THE POPE OF FASHION
Tourist crowds flocking across Knightsbridge, in London, are left speechless when the silhouette of Harrods stands out in front of them from the street. The century-old exclusive department store, owned by the Qatari emir Al-Thani, did not go cheap on the year 2022 Christmas decorations, despite 70’s style inflation hitting the UK, economic recession, and people starving in cold at home because of ridiculous gas prices: a huge illuminated decoration branded “Christian Dior” wraps the already luxurious building: the outcome is so opulent that people won’t stop taking photos all around the clock. St.Peter’s Cathedral in Rome serves as the house of the Pope as much as Harrods serves as the temple for the French billionaire Bernard Arnault, the “Pope of Fashion” (copyright by Women’s Wear Daily).
What I love is to win. What I love is being number one
Soon after the Dior sign illuminated the Harrods façade, Forbes ranked Monsieur Arnault the richest man in the world, on top of an astonishing 171 billion dollars in wealth: he toppled the controversial Elon Musk, the owner of electric super-cars Tesla, rocket launcher Space-X and, more recently, social media Twitter. Bernard Arnault’s destiny must have been written in the stars. His mother, Marie-Josèphe Savinel, daughter of Étienne Savinel, was said to have a "fascination for the haute couturier Christian Dior.” If this is true, it may have marked his son’s life. But this a story closer to hagiography: more factual, his father, Jean Léon Arnault was an entrepreneur: he owned the civil engineering company Ferret-Savinel. This probably forged Bernard’s attitude more than his mother’s alleged love for fashion.
Born in 1949, in Roubaix, a town hitherto known only among cycling fans for a historical race, the French businessman is the mogul who owns and runs the global conglomerate LVMH, the largest luxury-products company in the world. As a son of a typical bourgeois family, Arnault graduated from the École Polytechnique in Paris with a degree in engineering. In 1971 he took control of his father’s construction firm. His life, at the time, seemed to be already addressed: a well-off, but boring and dull, career in the building sector. The boy shows creativity though: constructions do not have sex appeal. So 8 years later, he changes the company’s name to Férinel Inc. and shifts its focus to real estate, a much more “glamourous” (and speculative) industry.
When I was working in my first job engineering construction, what I liked the most was working with architects
He would have remained a real-estate entrepreneur had he not crossed his path with Antoine Bernheim in the Mid ’80s. At the time, Bernheim was a managing partner of the French investment bank Lazard Frères&Co: he would later become the most powerful man in Corporate France, serving also as chairman at Generali Assicurazioni, Italy’s biggest insurance company, for a decade; and pairing with businessman and raider Vincent Bollorè.
When something has to be done, do it!
FROM 15M BAIL-OUT TO 171BN EMPIRE
Back in the ’80s, Bernheim calls an almost unknown Arnault to join a company bail-out: 80 million dollars were required to purchase Boussac Saint-Frères, a bankrupt textile company that owned the run-down fashion house, Dior. The French real estate entrepreneur puts a 15 million bet of his own funds. This was how the LVMH empire started: after 40 years those 15 million have turned into 171 billion.
Soon after his debut in luxury, in 1987, Arnault was invited to invest in LVMH by the then company’s chairman, Henri Racamier. It proved to be a Trojan Horse for the 88 years old founder, and America’s Cup sponsor, but the fortune for the company.
When I took over Louis Vuitton, everyone said, ‘It’s already so big – what more can you do?’ and since then we’ve multiplied that success tenfold
Three years later Arnault ousted Racamier and started to sweep a slew of fashion companies into the LVMH fold: it started with Christian Lacroix, then Givenchy, and Kenzo. Other additions included the leather goods companies Loewe, Céline, and Berluti; the jeweller Fred Joailler; the DFS group (the world’s biggest duty-free chain); and the beauty retailer Sephora. In a few years, the former engineer from Roubaix becomes the man who revitalized french couture and launched luxury brands into global phenomena and stardom. Ironically, this is all due to the Brits. The “Red Letter” year is 1995: Arnault needs to revamp the zombie brand Givenchy, which is lagging. “Who you gonna call?” Not the Ghostbusters but an unknown British fashion designer named John Galliano. Today Galliano is a divinity in the fashion industry, at the time he was a complete underdog. How could a British designer, from a country with no sense of taste according to conventional wisdom, be the solution for refined French maison? It was, indeed. Moreover, the brit boy was to replace the venerable Hubert de Givenchy himself. A year later, Arnault moves Galliano to LVMH’s most precious treasure, the above-mentioned Dior. Galliano rises to world celebrity and Dior comes back to life.
But the brash British fashion designer Alexander McQueen replaced him at Givenchy. Arnault then hired Marc Jacobs, a young American designer, to the post of creative director at Louis Vuitton, a maker of luxury leather goods.
Although all three designers eventually left their positions, Arnault’s fashion foresight and kingmaking ability transformed traditional fashion brands into global powerhouses by the early 21st century.
THE ITALIAN CAMPAIGN
Then it was the turn of Italy. Having brought under the same umbrella the most prominent French luxury brands (including the high spirits brand Moet Hennessy owner of the famous Moet Chandon champagne), Arnault went for international shopping: next stop Italy. The word “grandeur” referred to the Frenchman is for a reason. He aims at the only other country that has dozens of high-end brands and that could possibly compete with France: the neighbours living under the Alps.
The first Risiko pawn was the old-timer roman fashion house Fendi in 2003, but the bug deal was another roman “trophy”: iconic Bulgari, the “name” for jewellery. Coronation for this new “Napoleonic War” in Italy was president Nicholas Sarkozy awarding Arnault with the Commander of the Legion of Honour, one of France’s highest distinctions. Some gossipers recall the award was also helped by the close friendship of former Italian former Top Model Carla Bruni, Sarkozy’s wife, with Galliano.
Despite such a hyper-wealthy career, Arnault has a quite ordinary family life: he only divorced once and lives with his second wife Helen Mercier, which he married 30 years ago, a remarkably long-time record for a high-life multi-billionaire.
LONG-TERM FAMILY CONTROL
He is also very traditional in the family business: if you ever wonder what the son of the richest man in the world does for a job, the answer is quite simple: the same job as his father. The 30 years-old Alexandre Arnault has been hailed as the up-and-coming executive in the luxury industry: at the early age of 25, he was already appointed as the CEO of Rimowa, the jet-set brand for luggage. It does not require great effort if your father is the owner of the company. Alexandre’s not alone, though: his older stepbrother Antoine, born from first Bernard’s wife Anne Dewavrin, has been, for almost 10 years, the CEO of Loro Piana, another ultra-luxury Italian brand colonized by the French (with the Italian Piana family keen to sell and cash-in).
Nepotism, or at least “Relationship Capitalism”, is no stranger in the Arnault family: his daughter Delphine is the long-time fiancè of Monsieur Xavier Niel, the French billionaire who launched the tlc company Iliad across Europe. Heirs to the global luxury throne of Bernard Arnault do not fall short.