New York Times | Elizabeth Paton
PARIS — Cocktail parties during Paris Fashion Week can seem as common as paillettes on an evening gown. But on Monday, one particular event may attract an unusually excited crowd.
Held in honor of the new flagship store for the German luggage maker Rimowa on the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré, it is being co-hosted by the brand’s freshly minted — and in some eyes unconventional — co-chief executive, Alexandre Arnault.
Mr. Arnault is 24 and the son of Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the luxury conglomerate that bought a majority share in Rimowa last October.
Indeed, some eyebrows were raised when LVMH, alongside its announcement that it had acquired an 80 percent stake in Rimowa for 640 million euros, or $673.6 million, added that the third of Mr. Arnault’s five children would be installed at its helm.
For Alexandre Arnault — whose official start date was Jan. 23 — the store opening on Monday will mark his first official moment in the limelight. And everyone will be watching.
The oldest of Bernard Arnault’s three sons from his second marriage, to Hélène Mercier, Alexandre Arnault graduated from Télécom ParisTech and holds a master of research in innovation from École Polytechnique. He shares his father’s height, and his family’s love of tennis. And he also follows in the footsteps of two older stepsiblings: Delphine Arnault, 41, who spent 12 years working her way through the ranks at Dior to become deputy general manager under its chief executive, Sidney Toledano, and who today is executive vice president at Louis Vuitton; and her 39-year-old brother, Antoine, who spent eight years as Louis Vuitton’s head of communications and now is chief executive of the shoemaker Berluti and chairman of the cashmere label Loro Piana.
Unlike his siblings, Alexandre Arnault has landed atop a brand after only three years of behind-the-scenes work at his father’s behemoth holding company, Groupe Arnault, helping to define digital strategy and being instrumental in a handful of key technology-focused hires and investments.
That his ascent has been so speedy has not been lost on industry observers, particularly as succession questions around Bernard Arnault, who just turned 68, start to arise (though there are no signs the billionaire patriarch is going anywhere anytime soon). Nor was the fact that in January, Alexandre accompanied his father to Trump Tower in New York to meet then President-elect Trump, the only Arnault scion to make the trip.
“From the first time I met him, it was clear that Alex was observant, extremely smart and ambitious, so the suggestion that he would be the head of a company now at the ripe age of — what is he? — 24 was not shocking to me at all,” said the writer and journalist Derek Blasberg, adding that the two had had lunch in January. He described Alexandre as “knowledgeable about what’s going on with the family firm — and proud of it, too,” with a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve with Rimowa, as well as a highly supportive relationship with his other siblings.
“I think that most people when they’re in their early 20s are still feeling out the fashion industry and figuring out where they fit,” Mr. Blasberg said. “But Alex knows exactly what he’s doing. Yes, his father facilitates a great deal of opportunity, but I’ve never doubted Alex’s capabilities. It would be a mistake to do so.”
Reportedly the young Mr. Arnault is both sociable and outgoing, often in the front row of LVMH-brand shows and friendly with designers both in and outside the LVMH fold — though you would never see him falling out of a nightclub at 4 a.m. (he has been known to occasionally take to the decks as a D.J., however). All signs suggest he is game for a challenge, and not worried about showing his age.
Mr. Arnault tweeted the day the Rimowa deal was announced: “Can’t feel guilty for using RIMOWA suitcases anymore. Herzlich willkommen!” (The German phrase means “Warm greetings!”)
The photo with the message shows him clutching one of the brand’s trademark grooved aluminum suitcases, next to Dieter Morszeck, his 63-year-old co-chief executive, the grandson of the German group’s founder. (The family has retained a 20 percent stake in the brand).
Smiley-face emojis have not been part of the C-suite lingo at LVMH, which takes a famously conservative approach to its public interactions (both Alexandre Arnault and LVMH declined to provide comment for this article). But perhaps emoji use will become more common now.
“Alexandre seems bright and determined,” said Luca Solca, luxury analyst at Exane BNP Paribas. “This is a good training ground and an important sign of recognition for him. And from what I understand, he has been a key driver in getting digital onto his C.E.O. father’s agenda.”
Mr. Arnault — reportedly the first to spot the acquisition potential of Rimowa, the last high-end luggage brand left in the market after the acquisition of Tumi by Samsonite last year — speaks German fluently and has moved to Cologne, Germany, where the company is based.
Rimowa is expected to report revenue of more than €400 million for 2016, LVMH said at the time of the deal. The business is also expected to grow substantially — not least because of the enviable profit margins on its ribbed aluminum or more affordable polycarbonate products, which are designs are based on the fuselage of the first metallic aircraft. Prices, which start at $400, can go to as much as $1,000 and more for a piece, and there are limited styles, color choices and fabrications. Mr. Arnault has already outlined plans to open seven more stores in 2017, in addition to the new Paris flagship.
“The major trend in luxury right now is towards travel and experience, and Rimowa is a uniquely placed brand to take advantage of the global boom in tourism and the traveling consumer,” the luxury consultant Robert Burke said. He noted LVMH has strong roots in what he called “the art of travel,” including a string of hotel investments.
“LVMH knows that there is a young luxury consumer who is keen to explore the world and a digital native,” Mr. Burke said. “Alexandre is likely to understand their online interactions — and how to communicate effectively with these shoppers — far better than many seasoned executives, though plenty of those will still be onside to support him. I have a feeling that this brand is being primed to be an incredibly strong and focused online play.”
Indeed, Mr. Arnault’s digital background (he has described himself as a “technology freak and geek at heart”), applied to a low-risk, high-performing heritage brand, in a market with strong fundamentals, has all the makings of a success story.
Still, before LVMH Kremlinologists get too excited, it is important to remember that if there are any deep internal rivalries within the family — and the business — the outside world has not been privy to it.
Besides, there are two more Arnault sons, Alexandre’s younger brothers, who could hypothetically join the family business: Frédéric, 22, a graduate student, who has proved a standout academic star at École Polytechnique, and Jean, 18. When it comes to the question of the great Arnault succession race — and the next generation leadership of the world’s largest luxury empire — only time will tell.
Meanwhile, there’s a luggage brand to tend, and a store to unveil.