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On the day the house of Dior is presenting its pre-collection of women’s clothing and accessories for the fall 2009 season in Paris, Bernard Arnault, France’s richest man and arguably the most influential tastemaker in the world of luxury, is—in what his wife describes as a recurring phenomenon—“obsessing".

Step ahead: Bernard Arnault, CEO, LVMH, has no doubt that India’s economy will rebound quickly. Gerard Cerles / AFP

“I just don’t like it. I don’t like it at all," Arnault mutters as he examines a red-rimmed cotton canvas bag. The shelves of Dior’s sunlit showroom are neatly stacked with dozens of purses, totes and clutches in leather, shearling and python. To one side sit $1,900 (around Rs95,000) serpent-shaped, crystal-encrusted sandals with 6-inch heels and shiny patent-leather ballerinas. Yet Arnault is fixated on this one $750 tote. He tugs disapprovingly at a round plastic pendant on the bag’s handle. “Can this be taken off?" he asks the cluster of Dior executives standing behind him. He takes the bag off its perch and continues: “The black and grey versions of the bag are already bordering on the commercial, but the red goes too far…it’s just not Dior."

As chairman and majority owner of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, which includes high-end brands Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Tag Heuer watches, Donna Karan, Fendi and Moët and Chandon champagne, and of Dior and other companies, Arnault is required on a daily basis to balance the business needs of his sprawling empire with the exquisite good taste those brands must convey. What Arnault thinks matters globally. His is a $22 billion company in a $200 billion business.

Arnault and his industry find themselves staring into the abyss. As the world dips into one of the worst economic downturns ever, consumers have never been more divided where their tastes and spending habits are concerned. Self-conscious shoppers on Fifth Avenue, New York, are demanding markdowns and toting their purchases in brown paper bags, while customers in Beijing are lining up for the newest Louis Vuitton Stephen Sprouse bags. A rash of drastic discounting across America in early November rendered the idea of full-price designer goods anathema and, some say, changed the face of high-end American retail for years to come. “If someone buys their mother or girlfriend a bag, he doesn’t want to see it at 60% off the next week," Arnault says over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and peach yogurt in his office one morning in January. A tall, slim figure who just turned 60, he is a strict no-carbs advocate. A recent diet has left him 18 pounds lighter and faster around the tennis court, he says.

Also See A Guide to the Principal Holdings of Bernard Arnault (PDF)

In the emerging markets LVMH is counting on for its future growth—countries such as China, India and Russia, where owning branded products is still a way to exude status and achievement—there is also economic uncertainty. Arnault remains sanguine. “In 1998, the Russian economy was on the brink, and then it rebounded. It happened quite quickly. India too—I have no doubt it will rebound," he says, opening a silver pillbox and popping an artificial sweetener into his coffee.

“China is the most interesting part of the world for me now. I go there two or three times a year, most recently in Dalian, where we’ve just opened in a new mall. There are so many people who are getting to the stage where they want to consume, who want to be part of a club." Over the next five years, Arnault expects China to account for 20% of LVMH’s sales. “China is feeling the effects of the crisis, but less than the US. And when you consider that Chinese tourists are now buying as much as Japanese tourists, when there were virtually none just 10 years ago, I’m not so worried."

If LVMH manages to hold its business steady while others suffer, Arnault believes there could be opportunities to expand his empire. “Every time there’s been a crisis, we’ve gained market share," he says. “We’re about to enter a market of buyers over the next six-eight months. There will be opportunities, and we will be looking at them." At the time of writing, Arnault was in talks to invest in a fashion company with ecological and ethical goals founded by a global celebrity.

When Arnault built LVMH into a multi-brand luxury conglomerate during the 1990s, he could never have foreseen the economic downturn. But the strategy he embarked upon—betting that diversification among products and regions would allow one brand to sparkle when another slumps—may turn out to be invaluable. Last year, resilience in LVMH’s portfolio of fashion and cosmetic brands made up for a decline in sales at the company’s champagne and watch labels, allowing LVMH revenue to rise slightly and its profit to stay flat despite the recession.

In 1984, Arnault entered the luxury goods business when he bought Boussac Saint-Frères, a bankrupt textile and disposable diaper firm whose mixed bag of assets included French department store Le Bon Marché and the House of Dior. He quickly sold off nearly all of Boussac’s assets except for Dior and the department store and nursed the company back to health. In 1987, he bought high-end leather goods brand Celine and invested in young French designer Christian Lacroix.

Next, in what became one of France’s most acrimonious corporate wars, Arnault grabbed control of LVMH. He first got involved with LVMH in the summer of 1988 as an investor and ally to Henry Racamier, the then 76-year-old chairman of Vuitton and No. 2 at the new LVMH who was fighting with the company’s other main shareholders, the champagne- and cognac-making Moët-Hennessy clan. After first helping oust the Moët side, Arnault bought enough stock to become LVMH’s biggest shareholder and, after brutal legal battles, pushed Racamier out as well in early 1990. Among France’s genteel business establishment, he was compared to the era’s corporate raiders. “It didn’t really bother me," he says of the French press’ negative portrayal of him at the time. “I represented a new type of management style—a brash American approach."

Front row: (top, from left) Actor Charlize Theron’s mother Gerda, Theron herself, Arnault and Vogue (Amercian edition) editor Anna Wintour at the Dior 2008 Cruise collection fashion show in May 2007 in New York City. Mat Szwajkos / Getty Images / AFP; and Arnault’s daughter Delphine and son Antoine at a conference in February 2008 in Paris, where LVMH reported that its net profit rose 8% in 2007 to a record of €2.03 billion (around Rs13,500 crore now). Eric Piermont / AFP

Arnault’s recipe has been consistent: Hire designers who can draw attention and forge a brand identity, pour money into advertising and stores and buy back licences, lest they cheapen the brand.

His role as brand guardian is the reason he is prepared to spend 2 hours at 30, Avenue Montaigne, the Parisian townhouse that has served as Dior’s headquarters since fashion designer Christian Dior moved his atelier there in 1947.

As Dior’s chief designer, John Galliano, saunters in and out—escorting 23 models in exquisitely tailored grey tweed suits, honey-coloured coats, Art Deco–style cocktail dresses and floor-length evening gowns— Arnault, seated on a white sofa, focuses on two ingredients: Is the piece “Dior" enough and is it priced right? “Ah, this is true Dior," he states definitively of a black waist-cinched suit with pleated pockets. “It’s Dior safari," he says of a beige coat with a fox-fur collar. A skirt suit in Prince of Wales check appears: “The Dior woman will like this and will want to come back season after season," he says.

Galliano, his ponytail creeping out of a black cap, reads nervously in English from a prepared speech to explain the source of his inspiration: Dior seen through the erotic lens of photographer Helmut Newton. “Ça, c’est beau (It is beautiful)—how much is it?" Arnault asks as a tall blond model stands before him in a $1,500 red double-face wool dress. “Will that sell?" he asks of an embroidered $15,000 cream-coloured gown (the answer was yes, in Monaco, Hong Kong and Moscow). “Why not use those black masks for the ad campaign?" “If you tell me so, sir," Galliano answers.

All is well until the accessories tour, when the troublesome red bag stops Arnault in his tracks. “What do you think?" Arnault asks Delphine Arnault-Gancia, 33, his daughter from his first marriage, who is Dior’s deputy managing director. She slings the bag over her shoulder and pushes her long blonde hair out of the way. “It grows on you," she answers uneasily. She gestures towards her light grey tweed suit and black patent heels. “Don’t imagine it with what I’m wearing, think of it with jeans."

Arnault turns to Galliano. “John, help me out here. Do you like it?" he asks. “It’s for a younger crowd," the designer ventures. “Think of it for the streets of St Tropez." Arnault shakes his head. “I don’t like it," he says. “I don’t want to see it in stores."

One of Arnault’s greatest strengths in creating some of the world’s biggest brands has been to hire raw design talents such as Galliano at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton (he also tapped Karl Lagerfeld to run Fendi and, most recently, he chose ex-Chloé design chief Phoebe Philo to revive Celine). He then gives them enough space to express their creative potential even if—as with Dior—the results can be a roller coaster of successes and failures.

“He’s remarkably patient. He’s prepared to take his time to make decisions," says Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue. “Bernard has a very strong understanding of what the designers do. If he’s concerned about something, he’ll speak up, but he’ll never tell them, ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that’." Says Jacobs: “I’m a loud-mouthed New Yorker, and I don’t fall into French formality. I’m very straightforward and people were shocked in the beginning. But look, I always say if we do a good job and we’re successful, he’s happy. If we don’t, he’s not. This isn’t a popularity contest."

“Designers are closer to artists than to engineers," Arnault says. “They’re not like normal managers, and you have to balance their creativity and rationality. John, Karl, Marc, they’re genius. You can’t put them into a rational environment. They’re sometimes late, and you have to accept that if you work with them, you have to be understanding with them."

Arnault first invited Galliano to his office in 1995 to interview him for a job at Givenchy, the couture house founded by French designer Hubert de Givenchy in 1952. In reality, Arnault already had Galliano in mind for Dior. “John was Dior when I saw him. He seduced me, even when he came into my office with his long hair and punk look," Arnault says. “His style was so close to Dior."

Choosing a relatively unknown and notoriously audacious British designer for two of France’s most storied couture brands was hard to digest for the Parisian fashion establishment, which in newspaper columns bemoaned the sure decline of French cultural supremacy. “My brief was to blow off the cobwebs," Galliano says. Within five years, Galliano had re-established Dior’s credibility with young consumers by presenting collection after collection of sexy looks, including black motorcycle jackets and frayed denim. Dior began making a profit in 2002.

Managing the enfants terribles of fashion has its ups and downs— and one particularly low moment came two years ago when Jacobs was struggling with a drug problem and checked into rehab. “He was sick, and I tried to give him advice, as a father would. But I told him, ‘You have to stop, it’s not possible to go on like this’," Arnault says. “When my personal demons became problematic, it wasn’t easy to tell him," Jacobs says. “But I wanted to be upfront and he completely understood."

Arnault’s Midas touch hasn’t always worked. His experiment with the international auction business was short-lived; in 1999 Arnault bought Phillips Auction House but sold it four years and millions of dollars later. Arnault also got stuck in the dot-com bust, struggling to build up an Internet investment vehicle he created in 1999, which he eventually sold.

As his business and personal fortunes have grown, Arnault is also calibrating his own swelling public persona. For years, as he was building LVMH through rapid acquisitions, Arnault was the backstage businessman bankrolling the larger-than-life personalities who design for the brands he owns. It’s a part that suited his character well. An engineer by training and an amateur classical pianist, Arnault is soft-spoken and demure. “He’s not a cold man, but he doesn’t smile at anything and everything," says Pierre Godé, who has been Arnault’s legal adviser and one of his closest friends for 30 years.

Now, however, Arnault has become somewhat of a brand himself. He is a de facto ambassador for the French industry. Last year, when Chinese consumers boycotted French goods in the wake of protests against the Olympic torch in Paris, Arnault went on a diplomatic mission to smooth over the animosity and represent the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, with Chinese officials. There were big business interests at play: Arnault wasn’t only concerned that sales of LVMH products would suffer; French supermarket chain Carrefour, of which he is one of the biggest shareholders, is a big player in China.

Arnault balances the creative and commercial sides of his business, his public image and his role as the father of five children—who will, he hopes, one day take over the family store—with meticulous order and attention to detail. “He’s more than impatient, he’s obsessive," says Hélène Mercier, a Canadian concert pianist who has been married to Arnault since 1990. “Everything has to be perfect. But sometimes that means that he’ll obsess about the little things. Like if a painting is too low, he’ll tell you 10 times that the painting is too low and I’m like, ‘Let’s move on’. He doesn’t know half-measures. And he hates to lose."

The Arnaults and their three sons live in a sumptuous 19th century house on Paris’ Left Bank, in sight of the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides. Though clearly opulent, the house doesn’t have a distinct style, but is rather a copious amalgamation of Arnault’s past and present aesthetic sensibilities, from early 20th century paintings to contemporary art (Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan). One of the three separate living areas is decorated with crimson upholstered divans, a red-hued Warhol painting of Elizabeth Taylor and a Picasso hanging over a mantelpiece. In the main salon, a blue-era Picasso hangs near a Steinway grand piano and an Yves Klein coffee table filled with 22-karat gold leaves.

“He’s friends with many contemporary artists like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, and I would guess that he’s learning about contemporary art as it’s unfolding before his very eyes," says architect Frank Gehry, who was commissioned by Arnault to build the Foundation Louis Vuitton, a contemporary art museum in western Paris. “To the outside world, it probably looks a little shotgun. But it’s a taste in formation; he’s still a student of contemporary art. I felt that with the architecture too: He’s exploring, he’s open."

“My husband is an aesthetic, he likes to be surrounded by beautiful things all the time," Mercier says. A lively, slim, tall blonde with short hair and long tanned hands, Mercier joins Arnault over an aperitif one evening in their main salon, as a maid in a white apron enters the room carrying a silver tray of appetizers. She is far more outgoing than her husband, who has never been very comfortable talking about his home life. Dressed in a simple black skirt, white shirt and little make-up, she animates the conversation between her husband’s pauses. “When he comes home, he wants to talk about things other than work—about art, music, interior decoration—and I’m happy with that," she says.

Mercier met Arnault (who was divorced from his first wife, Anne Dewavrin) at a dinner party in the fall of 1989. During a date that New Year’s eve, Arnault invited Mercier to his house for tea, and she asked him to play the piano for her. He played an Alexander Scriabin prelude. “His hands were trembling, he was dying of fear, but he was determined to get to the end," Mercier says.

The two were married eight months later in a five-person ceremony in southern France; Arnault was wearing white jeans and a blue blazer, Mercier a white Lacroix suit. Arnault often brings home prototype bags or perfumes to get a more “feminine view" from Mercier. “Sometimes it’s about his opinion and sometimes it’s about the opinion of his wife," Jacobs says.

Though Mercier has a busy schedule of about 20 concerts a year and practises 2-6 hours a day, she is often by Arnault’s side at fashion shows, boutique openings or LVMH celebrations (“He’ll seek my view on all sorts of work issues, but he won’t take advice from me on piano playing," says Mercier, on another afternoon. “It’s because he hates to feel inferior."

Today, Arnault and Mercier are in high demand on Paris’ high-society party circuit, yet both insist on spending as much time as possible with family. Arnault spends several hours a week doing math homework with his sons, especially 16-year-old Alexandre. “We’re quite indulgent with them and not too strict, as long as school results are good," Mercier notes. She says that while the couple, who are Catholic, don’t go to church on Sundays, they feel that religion is an important element in raising their children, all of whom attend Catholic schools in Paris. “We believe it’s important to give them a religious upbringing because if you don’t, you’re forcing them not to have any religion."

Alexandre appears in the living room, joining his parents. He is tall, good-looking and polite, obliging without protest when his parents ask him to play Chopin for them on the piano. After about half an hour, Arnault tells Alexandre that he can be excused: “You can go back to studying now."

“Dad, I’ve been in the house studying all day. Mom can tell you that," the teenager rebuts.

Arnault’s path to the top of the world’s most glamorous industry began on muddy construction sites owned by his grandfather’s real estate business in the northern industrial French town of Roubaix. “When I was 7 or 8, I would spend every Thursday with my grand­father on his construction sites," Arnault says. “He died very early, at the age of 65, but that’s the lesson he taught me, that you have to immerse yourself completely in the job you do."

When Arnault had finished his engineering studies at France’s prestigious École Polytechnique in 1971, he joined the family public works and construction company, then run by his father Jean, and became its chairman within five years. “I was 25, I didn’t have any experience, and my father put his company in my hands," he recalls. Arnault’s memories are responsible for shaping his views on passing on the family business. “If my children work with me one day, they have to deserve it. And if they do, and they like the business, then they will be part of it," he says.

Arnault’s children from his first marriage already work at LVMH. Along with Delphine, Antoine Arnault, 31, joined Louis Vuitton’s advertising department three years ago, having run his own Internet company for two years after finishing college. For him, there was never any doubt over where his future lay. “Growing up, I’d always visit boutiques with my father on the weekends," says Antoine, who is now Vuitton’s communications director. “I knew I’d work for my father’s company and so, if I was going to, why not start right away or I’d be wasting time."

The luxury goods industry’s last major slump occurred in late 2001, in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York. At that time, Arnault had just emerged from his second big corporate battle, a legal tug of war with François Pinault, then chairman of PPR, over control of Italian fashion house Gucci. PPR ended up winning the battle, settling with LVMH and gaining a majority stake in Gucci, though it was a pyrrhic victory: The deal was inked on 10 September 2001, and the industry proceeded to take a two-year dive. The battle didn’t do much for either man’s reputation for sportsmanship either: A cold war ensued, with Arnault and Pinault trying to outdo each other in business, art and the press.

The post-2001 downturn hit LVMH hard, almost wiping out the company’s profits. Arnault responded by expanding the geographical reach of LVMH’s key brands—in particular Louis Vuitton’s. The idea was to compensate for sluggish growth in the mature markets of Europe and the US with the vibrant consumer-driven economies of China and India. In emerging markets, Vuitton has quickly built cachet by selling recognizable LV-logoed handbags that have resonated with the rising middle class.

Meanwhile, Vuitton has been fine-tuning its image and offerings, particularly in the US and Europe. After hiring Jacobs to the label, Vuitton succeeded in attracting younger consumers to what, by the early 1990s, had become a staid, grandmotherly brand. Vuitton teamed up with artists, tapping into the New York street-cool set with scruffy graffiti-patterned handbags designed by the late Stephen Sprouse (a new limited edition of Sprouse-inspired handbags hit the stores again in January). Vuitton has hired celebrities—from Jennifer Lopez to Scarlett Johansson and Madonna—for its ad campaigns. “My father has many talents, but his best is marketing," Antoine says.

Around the time Antoine joined, Vuitton executives were beginning to wonder whether the label had become too much trend and too little substance. The concept behind the so-called “core values" advertising campaign that ensued, says Antoine, was that “10 years after Jacobs, we wanted to recreate a balance and talk to our core consumers as well".

The campaign, which continues today, has featured Mikhail Gorbachev, Sean Connery and Keith Richards (who agreed to be photographed after Vuitton promised him a custom-made monogrammed guitar), among others. In the ads, the bags are hardly visible and the tag line evokes the idea of life as a journey. “When I first went to my father with the suggestion that we use Gorbachev for one of our ads, he looked at me as if I was crazy," says Antoine, a poker aficionado who drives a hybrid car. “But he’s the one who taught me never to give up."

Arnault’s role—as an international businessman and member of the French corporate elite—has shifted into higher gear over the past few years. He bought a luxury five-star hotel called Cheval Blanc in the French ski resort of Courchevel (where he uses the top floor when he vacations there with his family) and France’s biggest financial newspaper, Les Échos. Arnault has been increasing his investment in Carrefour—which is the world’s second largest retailer after Wal-Mart—and today he’s the company’s largest shareholder together with Colony Capital property fund.

In mid-January, Arnault took the self-assured, politically charged world of French business by surprise by sitting down for a reconciliatory lunch with his arch nemesis, Pinault. The two hadn’t spoken for a decade. The lunch was leaked and splashed on the front page of French newspaper Le Figaro.

The two men’s wives may have brought the rivals together; Mercier says that she and Pinault’s wife had met at an art exhibit and agreed it was time for a truce. “We both went back and told our husbands that we had met and embraced," Mercier says. According to people close to both sides, the lunch—which was organized by Albert Frère, a top Belgian banker and Arnault’s best friend—was merely a cordial gathering to patch up old differences. The explanation was not entirely convincing. Were the two collaborating on a new business deal, Paris wondered? Or, at a time of profound uncertainty for the world economy, were the two luxury goods supremos swapping thoughts and strategy? Whatever their past enmity, the contemporary economy appears to be a much greater foe.


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