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Delphine Arnault, LVMH heiress, steps up to Dior

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As the Louis Vuitton team put the finishing touches on the windows for a new collaboration with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama earlier this month, they got a surprise visit. It was late at night at the flagship store on the Champs Elysées, but Delphine Arnault, the 47-year-old daughter of the billionaire owner of LVMH and executive number two at Louis Vuitton, wanted to make sure the launch was perfect.

Nicolas Ghesquière, creative director of Louis Vuitton, who has worked closely with Arnault for more than a decade, said the 11 pm visit was typical of his attention to detail. “When you’re designing it, she already has a vision of how the product will look in the boutique,” ​​he says. “She is more demanding than most, but I find that reassuring because I know she will see my ideas come to market intact.”

It’s easy to dismiss Delphine Arnault as another heiress led by her parents. Bernard Arnault has built LVMH into a behemoth, making it the 12th largest company globally by market capitalization and putting his family near the top of the world’s richest list.

On Wednesday, he promoted his daughter to chief executive of Dior, LVMH’s second-biggest brand with nearly €8 billion in sales last year, according to Citi, excluding fragrances and cosmetics. It’s a major breakthrough, suggesting the patriarch believes Arnault has proven himself since joining the company in his early 20s.

She will take over a thriving business – Pietro Beccari, her predecessor, has tripled sales since 2018 and the brand has an elite following from Shanghai to New York. Her nomination also places her in the biggest operational role of any of the five Arnault children, all working in the group. So far, she is the only one to sit on the 14-member executive committee.

Family ownership remains commonplace in the luxury goods sector, as do questions about how successfully future generations run the businesses they inherit. Those are always in the background at LVMH, although Bernard Arnault, 73, has no intention of retiring anytime soon. Last year, corporate bylaws raised the chief executive age limit from 75 to 80.

For now, says one analyst, “investors don’t have a good impression of her.” But people who know Delphine Arnault caution against underestimating her. They say she has a knack for working with designers, a sense of what products will work and how to market them, and — important for a company that makes most of its profits from leather goods — an eye for a successful handbag. .

Soft-spoken and protective of her personal life, Arnault lived in New York as a child – a big change from the family’s previous home in the industrial town of Roubaix in northern France. This taught her adaptability and left her speaking almost accent-free English.

She later graduated from Edhec business school in France and the London School of Economics, before learning the ropes of luxury from Sidney Toledano and Michael Burke, two of LVMH’s top executives. From 2001 to 2013, she worked with Toledano at Dior, starting with shoes and progressing to deputy managing director, where she is credited with tempering the fallout from John Galliano’s scandalous departure in 2011.

Surprise visits to the shops are something Bernard Arnault often does, and in that and other ways Delphine is her father’s daughter. People who know them say they share a natural authority and directness, as well as a strong ambition, although she doesn’t show it openly. They also share a passion for art and collecting.

“There is a special bond – she is his only child and the eldest,” says Toledano. “She has a strong personality and can be direct with him.”

Within the company, her influence over her father is such that employees or managers often discreetly pressure her as a way to gain support for a new project or a big hire.

Arnault also played an important role in recruiting the artistic directors who bring LVMH’s brands to life. His additions to the stable include Raf Simons at Dior, Jonathan Anderson at Loewe and Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton. In 2014, she created the LVMH Young Designers Awards, a global talent search, with the winner receiving a €300,000 grant and a year of mentoring.

“She intimidates designers at first, but she has this listening quality that makes her surprisingly approachable and approachable,” says Isabella Capece Galeota, who has worked on the award since its inception.

Others say she has a calm management style and seeks to build consensus rather than impose decisions. When she started working on new bag ideas with Ghesquière, she joined him to sit on the workshop floor while he tried on different pieces of leather and fabric. “Was amazing. . . but she was very natural,” she recalls.

Outside of work, she has two children with telecommunications billionaire Xavier Niel. A dedicated art collector, she sits on the board of the Gagosian art gallery with Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, who is a family friend. “She really got into the LA art scene, so we would visit artists together when she was in town,” he says. “She is really interested in the creative process and loves to see artists at work.”

One such visit to the studios of Jonas Wood and Alex Israel turned out to be a fruitful one for Louis Vuitton — the two took part in a 2019 project in which artists reimagined the best-selling Capucines bag. As is typical of the Arnault family, work is never far away.

leila.abboud@ft.com, lauren.indvik@ft.com

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