LVMH Vice President Delphine Arnault: “IT IS HARD TO REJECT FASHION”
If industry wisdom is now crowd-sourced, who makes the decisions in fashion? The power-center once called “the establishment” has become an amorphous blob that dilates and contracts with the flux of trending topics. The desires of demand run in every direction at once, and those who succeed at latching onto them in real time are instantly rewarded with sky-rocketing revenue.
In this context, LOTTA VOLKOVA and DELPHINE ARNAULT are two opposite yet equally powerful sources of gravity. One is the stylist behind the underground brand that has staged a coup d’etat in the luxury sector, and one is the heir apparent to the world’s largest lifestyle conglomerate. One is a club kid from Vladivostok, and one is Parisian fashion royalty. In the past, the two of them would be thrown into an uptown-downtown dichotomy. But the war between the mainstream and the underground is at a standstill. In today’s democratized age of hypercapitalism, with fashion’s hierarchies fossilized by new media, these distinctions have become outdated. The future of fashion is defined by convergence. Volkova and Arnault share in an ability to navigate a complex set of contradictions. Fashion is a business. Fashion is an art. But they both believe in one monolithic truth: The consumer is the one in charge.
Avenue Montaigne in Paris’s 8th Arrodissement is clean and sparkly at all hours of the day. With its trimmed trees and an amazing view of the Eiffel Tower at its end, all existence feels re-touched here. The world’s most prestigious brands are lined up on the avenue in grandiose temples. But one façade remains inaccessible to the public. Behind it lie the headquarters of fashion’s leading luxury group: Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. LVMH consists of 70 labels divided into six sectors and employs 120,000 people. The conglomerate raked in 30.6 billion euros in revenue in 2014 alone. The most profitable department of the company is Fashion and Leather Goods. It consists of 15 labels with 1,339 stores around the world. It grossed 10.83 billion euros in revenue in 2014.
Delphine Arnault, daughter of LVMH founder Bernard Arnault, leads this most profitable department, overseeing brands such as Céline, Christian Dior, Loewe, and Louis Vuitton, to name just a few. The 41-year-old joined the family business in 2001. She notably played a central role in bringing Phoebe Philo to Céline, Jonathan W. Anderson (also interviewed in 032c Issue #30) to Loewe, and Nicolas Ghesquière to Louis Vuitton. As the Executive Vice President of Vuitton, she works closely with the latter. She is also the patron of the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, one of the conglomerate’s many philanthropic initiatives motivated by her father’s philosophy, “Innovation is more powerful when it springs from a preserved heritage.”
The eight finalists of the prize – who will face a jury featuring J.W. Anderson, Nicolas Ghesquière, Marc Jacobs, Karl Lagerfeld, Humberto Leon, Carol Lim, Phoebe Philo, Riccardo Tisci, and Arnault herself – reveal the brand’s determination to scour the world for emerging talent:
- AAlto (Finland)
- Alyx (United States)
- Brandon Maxwell (United States) Facetasm (Japan)
- Koché (France)
- Vejas (Canada)
- Wales Bonner (United Kingdom) [Grace Wales Bonner was declared the winner in June 2016 – ed.]
- Y/Project (Belgium)
When I meet Arnault, I notice she is tall and striking, almost intimidating in her glossy appearance. Born in Neuilly-sur- Seine just west of Paris in 1975, she graduated from the EDHEC Business School and the London School of Economics. She began her career at McKinsey & Company before joining the family business. When we meet she is wearing a Repossi ring and another ring from Victoire de Castellane, who designs jewellery for Dior. Her bracelet, top, skirt, and shoes are all Louis Vuitton. She wears a red nail-polish from Dior entitled, “Rouge Dior.”
This year, you celebrate the third edition of the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers. What is the intention behind finding a newcomer every year?
DELPHINE ARNAULT: We think that, as the leader of our industry, it is our responsibility to identify young talents and help them grow. We have been doing that for many years, but in different ways, by hiring young designers within our group. We have always looked for young designers that we can support. But this initiative is to find the young talents that are out there in the world. The LVMH Prize is open to any nationality. It’s very democratic, since it is an open call. Anyone can apply. The only prerequisites are that you have to have done two collections and you have to be between 18 and 40 years of age. Womenswear, menswear, unisex-wear – it doesn’t matter. All you need is access to the Internet, as you can only apply online. This year, we received around 1,000 applications from all over the world. We even hosted, in the first round of 23 finalists, two sisters from Iran.
Please give me the job description of a fashion designer today.
What we are looking for is someone that has a unique point of view, a unique style. Someone who brings something new to fashion. A designer today also needs to be able to communicate on their work, to have a vision for their business. It is a multi-faceted job, really.
Above: An SSENSE video, made for the winner of the 2016 LVMH Prize, Grace Wales Bonner, directed by Jamie Morgan and art-directed by Wales Bonner.
Is it possible to bring something new to the table?
Yes, it is. When you see the designers, the ones that are really important for fashion today, they all have their own, unique style. Therefore, it’s new. But beyond uniqueness and talent, we are also looking for charisma. The finalists have to face the jury that is composed of designers from our group.
As much as I like the idea of the open call, I feel as though it’s a bad idea that it’s the designers deciding who will take their throne. How objective can they be in choosing the next king or queen?
But they already do that every day, in their studios. They have a lot of people working for them and they see designers all year long. They know what it takes. It was Nicolas who first pointed J.W. Anderson out to me and said, “Look at what he’s doing.” I think when you are such a big talent – like Nicolas, or like Karl –you also want to help the next generation. There is a lot of generosity. All our designers are very interested in the participants of the prize. They take their time and speak to each and every single one of them, even though they are busy and have their own shows coming up.
It’s not easy for all the young talents to face the jury. A bit like in the movie Flashdance, with Jennifer Beals. Imagine presenting your work to Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, Nicolas Ghesquière, J.W. Anderson, Phoebe Philo, all your heroes, at the same time.
What I liked observing in the past is that the young talents don’t seemed too stressed. Also, it’s important for a young talent to understand that you have to be able to speak about your work. To speak to journalists, to TV, to the world. You have to be able to speak to an impressive audience.
Who in the fashion industry is in power today? The designer? The CEO? The stylist? The editor? The journalist, or the fashion critic? Or the consumer?
I think it is mostly the consumers. They are the ones who buy the products.
And within the brand, who is in charge? The creative director, or the CEO?
If you look at successful partnerships, or a company that is doing very well, it is often because of a close relationship between the designer and the CEO. They understand each other. They each have their own parameters in expertise. The designer works on the products and of course is aware of all the sales and what the market is requesting. You have to be aware and very much in tune with reality. The CEO has to manage a lot of behind-the-scenes things, from hiring the best teams to developing the business. Therefore, it’s important to find a good partnership. That’s when you get a really successful company in fashion.
Why do you love fashion?
Because I was raised in fashion.
But you could have rejected fashion.
It is hard to reject fashion. I was ten years old when my father bought Dior. So fashion is part of my life.
What impact would you like to generate? What is the philosophy behind your work?
I think – I hope – with this prize, for example, that it can help the career of many young designers. It can help them with the choices they make, give them more visibility. Even if they don’t win – because there can only be one winner – they get a great experience and a lot of visibility for their brand. Also, we motivate them to persevere. Even if they don’t win the first time, they can always re-apply next year. Jacquemus, for example, applied in the first year and he didn’t win. But he applied again the year after and won the special prize of the jury. In fashion, you have to be very persistent. Fashion is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
That’s ironic, as lately the pace of fashion feels like a sprint.
Not for us. You need to take your time. We think long-term.
What is the most important lesson you learned from your father about fashion?
I have learned a lot of great lessons from him. He trusted me at a very young age. I started at Dior when I was 26. I was in charge of the shoes. I was managing the shoe business, working with the designers, making sure that the collection was good, that we didn’t just have 12-centimeter heels, but we also had flats and mid-heels.
I also went to the factories to work with the people in the factories and negotiate the prices. One thing my father taught me is that you have to look at the big picture, but at the same time at every little detail. In our business, every little detail counts. So when my father goes and visits the shops, which he does very often –
Dressed as himself?
Yes, dressed as himself.
Don’t the employees freeze when the big boss is coming?
No. They are really happy to see him. So when he goes to the shops, he pays attention to every detail. The way the bags are displayed, whether or not the light is properly directed. He has an amazing eye. Also, when we present the collections to him – before the shows and before they are released, we display all the bags on a table – he can see which bags will become a hit and a bestseller, and which won’t.
What makes a bag a bestseller?
That is complicated. It’ll last much longer than our interview slot to explain that.
Is he often right?
Yes, most of the time he is right.
What makes a bag a bestseller?
That is complicated. It’ll last much longer than our interview slot to explain that.
Who is the most inspiring person for you in the fashion industry today? And why?
My father inspires me a lot. He taught me so many things. The designers I work with are also very inspiring. I work most of my time on Louis Vuitton, so I spend a lot of time with Nicolas and his team.
Please explain your responsibilities at Louis Vuitton.
I supervise all the products at Louis Vuitton – the ready-to-wear, the bags, the shoes, the accessories, the scarves, et cetera – for womenswear and menswear, but more on the business side. I make sure we have all the right products for the different markets. Then I work on the pricing, the margins, the visual displays in the shops, all the development of the product, from first sketch until it arrives in the shops.
What is fashion about today? Did it change from the day your father bought Dior?
Yes, it changed. But changes are good, it’s normal. I think fashion is becoming very digital. Nowadays, when you go to fashion shows, you only see people with their iPhones. They are not even enjoying the moment, or the experience. It is something that has changed completely from my generation to the new generation. The kids of today are born with an iPhone in their hands.
So how does that affect your work? Especially since you said earlier that fashion is a marathon.
It is a marathon, but things go much faster. Everything is so immediate. Instagram is a total translation of the now. The fact that you can instantly see everything changes the way fashion communicates, but it should never change the quality of fashion.
Do you read fashion magazines, or newspapers? Which medium corresponds to your vision of the future of fashion?
Instagram is an amazing vehicle. It is quick. It is very visual. It is perfect for fashion. I also like Snapchat.
Paris has changed. Europe is changing. Society is changing. Demands and needs are shifting. Fashion used to mirror the present, but today the industry remains unaffected. Is fashion blind towards reality? I feel it is disconnected.
I think fashion is in touch with reality, but fashion also has to make you dream. It is part of what we do: to make people dream.
As one of the biggest industries in the world, what responsibility does fashion have today?
One of our responsibilities is the LVMH Prize. We also have a responsibility to help people grow, not only in the design fields, but in every other aspect of the business. We invest a lot of time mentoring men and women, spotting talents and making them grow. Not only on the creative side, but also on the business side.
Please complete this sentence: The future of fashion is …
Here. At the LVMH Prize!