Over a lingering lunch with a friend just off the Champs-Elysees, Bernard Arnault, head of the £354 billion LVMH luxury goods empire — and by some distance now the world’s richest man — was asked which of his children he saw as his possible successor.
The inscrutable Arnault fixed his acquaintance with an apologetic smile and, spreading his hands, replied: ‘Well, I have five . . .’ before his voice tailed off.
And in recent years, that enigmatic response has been the closest the man dubbed ‘a wolf in cashmere’ has come to addressing a most enthralling and glamorous inheritance saga that has kept the chic salons of Paris aflame with gossip.
Will it be his 45-year-old son Antoine, long assumed to be the frontrunner? Or his eldest child Delphine, 47, who has just been promoted over her brother’s head?
Bernard Arnault’s eldest child Delphine (pictured), 47, has just been promoted over her brother’s head
What makes this Succession-style story so intriguing — as with the fictional story of the Roy media dynasty in the backstabbing TV drama — is that all five children from Arnault’s two marriages are employed in the family business.
A ruthless wheeler-dealer and hard worker, he has always expected his offspring to be the same. Antoine, elevated to vice-chairman and charged with running the holding company that controls the haute couture-to-champagne conglomerate, would seem to be the natural successor to his father.
Handsome, outgoing and married to a Russian supermodel, Natalia Vodianova — aka Supernova, who was formerly married to property-owning London aristocrat Justin Portman — it was poker-playing Antoine who has always seemed the most assured in the world of high-end fashion and luxury marques.
Among its many brands, the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy group — LVMH — controls jewellers Tiffany and Bulgari, watchmaker Tag Heuer, the exclusive Chateau d’Yquem Bordeaux vineyard and fashion labels Givenchy, Fendi, Celine, Stella McCartney and the biggest prize of all, Christian Dior.
Arnault likes to keep the markets — and rivals — guessing at his intentions as much as family members. It is his unpredictability as well as his buccaneering style that last month saw his personal wealth eclipse that of Elon Musk, previously the world’s richest man.
His decision the other day to unveil his only daughter, Delphine, as head of Dior, LVMH’s second-largest brand, not only provoked gasps at board level in France’s snooty couture industry but fired the starting pistol on the world’s most irresistible (and potentially most volatile) contest to see which of the Arnault offspring succeeds to become not just the new king — or queen — of fashion but perhaps the richest person on the planet.
Antoine, elevated to vice-chairman and charged with running the holding company that controls the haute couture-to-champagne conglomerate, would seem to be the natural successor to his father
No wonder there is lip-smacking anticipation at what Luca Solca, an analyst at Wall Street investment firm Bernstein, says threatens to be a ‘Darwinian contest’ among Arnault’s children.
Arnault v Arnault? Surely not in this close-knit family, which traces its gilded roots back to Bernard’s brilliant decision to diversify his father’s solid but unexceptional construction company into textiles.
Through corporate acquisitions, he eventually took control of Christian Dior, laying off 9,000 workers and earning the nickname ‘The Terminator’.
Years of expansion followed, with ever more famous names procured — including Kenzo, Marc Jacobs, Loewe, Loro Piana and the perfumer Guerlain, to name but a few — and while there were occasionally hostile business takeover upsets, the Arnault name reigned supreme.
Now he has put one of his children in charge of an iconic LVMH brand for the first time, the landscape has suddenly changed.
The timing has been fortuitous — for Delphine. As Paris Fashion Week unveiled one eye-popping trend after another, she has been just about everywhere.
Just days after her unveiling, she was front row — naturally — at the Dior runway show, alongside David Beckham, his youngest son Cruz, actor Eddie Redmayne and his publicist wife Hannah, the Twilight star Robert Pattinson and model Karlie Kloss.
CEO of LVMH Bernard Arnault (right) and Helene Arnault (left) at Paris Fashion week in 2015
Was this an early statement of intent from Dior’s new CEO that she too, thank you very much, is just as much at ease as her brother among the celebrity elite? Observers may look askance at the family’s tremendous work ethic, but it seems to be built into their DNA.
Antoine was 14 when his younger brother Alexandre was born, but he sent him a note reading: ‘Dear Alexandre, I hope that your birth went well, and that you’re all right. I advise you to start working right away because otherwise . . .’
Antoine published this unfinished note on his Instagram account last year. How serious was it and what does it tell us about sibling rivalry and family ambition? No one is saying.
So for now, or at least until her father decides his next move, all eyes are on divorced Delphine — over 6ft tall in her LV heels — who has inherited her father’s air of inscrutability.
It was suggested last week that investors ‘do not have a good feel for her’. Others cattily described her sudden elevation to chief executive of Dior as ‘a little present from Daddy’.
But designers and fashion people warn against underestimating her. Like her father, Delphine has a habit of paying surprise visits to the company’s shops after hours.
Also, like him, she has an eye for a hit high-end handbag, one of LVMH’s core products (she still has one she received for her 18th birthday). When staff at the flagship Vuitton store in Paris were finalising a collaboration with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama earlier this month, Delphine worked until close to midnight checking and fine-tuning the window displays.
She has also inherited her father’s natural authority and directness, skills she needed when handling the fallout from the John Galliano scandal in 2011.
The British designer was caught on camera insulting a group of Italian women with anti-Semitic slurs during a drunken rant in a cafe.
In the uproar that followed — Galliano was filmed telling a woman he thought was Jewish that he loved Hitler and that her parents should have been ‘gassed’ — he was suspended and later fired as Dior’s creative director.
A senior figure at LVMH told the Mail pointedly: ‘Monsieur Arnault has four sons but Delphine is the golden child right now.’
Parisians are loving the idea of the sudden promotion of the willowy blonde for its parallels with HBO series Succession, in which the only daughter of tycoon Logan Roy, Shiv, is stunned when she becomes favourite to take over the empire.
But Arnault, the patriarch, has constructed a dynasty more glamorous and infinitely richer than the fictitious Roys.
Arnault lives in a 12-bedroom 18th-century pile not far from the Arc de Triomphe. His fortune is reported to top £170 billion. He has a chateau at Rambouillet in the Ile-de-France region, where he weekends with his second wife, Canada-born classical pianist Helene Mercier.
They keep a menagerie of animals including chickens, sheep, donkeys and dogs. There is also a villa near St Tropez and a private island in the Bahamas. There are other homes in New York, Miami and St Barts in the French West Indies.
One by one, all his children have joined the business, where they work in various divisions of their father’s empire including Frederic, 28, who runs Tag Heuer
Arnault also owns the Nyn Park estate in Hertfordshire and when the family ski in the Alps at fashionable Courchevel, they stay at their own luxurious hotel, the five-star Cheval Blanc.
One by one, all his children have joined the business, where they work in various divisions of their father’s empire.
The youngest, by wife number two, simply followed in the footsteps of Antoine and Delphine. As well as the aforementioned Alexandre, now 30, who is communications manager at Tiffany, there is Frederic, 28, who runs Tag Heuer; and Jean, 24, the marketing head of Louis Vuitton watches.
As with all the Arnault clan, Delphine has faced accusations that she is just another product of nepotism — more crudely a ‘nepo-baby’ — whose career has benefited in no small way from family connections. Such children dominate French industry, beyond LVMH and cosmetics firm L’Oreal.
Several big businesses, including telecoms giant Bouygues and the Pinault family’s Kering group — owner of Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga — are run by dynasties.
There is often a degree of resentment against such families, not least because of their close links to serving French presidents. Nicolas Sarkozy invited Bernard Arnault to be his best man when he made model Carla Bruni his third wife at the Elysee Palace in 2008.
And Sarko was among the guests when Delphine married her first husband, Italian wine heir Alessandro Gancia, in 2005.
Alexandre Arnault, 30, (pictured in Los Angeles in October) is communications manager at Tiffany
Galliano made the dress and Karl Lagerfeld took the pictures. But the union did not last and the couple were divorced five years later.
All the same, Delphine’s political antennae seem to be as acutely adjusted as her father’s. She is a close friend of President Macron’s wife Brigitte, who is dressed by Louis Vuitton, although ‘she always returns the clothes after use’.
And the Macron connection goes back much farther. The president’s wife taught Arnault’s two youngest sons French at the Franklin lycee in Paris.
It was while she was teaching at another Franklin lycee, in Amiens, northern France, that Brigitte was said to have seduced the young Emmanuel Macron.
Like her father, Delphine also lives in sumptuous style. Her main home, where she lives with her partner, tech billionaire Xavier Niel, and their two children is a replica of the Petit Trianon at Versailles, complete with swimming pool and extensive gardens.
There is also a £16 million summer house on the French Riviera. The original Petit Trianon is the neoclassical mansion that King Louis XVI gave to his Queen Marie Antoinette as a 19th birthday present and which she turned into her retreat.
(L-R) Frederic Arnault, Delphine Arnault and Jean Arnault attend the Louis Vuitton Womenswear Spring/Summer 2022 show
Pampered women like Delphine Arnault are routinely likened to the ill-fated Marie Antoinette in treacherous fashion circles — but in reality there is no comparison.
Delphine is whip-smart. After business school in distinctly unfashionable Lille, France’s coalmining district, she studied in the U.S. and at the London School of Economics and worked for management consultants McKinsey before joining her father’s business, where she started in shoes at Dior and then graduated to leather goods.
In recent years, she has had a hand in hiring artistic directors who have wowed the fashion crowd: Raf Simons at Dior and Jonathan Anderson at Loewe.
Delphine rarely gives interviews, but in a moment of introspection she once admitted it was fortunate that the family empire was about fashion, perfume and cosmetics: ‘If my father had owned a tyre company, I don’t know what I would have done,’ she said.
Like her father, she shares a passion for art collecting. She sits on the board of the hip Gagosian gallery alongside Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, a family friend. Is all this going to be enough for this most exquisite of crowns to be hers?
According to family friends, Delphine is her father’s daughter. ‘There is a special bond — she is his only daughter and the eldest,’ says Sidney Toledano, from whom she learnt the luxury ropes.
‘She has a strong personality and can be direct with him.’
For all the Succession-style manoeuvring, one question remains: does Bernard Arnault, who will be 74 in March, actually want to stand aside?
Last year, corporate bylaws raised the company’s retirement age from 75 to 80.
So what about his successor? As he told that lunchtime friend of the competing claims of his children: ‘They all have something of me.’ Delphine, meanwhile, will be hoping she has just that little bit more.