LVMH scion celebrates his anti-streetwear labels, and talks #MeToo, changing image of group and not catering to Chinese tastes
In a frank first interview since becoming head of image and communication at LVMH, Antoine Arnault talks about the value of ‘timeless and beautiful’ fashion, why streetwear is not for everybody, and making modelling safer
In a menswear market where streetwear and casual attire are the flavour of the day, even at LVMH-owned brands such as Louis Vuitton and Dior, Antoine Arnault still believes in the power of a beautifully made suit from menswear brand Berluti or an expensive cashmere sweater from Italian clothier Loro Piana.
Arnault is the CEO of Berluti and chairman of Loro Piana and also the son of LVMH owner Bernard Arnault, France’s richest person. Last month Arnault – who has been working at LVMH since his early 20s, and is often rumoured, along with sister Delphine, as a possible heir to the throne – was named head of communication and image, a newly created role that will significantly increase his scope of responsibilities at the luxury conglomerate that his father has built.
“The business at Loro Piana is doing very well and it’s so different [to] what is popular right now that I think it may be linked,” Arnault says when we meet in Paris during the couture shows in early July. “It’s the opposite of brands like Gucci and Off-White, not to disparage them, but perhaps at one point people say that this is enough and that they want something made with the best material – and that’s timeless and beautiful.
“It reassures me to see the sales figures of Loro Piana because it shows that it’s not just cynicism and making fun of your clients with delivery-boy T-shirts and things like that. It’s not my view of luxury or fashion, even if they do well.”
While Arnault’s new title at the company will have him deal with every maison under the LVMH umbrella, from Fendi to Sephora and Moet Chandon, his duties at Berluti and Loro Piana remain unchanged.
“I like to respect my customers. It takes eight to nine months for a Berluti client to get a pair of custom-made shoes and it’s fine. I was always against see now/buy now, as I don’t think it’s relevant to what we do and is not a good image of luxury.
“If I know how long it takes for the artisans to make those products, I will appreciate it more. [The see-now-buy-now trend] is counter-nature to what luxury is. People understand when they come and see why it takes long. For a luxury brand to show one day and sell one hour later, what is that?”
When challenged about the streetwear-heavy menswear offerings at LVMH brands Louis Vuitton and Dior, whose creative directors are, respectively, Virgil Abloh of Off-White and Kim Jones, Arnault is quick to point out that “not every brand is for everybody”.
“Dior is not going to be for a 60-year-old gentleman who wants to look like someone from Mad Men, and I think it’s fine, as we can’t cater to everyone. Virgil understands that, too, and his collection for Louis Vuitton isn’t going to be for everyone. I won’t be able to wear it, for instance,” he says.
“I don’t know if it’s going to alienate customers, because at Vuitton the accessories are very strong and more mainstream, and that aspect will last for very long. But that little sparkle at the top of the iceberg makes things cool and you’ll still sell briefcases with the Louis Vuitton monogram. But have that cool factor coming from Virgil, even if you don’t wear Virgil.
“In terms of ready-to-wear, yes, I don’t think that my father will wear Kim Jones’ suits, but he’ll come to Berluti now,” Arnault says.
A factor that certainly played a role in Arnault’s recent promotion is his active role in shaking up the image of the company with a series of outreach projects, such as Les Journées Particulières, a weekend of events and demonstrations open to the public.
From Italy to New Zealand, France to Argentina, 77 LVMH workshops and factories open their doors and people from all walks of life get to see how luxury products are made and interact with the artisans behind them (the fourth edition will take place from October 12 to 14).
“It came out of a bad place,” Arnault says matter-of-factly. “Usually bad things come out of bad places but this time a good thing came out of a bad situation.”
As Arnault sees it, LVMH was being unfairly portrayed in the media, especially after the attempted takeover of Hermès in 2014, which generated lots of negative coverage and significantly impacted the image of the company.
“It was our responsibility, not the media’s fault,” Arnault explains, “but everyone talking about LVMH was very negative, saying that we were hyper capitalists and only cared about profits and not about the long-term view of our brands, and that we just wanted to milk brands.
“It was the Hermès deal and they did a great job brainwashing the market, and during those six months all these negative articles came out.”
Since acquiring a textile company that owned Christian Dior in 1984, Bernard Arnault has built what is now LVMH into the largest luxury group in the world (and the one with the highest market capitalisation on the French stock market). Arnault went on a “shopping spree”, acquiring a number of previously family-owned private companies such as Fendi, Bulgari, Givenchy and Dom Perignon, as well as retail chains such as DFS and Sephora.
“My father was called ‘the wolf in the cashmere coat’,” says Antoine. “It was the opposite of reality so we decided to act and I said, why not open our doors? In many competitive worlds like luxury, things are done behind closed doors and with secrecy, so one day I had a eureka moment: for one weekend we show everything, full transparency, forget about business or commerce and showcase our work.”
While he admits that, in an era of social-media frenzies and clickbait, he’s become more guarded when speaking publicly, Arnault does not mince words when talking about matters he feels strongly about. Besides the backlash against LVMH’s expansion, another issue he cares deeply about is the plight of models in the industry (he is famously attached to Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova, with whom he has two children).
Last year, in an unprecedented move, LVMH and arch-rival luxury group Kering partnered to release a model safety charter in response to reported episodes of mistreatment and abuse.
“It was before #MeToo and it was the elephant in the room,” says Arnault. “Everybody knew that things were happening and that at one point someone had to take a stand. Then a few events happened and triggered our decision to start doing something officially, saying that if something bad happens it’s also damaging for us as a company, not just models.
“At the same time, I heard that Kering was also writing a charter and I thought that this was a moment when we could work together. It really changed things because, whether it’s model agencies or casting directors, they don’t want to lose their biggest clients, so they’re treating girls much differently and it’s going in the right direction.”
He’s also blunt when talking about the rising power of Asian consumers, who are now being courted by luxury brands left, right and centre, and is at pains to emphasise that LVMH never does things specifically to target a particular market.
“It’s not how we think of luxury,” he says. “We trust our designers to envision the future of fashion and of course we make adjustments, but in the end that’s what we offer to our customers, not just because market research says that this year the Chinese will love this colour or something. We don’t do marketing it that sense and we don’t follow market studies but only offer our products.”
While Arnault won’t share much about succession plans at the group, he’s adamant that his father and siblings are in it for the long run.
“It’s more of a family company than ever,” he says. “My father will be there for at least another good 15 years and then you have my sister and me and my three brothers. It doesn’t get more family than that.
“We’re very interested and involved in the business and in a way we’re lucky because we have different types of personalities, the five of us, and I think that everybody can find their domain of competency to bring to the group and to my father.
“This is how we feel, how we need it and want it to remain.”