Zeppelin landed in 1915. It failed to explode. Had it gone off, the Vuitton family and their dreams might have perished, decades before Arnault was born. The interior of the house is an art nouveau fantasy, with elaborate stained glass and painted walls. Part of Arnault's genius has been to recognise the heritage that the Vuitton house represents, plus the role that art has played in creating a certain kind of taste and aspiration at Louis Vuitton since the middle of the 19th century. 'At the very beginning of the Vuitton history, art was a passion of the founders,' says Arnault. 'The artist and sometimes the function of art is used as a source of inspiration for what we are doing. More recently we have been working with a lot of artists.' Most of this talent has been brought in by Louis Vuitton's creative director, Marc Jacobs, whom Arnault hired 10 years ago. '[Jacobs] is very close to a lot of contemporary artists,' Arnault says of the enfant terrible, whose periodic battles with drugs and self-loathing are probably responsible for many of the grey hairs on the billionaire's elegantly coiffured head. 'He brought us these relationships and he has an ability to work with these artists to create an aspect of modern art which is semi-product and semi-art. As the Vuitton owner, I was very proud to see a Takashi Murakami Vuitton product on the cover of Art Forum four years ago, which showed that his design was not exactly art but not far from it.' The Jacobs era at Louis Vuitton has seen the brand become younger and more populist in its approach, yet that was not Jacobs' vision but Arnault's. LVMH insiders readily acknowledge that Jacobs serves Arnault's purposes and not vice versa. The relationship has worked because Jacobs has buckled under and accepted Arnault's stern discipline. In the process, Arnault has used Jacobs and his ties with artists to push the boundaries between art and commerce, sometimes to the limit of what many critics see as acceptable. Last year, Louis Vuitton sponsored an exhibition of work by Murakami at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (Murakami began designing within the LV template under Jacobs' guidance in 2003). A Louis Vuitton store selling bags with Murakami designs was installed in the middle of the exhibition. Many people said the decision was an offence against art and commerce. Arnault was unapologetic. 'It's a modern version [of art and shopping] that maybe was started by Warhol,' Arnault insists, referring to the way the American pop artist took commercial items such as Campbell's soup cans and turned them into art. '[Murakami's work] is understood more easily by the public than what Leonardo da Vinci or Picasso were doing, so what we do is an evolution with Murakami one step further on from Warhol. 'The motivation is to show that Louis Vuitton is not only a retailer but also an inventor of something new in the world of leather goods and the arts,' he says. 'I don't mean Louis Vuitton will be an artist like a famous name, but it is part of the art scene and its originality.' With so much talk of art it's easy to forget that Arnault's roots are in the sciences. He studied engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris and, after graduation, joined his family's construction company. His love of art began when he was still a child. 'When I was a kid we often went with my parents and my sister to museums all over the world,' says Arnault. 'They taught us the beauty and the value of art over previous centuries.' Arnault's father saw a special quality in his son and in 1974 made a remarkable decision. 'When I was 25 my father was either courageous or reckless enough to give me the keys to his company,' says Arnault, with some pride. 'I built it into the No1 construction company in France and then sold it - but what I liked was the difficulty of construction techniques and the work with architects.' Arnault says he still approaches business as a logician, an engineer and a builder. Those who work with him admire his attention to detail. He is said to be ruthless in the way he enforces his view - and that of his wife - with respect to the DNA of the LVMH brands, especially Louis Vuitton and Dior. He tries to inspect all the products produced by the major brands and sometimes instructs his designers, including Jacobs and John Galliano, to purge an item from their lines, even if it is the work of a famous artist. '[What an artist does] must be meaningful and relate to the roots of a brand and the feelings of the designer of the brand and what the public feel about the brand,' says Arnault. 'It would be impossible to work with Murakami and Christian Dior. But between Louis Vuitton and Murakami is a fantastic success.' Arnault uses the same iron rule to keep his star designers - and their egos - in check. 'Where I am more direct on the creative side is on the products with the designer,' he says. 'When you are Louis Vuitton and when you are Dior it is like being a professional skater: you have imposed figures that you must do - set routines - and you have freestyle. So when John [Galliano] works for Dior it is imposed figures. It is Dior. He is not doing Galliano. And then at Galliano he does freestyle.' Looking at Arnault as he sits bolt upright in his trademark dark grey Dior suit, his hands placed precisely in front of him, one may think this king of luxury retail is a man with few emotions, but that would be a mistake. Those who work with him say he is capable of being moved and is quick to show his feelings, especially when it comes to the creative process. 'I think emotion is what explains becoming attached to a piece of art,' he says when pressed to explain how his feelings factor into his decisions. 'I am often asked after a fashion show how I know if the clothes will be successful and my answer is, 'When I feel emotion' - if I feel what somebody might feel standing in front of a moving piece of art. To know if a product is going to be successful I need to have this type of emotional feeling. It's just like what somebody might experience when looking at a Picasso.' It's never easy to understand the motivation of a man who keeps working 18-hour days when he is already worth billions of dollars. For Arnault it seems the explanation lies in his passion for free enterprise. He fled to the US when he thought Mitterand might cripple capitalism in France, he milked American free enterprise for every cent he could and then returned to France when Mitterand's government moved back towards the centre. Now Arnault keeps going, in part, because the current crisis makes him fear for the future of capitalism. 'The benefits for mankind of free enterprise are enormous and I hope that what is happening today will not put a shadow on these benefits,' he says, his nostrils flaring a touch, like those of a bull steeling itself for a fight. 'I see that as a risk that could happen in some countries. And I can understand why. There has been a lot of abuse of the system - there has been a lot of greed, especially in the financial world.' Arnault cites the growth of debt as a key factor in the disenchantment with unbridled capitalism that has followed last year's banking collapse. 'This debt created greed and this was a flaw of the system which has been corrected by this crisis,' Arnault says. 'But we should keep the dynamism - and I see some risk of this being put in question - the free enterprise system runs parallel with freedom in many countries and that is the key for the future of mankind.' Given this view, it's curious that Arnault sees a shift taking place in global economic power, from the rough and tumble capitalism of the US to the state-controlled enterprise of China. But he is nothing if not a pragmatist. 'I have no doubt that China will be the No1 economic power in the world within the next 20 or 25 years - so being the No1 luxury brand in that country is key for us,' he says. 'The reason for Vuitton's success [in the mainland] is quality and there is no comparison in the world of leather-goods. The more we see China growing, the greater the appetite for quality and the greater the success Vuitton will enjoy in that country.' Does that also mean Chinese - especially the younger generations - see Vuitton, with artists splashing bags with fluorescent paint and cherries, as a symbol of social and political freedom? Arnault deftly refuses to be drawn into that quagmire. 'I think they see [Louis Vuitton] products as a symbol of modernity,' he says. 'As a symbol of luxury and a relationship that is more and more positive between China and the western world.' BACK AT LE JARDIN d'Acclimatation, preparations are being made to begin construction. Gehry's latest design changes - and there have been many - are locked away in a drawer and the architect has been instructed to start work on a building that is already two years behind schedule. Those who are close to Arnault say this is the one project that truly captures his passion. As with the impressive Espace Culturel, which occupies the top of the Louis Vuitton store on the Champs Elysees, educating the public in the merits and goals of modern art will be one of the foundation's central aims. Arnault, who still discusses his major projects with the father - now 90 - who gave him the keys to the safe 35 years ago, says he wants the foundation to be explicitly didactic. 'Maybe it's because of my roots, my past, but I think there is some logic [in modern art],' he says. 'In spite of what you can see when you look at a Jeff Koons - it seems very strange for somebody who has never seen it, they wonder if it is really art - in fact there is some logic. And I think it is interesting to try and understand that logic. I'm sure it will attract a lot of visitors, although maybe not as many as the Champs Elysees shop.' He laughs at the obligatory, totally on-message mention of Louis Vuitton's flagship store. The richest man in France wants the world to know he got that way because of relentless focus, obsessive attention to well-defined goals and using everything, including art, to serve one master: the suc-cess of the brand. It makes me wonder if Louis Vuitton visits him in his dreams. 'No, no, no,' laughs Arnault. 'I sleep. I rest.' So for a few hours every night, the Arnault brain is not plotting innovations for his products or devising ways to make a perfect Vuitton world. But even when he sleeps there are LV employees in every time zone trying to do just that, all of them afraid to disappoint those X-Men eyes when they snap open at first light. Don't doubt it, this is one empire that never sleeps. 'Louis Vuitton: A Passion for Creation' will be on display at the Hong Kong Museum of Art from May 22 to August 9.