“Talent knows no frontiers.”
Delphine Arnault, heiress to the £31 bn Louis Vuitton (LVMH) empire is championing a new generation of designers and shaping the future of the fashion industry in the process.
On considering the case of Delphine, I bow to the expert testimony of Alfred Hitchcock and Raymond Chandler, two witnesses whose submissions on behalf of the Blonde have ensured her unassailable position in the pantheon of cultural archetypes.
Both attributed the enduring mystery of the Blonde to the conflict she embodied between glacial surface and fiery depth. She’s a dramatic one.
On a day that is distinctly humid outside the air-conditioned interior of the Paris headquarters of Louis Vuitton, Delphine explains her huge camel cashmere scarf by saying she’s always cold. So far, so blonde. The scarf is an accessory to a sleek black sweater and pencil skirt (Vuitton, of course) amplifying the no-hair-out-of-place sophistication that Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren made so effortlessly manifest. But drama is anathema to Delphine.
In conversation, her control is so precise and practiced, she yields almost nothing. And yet, even drawn in strokes that would be acceptable to her, life would suggest there’s plenty of scope for the unexpected. She is the eldest child of Bernard Arnault, whose chairmanship of LVMH, the world’s largest luxury conglomerate, has made him the 14th richest man on the planet, according to Forbes. Delphine, now 41 and executive vice-president of Louis Vuitton, is the heir apparent to a £31 bn behemoth.
She is also expecting a second child with her partner, Xavier Niel, who has been called France’s Steve Jobs for his dominance of the country’s technology industry. Her first marriage, to the scion of an Italian wine and drinks dynasty, ended in 2010. If her father is a wolf in immaculately tailored cashmere clothing, the eminence grise of the global fashion industry, Niel is ruggedly casual, with some classic ducking and diving in his professional background. But both men have a razor-sharp maverick sensibility in their business dealings. And it’s a delicious irony that Niel’s eclectic portfolio includes the rights to the song My Way. That’s the way he, and Bernard, have always done things.
But what was Delphine’s way? Growing up, there was never a moment when she felt the urge to rebel. You get the sense that hers was a family that placed a premium on achievement. An education in the arts was deemed particularly important. Bernard is, by all accounts, a dab hand on the piano. His second wife, Hélène (he separated from Delphine’s mother, Anne Dewavrin, in 1990), was an internationally renowned concert pianist when they married in 1991.
Delphine felt so inadequate in the face of the rest of the family’s proficiency on the piano that she stopped playing. “But I was always quite good at school and I like studying. We didn’t really have a choice, actually.” She is laughing when she adds: “We had to be good in school.”
Fortunately, Delphine had a head for business. After graduating from the EDHEC Business School in Lille and the London School of Economics, she began working at McKinsey & Company. She joined the family business at 24, initially at John Galliano’s own label, then crossed over to Dior two years later, where she was Deputy MD to Sidney Toledano. She moved to Louis Vuitton three years ago.
Genes clearly had a lot to do with it, but this is also the woman who was struck dumb when she saw Jack Welch, the former General Electric CEO and one of her heroes, in a restaurant. Today, she cites Sheryl Sandberg as another lodestone.
So, perhaps, Delphine herself is subtly inclined to the maverick. Her marriage in 2005 was labeled the wedding of the year by the French media, but, given her own family’s non-pareil holdings in the wine and spirits industry, the union may have been a little dutiful. Taking up with Niel after her divorce seems more in tune with the character of the woman who tells me her favorite TV show is Breaking Bad, who was as enthused by Kirsten Dunst’s performance in Fargo as I was, and who picks the controversial Cannes sensation Blue is the Warmest Color as her favorite film.
Delphine tells a story about her childhood, pre-LVMH, when her father moved the family to New York. Having grown up in northern France, she had no experience of English, but within three months, thanks to American cartoons, “my brother, Antoine, and I were playing together in English rather than French”. She was a quick learner, which undoubtedly helped when the family returned to France in 1984, the year Bernard bought Dior.
By then, Delphine was nine, and she began, as she calls it, “growing into this world of fashion”, with her father as mentor. “I didn’t go to shows at 10, but I went with him to the shops.” She also visited ateliers with him, so from a young age she was aware of the hard work behind the nice dresses she saw in the shops. “I went upstairs at night,” she says cryptically.
That early intimacy with the mechanics of fashion is one of the more intriguing elements of her story, especially as those mechanics moved the family business, which happened to grow alongside her, into the biggest fashion conglomerate in the world. “I have four brothers (Bernard has three sons with Hélène, the youngest of whom is 17) and many of the 70 brands in the LVMH group are family businesses, so the family component is really important. Also, I think you manage companies better when you feel they are part of your family. When you look at the track record of family-owned businesses on the stock exchange, they perform better than businesses that are not owned by families.”
Her daughter, Elisa, is now three. “It’s important to have a balance,” Delphine says of motherhood, “because if you have kids, you have to spend time with them and to raise them the best you can.
But I think it’s also important for kids to see their parents work. I mean, it’s life, no? It’s what most people do. So for her to see me as an example is important.” That definitely sounds like a lesson from her father. “He has been patient with me and has trusted me a lot over the years,” she concedes.
She has made her own additions to the professional family, too. J.W. Anderson, Marco de Vincenzo, Nicholas Kirkwood and Gaia Repossi have all signed to LVMH under her auspices. She was instrumental in hiring Raf Simons to replace Galliano at Dior – which is a reminder that in every family, there are problem children. Galliano she won’t talk about. When Raf quit last October, he claimed time was of the essence to him: more time to create, more personal time. His unexpected departure had a seismic effect on the industry and given Delphine’s impermeable discretion, one can only conjecture about the impact it had internally at LVMH.
She does, however, say this: “When you take the job at Dior, you know how many collections you’re going to have to do. Then you also have an amazing team. And there’s the link with the CEO. He’s very close to his designer. I think that for a company to work well, you need to be very close to your designer. Each one has a specific role or different tasks to do, but there needs to be a good communication between the two.” In fact, the very relationship she describes is between the president of Louis Vuitton, Michael Burke, and the creative director, Nicolas Ghesquière, who designs the women’s collections.
Delphine’s own position puts her in charge of everything to do with product, from first sketch until it arrives in the shop which means following the entire process from design meetings with Ghesquière and Kim Jones (artistic director for menswear) and their teams, to making their collections and implementing them commercially, through marketing and merchandising.
More than once in our conversation, Delphine’s remarks on her lack of artistic ability, which seems telling in a family whose patriarch has, according to his eldest child, “a very developed right brain / left brain”, and who is as good at playing classical piano as he is at making deals. She isolates problem-solving as her own particular skill: “Women do it all the time.” That’s not just maternal pragmatism on her part.
Addressing the challenges of the fashion industry’s future led her to initiate the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, a global talent search now in its third year, with a spectacular award of ₤ 300,000 (£ 250,000) and a year of coaching from a dedicated team within LVMH. “What’s interesting about this process is that it’s open,” Arnault says. “You need to be between 18-40, but it’s open to any nationality. Basically, anyone who has a computer can apply.”
This year, a panel of 41 international fashion experts selected 10 designers from a shortlist of 23, who were then judged by LVMH’s stable of superstar designers, plus Karl Lagerfeld. The prize went to Grace Wales Bonner, continuing a run of London based winners, following Thomas Tait in 2015 and the design duo Marques’ Almeida last year. “London shows how talent knows no frontiers,” Delphine observed after the announcement, “but also how education is paramount to the development of the next generation of designers.”
That development is the problem the prize intends to solve. She is, unsurprisingly, humble about her own role. “I’m involved, in that we had the idea a few years ago to create a prize because we felt, as the leader of our industry, it was our responsibility to identify talent and to help it grow. And then we have people who are really specialists in identifying this young talent and who help us.”
But as far as that unassuming quality goes, Craig Green, a past nominee, remembers that when he made his 10-minute pitch to the jury, it was Delphine who registered as the quiet, but forceful heart of the panel. Even the all powerful Lagerfeld once remarked that you don’t say no to Delphine. That could well be his recognition of the fact that one day she will be the most powerful woman in fashion. Of course, there is still plenty of scope for the unexpected, but in exploring that, she will only be fulfilling her destiny.
I rest my case for the Blonde!
Tim Blanks / The Times / The Interview People