The great predator of luxury: this is how Bernard Arnault built his LVMH empire, valued at $500 billion

The French businessman was always at the top of the class. His firm’s rise on the stock market has resulted in a personal fortune of around $200 billion. At 74, his biggest challenge is deciding which of his five children will take over a conglomerate that produces iconic brands such as Dior, Tiffany, Dom Pérignon and Bulgari

Bernard Arnault
Bernard Arnault oversees a conglomerate that controls more than 75 prestigious brands, selling products such as alcohol, clothing, jewellery and cosmetics. In 2022, LVMH generated over $85 billion in revenue.Chesnot (GETTY IMAGES)
Marc Bassets

Bernard Arnault always wanted to win. As a child, he was the first in class. Later on, he was the one who passed the most difficult exams to enter the most demanding university programs. He learned to play the piano well but they say that, once he realised he wasn’t going to be the best at the instrument, he gave it up.

The piano is now just a hobby for Arnault. He keeps a grand piano in a room next to his office at 22 Avenue de Montaigne, in Paris. Sometimes, he plays a sonata. Either the best compositions, or nothing at all. He is the owner of the best brands — the emperor of luxury. He’s an art collector, a philanthropist and the man who, along with Elon Musk, is in the running for being the richest person in the world.

The ranking fluctuates: this past week — after holding the title for a good part of the year — Arnault lost the throne to the owner of Tesla and Twitter, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires’ Index. But the fact that the owner of Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton — commonly known as LVHM — has amassed the biggest fortune on the planet makes a lot of sense.

“He was always the first in everything,” says Nadège Forestier, a journalist for Le Figaro, who worked with him regularly during the years of his rise. In 1990, she and Nazanine Ravaï published what is probably the most complete biography of his early life, The Taste of Luxury: Bernard Arnault and the Moet-Hennessy Louis Vuitton Story. “I think he finds it normal to be the richest in the world, since he was always above others.”

The 74-year-old Arnault, who was born in the city of Roubaix, in northern France, is an anomaly of global capitalism. As president of the LVMH group, he presides over a classic, niche and elitist industry — that of luxury products — in the era of Silicon Valley billionaires and technological populism. He’s a Frenchman in a club of very rich people — the likes of Musk and Jeff Bezos — that, in recent history, has been monopolized by Americans and Chinese. He had surpassed all of them by the end of 2022 and has since consolidated his position.

According to Bloomberg’s most recent tally, as of Friday, June 2, his fortune, bolstered by an increase in profits and a rising stock price, now exceeds $200 billion — greater than the annual budget of the European Union. Arnault owns more than 40% of the shares in LVMH, a company that, in the last five years, has appreciated by 166% on the stock market and is now valued at around $500 billion.

“His talent consists of taking a brand that exists and giving it an incredible boost,” says essayist and consultant Alain Minc, who knows Arnault well. You can’t rest on your laurels but it’s actually not the competition that keeps him up at night. LVHM — the owner of brands such as Louis Vuitton, Dior, Tiffany & Co., Moët & Chandon, along with 75 maisons, or houses, in fashion, cosmetics, jewellery and alcoholic beverages — dominates an unstoppable sector. As the number of millionaires increases, so does his fortune. Although his clientele is by no means limited to this elite segment of the global population.

Nor does Arnault lose sleep over being unpopular in his country, although, in the past few months during demonstrations against pension reform, he was one of the favorite recipients of protesters’ slogans. He’s not as hated as President Emmanuel Macron (not even close), but he has appeared as a symbol of social inequalities and injustices. “France is doing badly for different reasons,” says the left-wing François Ruffin, a member of the National Assembly. He is Arnault’s nemesis in the public debate in France. “The republican motto is ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’ — and I think that, for 40 years, France has taken a hit in equality.”

The main Louis Vuitton store, on the Champs Élysées in Paris.
The main Louis Vuitton store, on the Champs Élysées in Paris.Cyril Marcilhacy (BLOOMBERG)

Five children

If anything preoccupies Arnault these days, it’s something beyond competition and criticism: succession. This is an eternal story. The patriarch has five children between the ages of 24 and 48, two from a first marriage to Anne Dewavrin (Delphine and Antoine) and three from his second marriage to Hélène Mercier (Alexandre, Frédéric and Jean). They all work in the family business. Arnault has said that he will continue leading LVMH until he turns 80 although, on paper, nothing prevents him from postponing his retirement. He will take his time to decide.

“Bernard Arnault has taken pains to maintain a balance between the children, so that there are no battles between them,” explains Le Monde journalist Raphaëlle Bacqué. With Vanesssa Schneider, she co-authored the book Successions: Money, blood and tears. Apparently, everything is going well so far. But Bacqué — who interviewed the patriarch and his children for her book, entering the inner sanctum on Avenue de Montaigne — clarifies that “there are rivalries that are not expressed.”

It all starts in Roubaix — on the Franco-Belgian border — a galaxy far removed from Avenue de Montaigne with its Fendi, Celine, Givenchy, Dior and Louis Vuitton shops. This is the north of France, the old industrial lung of the country. Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, this region suffered the brunt of globalization, with the closures of factories and mines. The labor bastion of the left eventually became one of the main electoral strongholds of the extreme right. The son and grandson of construction businessmen in Roubaix, Arnault belongs to a family from the provincial bourgeoisie. At the age of seven, his grandfather took him to visit the worksites. He developed an obsession for education. When his grandfather died, Arnault placed his report card — in which the teachers congratulated him on his excellent work — inside the coffin. It was his tribute.

There is something very French about Arnault: he is part of what Bacqué calls “the religion of the diploma.” If the National School of Administration trains senior French executives, Arnault opted for another, more demanding path: the École Polytechnique, France’s leading engineering school. Decades later, he would try to get his children to follow the same path, and not always successfully.

“For him, the only thing that counts is the Polytechnique,” says Antoine, the eldest of the sons, who is at the helm of the holding company that controls LVMH. He told Bacqué and Schneider this while being interviewed for Successions. “I immediately understood that I was not made for this [university]. I told him: ‘You mustn’t try to sculpt me in your image and likeness.’”

The devotion to the diploma and to the Polytechnique explain why, in the discussion about succession, the fourth son, Frédéric, 28, responsible for the TAG Heuer watch brand, is sometimes pointed to as the future leader of LVMH. “Not only does everything work out for him, but he’s modest and quite nice,” Bacqué notes, while sitting in a café in Montparnasse. “And he’s a Polytechnique graduate,” she adds, “like Bernard Arnault.”

The eldest son from the second marriage also stands out: Alexandre, 31, is an executive at Tiffany & Co., with a big profile on social media. And one cannot forget the eldest daughter, Delphine, 48, head of Dior, who is married to the French telecommunications businessman Xavier Niel. Or the youngest, Jean, 24, who works in the Louis Vuitton watch division.

Let’s go back to the young Bernard Arnault, who, fresh out of the Polytechnique, returns to the north and joins Ferret-Savinel, the family business. Very quickly, Jean — his father — gives him the reins. But on May 10, 1981, François Mitterrand wins the presidential elections, causing a chill to run through the wealthiest layers of the country. For the first time since 1958, when, in the middle of the Algerian war, General De Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic, a socialist is in the Élysée Palace. And one who is allied with the communists. Just a few days before the elections, a minister of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing — the outgoing president — warned that, if Mitterrand won, Russian tanks would parade down the Champs-Élysées.

Bernard Arnault with two of his five children – Delphine and Antoine – during an event in Paris, circa 2021.
Bernard Arnault with two of his five children – Delphine and Antoine – during an event in Paris, circa 2021.YOAN VALAT (AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Arnault packs his bags and settles with the family in New Rochelle, near New York. He invests in real estate operations in Florida and quietly prepares his next moves. Biographers Forestier and Ravaï write that, one day, while shopping at the Bloomingdale’s department store in New York, Arnault was looking for a nightgown and a suit. He chooses Dior. “And then,” the biographers write, “he thinks: ‘There is no more beautiful name. In the United States, the president of Dior is better known than the president of the French Republic.’” It’s time to return to France.

By 1983, Mitterrand has rectified his economic policies — the climate is better for undertaking business ventures in France. For a small sum, Arnault snaps up Boussac, a textile giant on the verge of bankruptcy. Over the next six years, Arnault will cut 8,000 jobs. What interests him is Boussac’s jewel: Christian Dior. It will be the cornerstone of his empire. “Are there serious risks?” the elder Arnault asked his son at the time of the purchase, according to an account by Jean Arnault (who died in 2010) that was published in the newspaper Les Echos… which is now also owned by LVMH. “Yes,” his son answered. “You don’t do good business without taking risks,” his father proclaimed. “Go for it!” Five years later, Bernard Arnault, who had just turned 40, took over Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), which was already the world’s leading luxury group.

“Until then, luxury was the heritage of small, very prestigious maisons, without huge turnover,” says Nadège Forestier, Arnault’s biographer, in the living room of her apartment, near the Eiffel Tower. “He saw that there was a population in the whole world of people who could access luxury and who could be made to dream… that there was a potential for wealth in the whole world.”

Forestier adds: “I remember that we were finishing the book and we asked him: ‘What will you do in 20 or 30 years?’ We were convinced that he would dedicate himself to banking, to finance. We never thought that he would continue to lead a group dedicated solely to luxury.”

Bacqué observes that Arnault “returned from the United States with the idea that — being European and being French — France, for the rest of the world, is gastronomy and fashion. And this is exactly what LVMH has built on.”

“What’s interesting is the idea of a luxury that’s not only devoted to the rich, but also to the popular classes, who buy their lipstick or gadgets with the Dior logo. He understood that not only the rich buy [these products], but that the middle classes also want to participate in luxury.”

That France — a country that is permanently anguished by its decline, the egalitarian France that is one of the most redistributive countries on the planet — produces the richest man in the world is one of the paradoxes of the Arnault phenomenon. A mystery, since France is not the most innovative country, nor — if the political and intellectual discourse is taken into account — the one that is most attached to free trade and capitalism. Nor does the country have a powerful industrial sector.

Political advisor Alain Minc explains the paradox with a metaphor: “Look at a world map and imagine, for a moment, that California has been devoured by an earthquake,” he says. “Where in the world are the largest capitalists? In little France! I mean, if you get rid of the tech people, France is the only country that has produced big capitalists in recent years. Arnault at the top, but not only him: also Pinault, Bolloré, Niel… and, furthermore, the families that have inherited companies and made them grow tremendously: Dassault, L’Oréal, Hermès…”

The showcase of a Dior store, in Paris.
The showcase of a Dior store, in Paris.Benjamin Girette (BLOOMBERG)

And what is this success attributable to? “These people learned to manage at a time when managing was very difficult, since we were a ‘socializing’ country,” Minc responds. “When you’ve learned to run the 100-meter-dash with a sandbag on your back, the day the sandbag is taken off, you run very well.” This is another way of saying that, while France was not a country for capitalists, something changed about 15 years ago, when Nicholas Sarkozy was elected to the presidency, followed by François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron. These business people were already strong before. Then, they multiplied their force, their punch.

“[Arnault] has always had good relations with presidents since Jacques Chirac… he’s dressed all the first ladies since Bernadette Chirac,” Bacqué laughs. “He lobbies on taxation: inheritance rights, the wealth tax.”

The relationship of many French people with the rich is ambivalent, as it is with luxury: a mixture of hatred and admiration, rejection and pride. On April 13, a few dozen protesters on strike against the pension reform carried flares into the LVMH headquarters. The image went around the world: those below conquering the strength of those above. The symbol isn’t new. National Assembly Deputy François Ruffin dedicated a Michael Moore-style documentary to Arnault in 2015 — Merci, Patron! (Thank you, boss!) — which began with images of abandoned Boussac textile factories and recalled a controversy from 2012, when Arnault asked for Belgian nationality and the newspaper Libération printed a headline that read, “Get out, rich asshole!” Years later, Ruffin denounced that he was the target of surveillance by the former head of the secret services — the shady Bernard Squarcini — who, at the time, worked as a consultant for LVMH.

“I don’t harbor any feelings of revenge towards Bernard Arnault as an individual,” Ruffin says. “I simply believe that this social class must put its feet on the ground and, if it does not do so on its own initiative, it must be forced: in the fiscal, social and ecological fields.”

Arnault — who ultimately renounced his Belgian nationality — usually responds to criticism by recalling that LVMH has some 40,000 employees in France, out of 175,000 worldwide, and more than 100 production centers across the country. He also insists that LVMH is the biggest corporate taxpayer in France. Regarding Ruffin, he stated before the Senate in January of 2022: “Mr. Ruffin is someone very brilliant who is from the extreme left... for him, LVMH has always been a scarecrow.”

‘A big shark’

The appearance before the Senate — during an investigative commission on the subject of monopolies in the media — is one of the few recent public statements made by Arnault, who is “shy, but self-confident, extremely well-educated but very cold, icy,” according to Nadège Forestier. “Physically, he is very particular,” Bacqué notes. “He’s very tall… he seems to glide on the ground. He looks like a big shark.”

Once a month, Arnault has lunch with his children at 22 Avenue de Montaigne. They spend the holidays together. He has placed them in a strategic position: they talk almost every day. “Everything is taken into account.” Bacqué emphasizes. “The ability to run the company, but also the psychological balance, the ability to work. The character.”

“He puts them to the test, puts them in competition… but nothing indicates that the day he chooses one, the others will accept [the decision]” Minc says. “Since all five are in the company and since they’re all good, the decision isn’t clear. Any of the five could succeed him, so it’s going to be complicated. In addition, the five kids come from two different marriages, which further complicates things. So, his only problem is the choice of successor. But otherwise, he’s in top form — he plays tennis every day. He feels that he can continue for many years.”

The paradox of high-end items

Bernard Arnault sensed — when he acquired Dior and LVMH in the 1980s — that the luxury sector wasn’t limited to elite minorities and that it could be a fabulous business success. There’s now a boom in the sector, linked to its popularization, but also to an increase in potential clients: the rich. Every day, there are more and more rich people in more and more countries. The Chinese market is particularly decisive, especially following the reopening of the country after the pandemic. 

Claudia D'Arpizio and Federica Levato, from the consulting firm Bain & Company, have analyzed the recovery of the luxury sector after Covid-19 “The elements that boosted luxury spending in 2022 — as in the current year — were: consumers’ desire to live lost experiences (i.e. the culture of 'you only live once’), the savings accumulated during Covid-19 and the appetite for luxury purchases for investment purposes and resale opportunities. Despite possible bumps along the road, luxury is in an excellent position in the medium-term.”

In 2021, there were 62.5 million millionaires in the world, according to a study by Crédit Suisse… 52% more than the previous year. In 2026, it’s expected that there will be 87 million. The number of super-rich people — those who have fortunes that exceed $50 million — was 264,200 in 2021. This population is expected to reach 385,000 by 2026. 

D'Arpizio and Levato calculate that, in 2030, luxury market value could reach between $580 and $620 billion, 60% more than the value of the market in 2022. Meanwhile, the consumer base could expand to 500 million customers. Exclusivity can be widespread: another key to Arnault's success.

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