At Berluti, Antoine Arnault Puts Business Before Pleasure

BY DANA THOMAS AS SEEN IN THE NEW YORK TIMES STYLE MAGAZINE||
Antoine Arnault in the Paris apartment in the Seventh Arrondissement that he shares with his girlfriend, the model Natalia Vodianova, and her three children from a previous marriage.

Antoine Arnault spent his youth enjoying the spoils of being the LVMH titan’s eldest son. But by successfully betting on high-end men’s wear as an ever-ripening luxury category, he’s quickly proving that nepotism only goes so far.

It’s not so easy to be a “son of.”

Take Antoine Arnault, the 36-year-old son of Bernard Arnault, the chairman and C.E.O. of the luxury brand group LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and the 10th richest man in the world, according to Forbes. For years, Antoine was regarded as a Euro playboy who summered in Saint-Tropez, played in Vegas poker tournaments and landed the cushy-sounding job of communications director for Louis Vuitton. The fact that he used to date the French actress Hélène de Fougerolles and his live-in girlfriend of two years is the top model Natalia Vodianova only furthered that reputation. But recently, Antoine has set out to change that image, and he plans to do it the same way his father did: by running a company extremely well.

His project is the renovation of one of LVMH’s smallest holdings, Berluti: the luxury men’s shoe company founded in 1895 and acquired by the group in 1993 that Antoine calls “a little jewel in our portfolio.” The idea is to transform it into a luxury men’s wear brand to compete directly with the likes of Tom Ford, Hermès and Brioni.

“Men’s wear is the new women’s wear,” Toby Bateman, the buying director for Mr Porter, the men’s wear arm of Net-a-Porter, said over cocktails at Berluti’s spring presentation held at the 17th-century Hôtel de Sully mansion in Paris this past June. “Before, some men looked at fashion askance. But now it has become more gentrified; it’s about cut, tailoring. It’s contemporary, chic and stylish rather than glitzy, trendy and logo driven.” Several luxury brands have picked up on this trend: Dolce & Gabbana, Lanvin and Ralph Lauren have all recently opened emporiums dedicated solely to men in international capitals, and Tom Ford’s brand, which is primarily driven by men’s wear, is flourishing. In its eight-year existence, despite the economic crisis, it has grown to $200 million in annual apparel sales, with several licensing deals and nearly 100 stores worldwide.

Berluti was Antoine’s way in, and so far, the overhaul has been a success. Under his guidance, in three years business has grown from around $45 million to approximately $130 million a year in sales. The company has opened several new stores and remodeled existing ones, most notably its longtime location on Conduit Street in London, which is now a “maison” (or flagship) replete with a made-to-measure suiting department. Antoine has more openings planned in the next few months, including stores in Tokyo; Hong Kong; Beijing; Shanghai; Milan; Paris; Costa Mesa, Calif.; and two in New York. He hopes to double Berluti’s sales and retail outlets to 70 by 2016.

One strength, it seems, is Antoine’s frankness and his openness. Unlike his father, who is more of an autocrat with “a court . . . an entourage,” as Antoine describes it, he is outspoken and democratic. Antoine is the one who speaks up: “They will tell my father: ‘This wall is blue, and yes, what a beautiful blue!’ ” he says. “And I will tap his shoulder and say, ‘It was white, just so you know.’ ”

Berluti’s luxurious fall collection, including (from left) a navy windowpane-check wool double-breasted suit; a gray single-breasted wool and silk three-piece suit; the Deux Jours leather briefcase; leather loafers.

His forthright and less formal approach to business has won over those who work with him at Berluti. Though his core business is shoes, Antoine often walks around the Berluti headquarters — which he designed — in his stocking feet, which explains the office’s thick carpeting. He rarely wears a tie, saving them for major meetings with his father.

Though Antoine physically resembles Bernard — they have the same clear blue eyes, thick wiry hair and 6-foot-3 stoop — and can come across as “almost imperial” like his father, he is not at all like him in personality, according to his friend, the shoe designer Christian Louboutin. “Antoine is nicer than you would expect. He listens well. He is interested in people. He is not obsessive with work, he doesn’t rattle off numbers. . . . He doesn’t have his cell on the table; he isn’t checking e-mails and texts. He’s there with you.”

Antoine attributes his free spirit to a period in his childhood that he sees as deeply formative: the four years his family spent in the United States. In the early 1980s, after France’s newly elected Socialist president François Mitterrand instituted a series of anti-capitalist policies like nationalizing banks and major companies, many French executives, including Bernard, fled to more business-friendly countries. The Arnaults settled in the tony New York suburb of Larchmont, a favorite outpost for French expats, and Antoine, then 5, and his sister, Delphine, then 7, attended the French-American School of New York.

Antoine remembers his years in Larchmont as his “madeleine of Proust” moment: “a blessed time.” He was on the swim team and the soccer team. He spent weekends sailing. He tooled around town on his bike. He was completely fluent in English in six months. Looking back, he sees that his American education was “more about self-fulfillment and sports and being happy,” unlike a traditional French education, which is about “working hard.” He smiles broadly and his blue eyes twinkle: “It was just kind of an ideal childhood.”

When Antoine was 9, the Arnault family moved back to France; Mitterrand had reversed some of his more radical economic policies, and a possible new business deal was on the horizon. The French government was selling Agache-Willot, a bankrupt holding company, which was relatively worthless except for one dusty old jewel: the Christian Dior fashion company. With the help of the investment bank Lazard Frères, Bernard, then 35, raised the $80 million purchase price and took control of the holding company. Through the ensuing years, with one major boardroom battle and several straightforward acquisitions, Bernard built up what Antoine describes as “the empire.”

As that was going on, Antoine and Delphine were attending the right schools in Paris, hanging out with fellow scions and shuttling between the homes of their divorced parents. (Their father remarried in 1991 and has three more sons: Alexandre, a 21-year-old part-time D.J. known as Double A, and two teenagers, Frédéric and Jean.) Antoine played keyboard in a rock band, hitchhiked from his father’s summer villa in Saint-Tropez to the nightclubs in town, watched “Seinfeld” on French cable and spent a lot of time at the movies. He was also being groomed to eventually join LVMH. He interned atLa Tribune, a business newspaper then owned by the company, and worked at the Louis Vuitton store in Paris. On Saturdays, his father would bring him and Delphine — who is now executive vice president of Louis Vuitton and also on the LVMH board — on tours of his brands’ boutiques to see if everything was well run and customers were happy. “It was clear that my father wanted us to work with him,” Antoine says. “I mean, it is a family company.”

From left: Arnault with his father, Bernard, and sister, Delphine; with Vodianova, his girlfriend of two years.

When it came time to choose where to go to college, the Arnaults urged Antoine to study abroad. He enrolled at HEC Montréal to study business management. It was a bit of a shock at first: “I was no one there, which was off-putting,” he admits. “But it was good. I was out of my comfort zone, and I guess I learned a lot.” When Antoine returned to France, he and a couple of buddies started an Internet company called Domainoo that registered celebrity domains. “To be clear, we were cybersquatting,” he says.

After they sold it, he recalls, “My father called me and said, ‘Listen, you had your fun. Now you can come work with us.’ ” He joined Louis Vuitton the next day as head of marketing. He was 25.

It was actually just the right job for him. Since childhood, he had been obsessed with advertising. “I’m a visual person, a conceptual person,” he says. (When Antoine was 11, he won an ad-campaign contest for pull-up diapers.) “Advertising,” he says quite matter-of-factly, “has always been something I kind of understood.”

Bernard saw this and decided to make the most of it. At the time, Antoine says, Bernard was not completely satisfied with Vuitton’s advertising, but he didn’t know how best to convey this to Marc Jacobs, the company’s creative director. Antoine’s job was to be “a link” or “a kind of a filter” between his father and Jacobs, he says, and to speak his mind when he thought something wasn’t working — a rarity at Vuitton at the time, from what he could see. When Antoine first arrived, Jacobs says, “It was like, ‘Oh wow, it’s the boss’s son.’ But he isn’t like that at all. He is interested in business but the aesthetic part of it, and offers his opinions and is open to suggestions of others.”

Arnault in the entryway to his Paris home.

During his six years at Vuitton — he was eventually elevated to communications director and given a seat on the LVMH board — Antoine proved that he did indeed understand advertising. Among his projects was the wildly successful Core Values campaign: a series of photos by the celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz of international icons like Keith Richards, Mikhail Gorbachev, Angelina Jolie and Muhammad Ali posing in scenic locales with Vuitton bags. Antoine also took a year to earn his M.B.A. at Insead, a business school outside of Paris.

When Antoine first became interested in Berluti, he turned to Pietro Beccari, Vuitton’s executive vice president of marketing and communications: together, they drew up a business plan and presented it to Bernard. He liked the idea, and named his son C.E.O. Beccari has since been named C.E.O. of Fendi. Antoine, in turn, hired a delightful Italian designer named Alessandro Sartori away from Z Zegna to serve as the brand’s creative director. The pair came up with the Berluti look: something, Sartori explains, that focuses on craftsmanship and quality, and is “French, eclectic, personal but with an Italian soul.” Their customer, Antoine says, would be “someone who works. Someone who travels. Someone who’s curious about things and about others. If he works, he doesn’t stay in his office, cloistered. Someone who’s interested in art, in health, in wine, in everything. The modern man who’s connected and maybe a little overconnected . . . the Twitter life almost. But at the same time is a little vain.”

Father and son speak by phone at least once a day. They see each other most workdays too, and lunch en famille almost every Saturday. It is probably safe to say that few LVMH C.E.O.’s get quite as much attention from the chairman as Antoine does. And he seems fine with it.

“When you’re as privileged as we are,” he says, speaking of himself as well as Delphine, “when you have these incredible names that you have the responsibility of, and when you actually have a little bit of a head start on everybody else because we started so young and we have a sense of this business, you know, we were born in it basically. . . . I don’t want to be arrogant or anything, but it’s like if you told a very good tennis player, ‘Why do you continue playing tennis? Wouldn’t you want to have an art gallery?’ Of course I have other passions . . . but my real investment obviously without a second thought is LVMH and what my father created.”

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