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Delphine Arnault arrives three minutes late for our meeting at Kinugawa and not before having a brief conversation with the diners at a neighbouring table. As she apologises, she explains that they are old acquaintances anxious to share their condolences about the recent death of Yves Carcelle, former chairman and chief executive of Louis Vuitton, who worked alongside her father Bernard for more than 25 years.
“It’s sad because he was so young,” she says of the 66-year-old, who died in August from a rare form of kidney cancer. His role at the house was monumental, she says. “I’ve been working at Louis Vuitton for one year and every day I hear about him.”
It is, in fact, exactly a year to the day since Arnault took her position as executive vice-president of Louis Vuitton, assuming a role that many say was written in her destiny at birth. As the eldest child of Bernard Arnault (she has a younger brother Antoine, and three stepbrothers from her father’s second marriage), she is the heiress apparent to LVMH, the vast luxury conglomerate that has made her father a fortune of $33bn. Her appointment at Louis Vuitton, the most glittering jewel in LVMH’s portfolio, and her role on the executive board of LVMH since 2003 suggest a future that will one day see her take more control of the company: Delphine by name, dauphine by nature.
Certainly, the 39-year-old has inherited her father’s somewhat sphinx-like inscrutability and willowy carriage. Blonde and delicate-looking, she cuts an impressive figure, standing well over 6ft in her LV stilettos, with a large gold crescent-moon pendant necklace and a woollen two-piece from the new collection by Nicolas Ghesquière, the house’s incumbent creative director. Wool seems somewhat warm for a day on which the thermometer is tipping 26C but she seems unbothered. “I’m always feeling cold . . . ” she says with a shrug. “At work, I am constantly asking them to turn down the air conditioning.”
Despite her height and stature, Arnault shrinks from media attention, approaching interviews as cautiously as one might an electrified fence. Perhaps her reluctance is hard learnt. There was lavish press coverage when she married Alessandro Vallarino Gancia, heir to an Italian wine fortune, in 2005 – she wore a dress designed by John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld took the photos. But her divorce five years later and her subsequent relationship with tech billionaire Xavier Niel have been extremely private. She declines to confirm whether or not Niel is the father of her daughter, or even her daughter’s name. “I’m quite discreet,” she explains in a soft, soft voice that drops still further, and becomes almost inaudible, when she spies the recording device on the table. “I think I’d rather focus on my work. So, I only speak when I have something to say. ‘Live hidden, and live happy’. Is that the same in English as it is in French?”
For someone so powerful, there’s something touchingly vulnerable about Arnault in person. A colleague likens her to being cast in the role of vestal virgin opposite her brother’s playboy prince, and certainly Antoine, with his supermodel girlfriend, Natalia Vodianova, and his world-class poker playing, is the more garrulous of the pair. I mention that a recent piece in Paris Vogue described her as “fragile” and ask whether she thinks it’s a fitting description. “I don’t like to describe myself,” she replies, with a whisper of a laugh.
So, instead, she describes the menu. “Normally, I take the carpaccio of yellowtail, which is very good,” she explains. “And I’ll have the mixed sashimi plate.” I order the same but skip on the bowl of rice she orders to go alongside, which seems altogether too fiddly and chopsticky to concentrate on. Arnault orders a Diet Coke, and we both drink lots of water.
Tucked away just behind the spangly flagship stores on Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris’s first arrondissement, Kinugawa is one of the few sushi restaurants in town. Such rarity makes for an exclusive clientele and, at lunchtime, the minimal, double-storey dining rooms burble with the cross-table chatter of the haute bourgeoisie and Hollywood stars in Paris craving carb-free food. “It’s close to my office,” Arnault explains of her dining choice. “It’s a bit like Nobu. But there’s no Nobu in Paris. I wanted to take you to Tch’a, a small Chinese restaurant very near my office. It’s almost all vegetables: everything is very rare. But I didn’t know if you would like it,” she laughs. “It’s very healthy.”
In fact, she eats far fewer lunches out now she has a daughter to get home to. Which she does, as often as possible. “I don’t know how many kids I’m going to have but it’s important to enjoy the moment,” she says, before revealing that today has been a maternal landmark: her daughter’s first day – well “one hour” – of pre-school.
Part of the reason we’re here is to discuss the culmination of a project: an exclusive collection of bags, Celebrating Monogram, that were commissioned in collaboration with herself, Ghesquière and six big-name creatives, who were given the task of reinventing the house’s iconic logo on leather wares.
“Louis Vuitton has a long history with collaborations,” says Arnault, as we pick at the lightly seasoned slithers of yellowtail before us. Indeed, the logo, created in 1896 by Georges Vuitton as a tribute to his father, Louis, has made an excellent canvas for reinterpretation. In 2001, the graffiti-scrawled Leo scarf designed by American designer Stephen Sprouse (and Marc Jacobs, the then creative director of LV) became one of the most covetable accessories in recent fashion history. In 2012, the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama imagined a spotty reinvention where bags, shoes, clothes and even store fronts were covered with vivid graphic dots.
The latest collaborations, with six “iconoclasts”, including shoe designer Christian Louboutin and architect Frank Gehry, have produced a playful, if prohibitively expensive, set of accessories. Karl Lagerfeld, inspired by his latest sporting passion, has fashioned boxing gloves and a punchbag, encased in a steamer trunk; artist Cindy Sherman has created a bespoke vanity case with drawers to store her tools of reinvention. “She wanted to do a trunk with all the things she uses when she does her make-up,” says Arnault, who seems thrilled by every item. “The fake nose, the fake eyeballs, the wigs. She decided on all the compartments and she labelled them herself by hand.” The vivid green and yellow drawers were “inspired by her parrot, Mr Frieda”. Other interpretations are more prosaic. Gehry’s gently sinuous handbag, with the logo hand-etched inside, stretched the capabilities of the technical team to their limits.
For Arnault, the process has been a cherished opportunity. “It’s important to celebrate the monogram. It’s the DNA of Vuitton,” she says, when I ask what it means to her. “I think – I hope – there is an interest in the philosophy and culture of the Vuitton name. It’s quite coherent, and intellectual, and the products are great. These are things you will want to pass on, things you treasure,” she continues. “We did an earlier collaboration in 1996, where one of the bags was an Azzedine Alaïa. I still have that Alaïa bag, it’s fantastic. They’re collector’s items.”
Cultural legacy aside, the appeal of developing these artworks-come-accessories is obvious. Launched this month, and accompanied by a glossy campaign shot by US fashion photographer Steven Meisel, the collection will ensure maximum brand exposure while underlining LV’s cultural reach. “Have you seen the new Fondation?” she asks of her father’s gigantic new Gehry-designed edifice now anchored in the tip of Bois de Boulogne. “It’s so exciting. Gehry is a genius.” Arnault is a regular visitor to the studios of various contemporary artists, especially those based in LA. Does she have her father’s appetite for art collecting? “I buy a few works,” she splutters with laughter. “I wouldn’t call it a collection.”
As we are presented with a plate of mixed sashimi, I ask when LV’s entwined initials were first imprinted on her consciousness. Quite late, it seems. “I remember very well the 100-year ceremony, in 1996. There was a big party and at the top of the room was Naomi Campbell arriving on stage on a giraffe,” she says. “And I remember the first Louis Vuitton bag I received: it was a brown Noé bag, when I was 18.”
In those days, the handbag was still the hallmark of an exclusive, largely European clientele but the luxury market has boomed since then, steered in no small way by her father’s insatiable ambitions for the brand. In an age when everything, from baby-changing bags to bicycle seats, is branded with the LV logo, does she think that luxury has become more accessible to the masses? She looks at me coolly, before replying. “You are still very privileged to receive a Louis Vuitton bag for your 18th birthday.”
Studious and sporty, as a child Arnault was more musical than fashion-fixated. Her stepmother, Hélène, was a concert pianist, and the young Delphine played the piano from the age of five to 20, when she quit for good. Her father and brothers continue to play. “My family are very talented at music,” she says. “My father is very good.” She only discovered fashion as a teenager, “around 16 or 17”, and learnt her earliest style tips from her mother, Anne Dewavrin (her parents separated in 1990), who would wear “beautiful dresses and suits”. Did she ever want to be a designer? “No, never,” she laughs. “I think it’s great to work with designers, and fascinating to work with creative people, but it’s the business side that fascinates me.”
To that end, she went to school in Paris (via a detour in New York state between the ages of seven and 10, where she attended a French-American school with her brother and became fluent in English) before going on to graduate from EDHEC Business School in Lille, and the London School of Economics. She left London in 1997 but recalls having had “fun” and, miraculously for a French person, having eaten some “very good food”. After graduation, she worked at consulting firm McKinsey for two years. It was an eye-opening experience. “I was learning strategy,” she says. “In a presentation in America they would start with the conclusion and say how they got there, and I found that very interesting. It was straight to the point.”
But it wasn’t until she arrived at Christian Dior in 2001, another starry house in the LVMH portfolio, that she says she “grew up”. She spent 12 years there, starting in shoes, before gradually working her way up to deputy general manager, learning beside chief executive Sidney Toledano, and Dior’s charismatic creative director John Galliano. “I was 26 when I went there, and I left at 38,” she says. “I was working on leather goods – the Diorissimo and Lady Dior bags – on the leather goods strategy, and also on the communications strategy.”
After Galliano’s abrupt departure in 2011, following a rant in a Paris bar that led to him being convicted of making anti-Semitic remarks, Arnault was widely credited for minimising the scandal’s fallout. She also handled the smooth transition of Raf Simons into his role as creative at Dior. Since arriving at LV, she has helped usher in Ghesquière, his design team and a radically new look for the brand. Together with LV’s chief executive Michael Burke, she is helping the house undergo a radical yet seamless transformation. Her diplomatic skills must be considerable.
She describes her managerial style as “quite calm” – a fact born, she says, of her need to negotiate with so many different strands of the organisation – but it’s clear that she’s all over the house, not least in her “surprise” visits to various global stores that she likes to undertake on a Saturday afternoon when the shops are at their busiest. “I am always on my phone but it’s good to meet people, to see them. To send a clear message.” She is also passionate about meeting young designers and nurturing upcoming talents, such as Thomas Tait, who was awarded the inaugural €300,000 LVMH Young Fashion Designer prize, or JW Anderson. LVMH has a minority share in the 30-year-old Irish designer’s label and has since placed him as creative director of Spanish luxury house Loewe, which is also part of the group. “It is really important for the group to identify talents and to help them grow,” she explains. “It’s very difficult to manage a company and, at the same time, be very creative. I find that it’s our responsibility as leaders of a group to help them.”
It’s a clever strategy, spending time nurturing the names who may later be absorbed into the luxury group, but Arnault’s mentoring instinct seems less cynical than that. “I meet a lot of designers every week,” she continues. “It’s part of my job and I’ve been doing that for a long time.” What are the biggest problems today’s young designers face? “They have treasury problems,” she replies, picking over her bowl of rice. “They have to pay for the fabrics, and then make productions, and pay for things wholesale. They are trained to create but they don’t learn business at school, so it’s difficult. And they are very small companies so they can’t hire people – they have to manage their own sales, collections, and to create. And some of them are really good at it but some are more focused on the creativity, and creating the products, rather than the day-to-day management.” Does such mentoring make the fashion world a friendlier place? “I think it’s important to have a point of view,” she replies carefully. “There’s a lot of competition.”
Despite her almost allergic aversion to credit taking – “I wasn’t the only one,” she insists of almost any decision for which I try to applaud her – she admits to having inherited her father’s thrill of the deal. “I’m very competitive. At everything. I like competition, it’s fun”, she smiles.
Arnault has learnt a lot from her father. Nevertheless, she still marvels at his innate ability to spot a future It bag: legend has it he can sniff out a bestseller by merely glancing at a table of wares. “It’s almost magical,” she laughs. “We had this meeting yesterday. He saw a bag and said, ‘This one.’ He often does that, and I’m always very impressed.” Does she have that same skill? “It would be hard to compare,” she says enigmatically. “It’s always hard to know. But I’ve been going to shops since I was very small,” she adds. “I’ve got used to seeing products.”
Jo Ellison is the FT’s fashion editor
Illustration by Seb Jarnot