Bernard Arnault Rethinks the Cult of Fashion Gurus

By Givhan, Robin | Newsweek, July 18, 2011 | Go to article overview

Bernard Arnault Rethinks the Cult of Fashion Gurus


Givhan, Robin, Newsweek


Byline: Robin Givhan

The LVMH chief shakes up his empire after the fall of Dior's star designer, John Galliano.

It was the Fourth of July in America, but in Paris a different sort of spectacle was unfolding. Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of the French conglomerate LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton), took his place of honor in the front row of an elegant tent in the courtyard of the Musee Rodin, where he presided over the start of the fall haute-couture fashion week. The late-afternoon show was the most highly anticipated of them all: Christian Dior, one of Arnault's many brands and one that in recent months was rocked by scandal.

In public, Arnault, 62, is controlled and dignified, tall and trim, with a broad forehead and boyishly unruly gray hair. His English is thickly accented but precise. In business, he is known for being both aggressive and stealthy. And he is not prone to displays of emotion. At the Dior show, he was accompanied by his son Antoine--who looks like a younger, less burdened version of his father--and his daughter Delphine, a slender blonde with her father's high forehead. France's former first lady Bernadette Chirac sat nearby.

Established in 1947, Christian Dior is considered France's most prestigious label. Its founder was credited with reviving the country's stagnant fashion industry after World War II with a single collection of lush skirts and wasp-waist jackets that came to be known as the "New Look."

Over time, the brand captivated Princess Diana, who popularized the Lady Dior handbag with its quilted body and dangling CD charms. Today it's a darling of red-carpet butterflies and is the de facto couturier of French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

The Dior show tried to conjure that storied legacy. But as soon as the lights dimmed and the first model emerged, the Twitter universe exploded with fashion commentary, most of it negative--and understandably so. This fall collection was an '80s-inspired kaleidoscope of chaotic colors, awkward ball gowns, ungainly architectural silhouettes, and even a puzzling homage to the clown Pierrot, complete with pointy little hat.

When it was over, the virtually unknown atelier director, Bill Gaytten, and his first assistant, Susanna Venegas, stepped out and gave the audience a wave.

Haute couture, the craft of handmade garments, is supposed to be the pinnacle of fashion--the concept car of the garment business. This show was meant to be an expression of a couturier's most dazzling, singular vision--clothes as they could be. But such virtuosity was missing.

And all because the great French fashion house is in limbo.

For nearly 15 years, John Galliano served as creative director of Dior. He was a whirlwind of outre ideas and ruckus-raising controversy, and Arnault reveled in Galliano's audacity. The designer's runway bows rivaled his collections in imagination and swagger. The tent would go black and the lights would flash as if to herald the arrival of a rock star. As the music built, Galliano would strike a catalog-model pose. He'd linger on the runway, allowing his star power to radiate outward.

The designer--musclebound, with a face out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting--summed up what luxury fashion had become at the hand of Arnault: an industry driven by flamboyant stars, glittering brand names, and hype.

But then Galliano crashed to earth in March, after allegedly spewing anti-Semitic insults at a couple in a Paris bistro. Hate speech is illegal in France, and soon he was fired and shipped off to rehab. On June 22, when Galliano showed up in court, he was a beaten man who confessed to multiple addictions and claimed no recollection of what came hurtling from his mouth. A verdict is expected in September.

Arnault, meanwhile, must reinvent Dior. At first blush, it seems not such a tall order for the most powerful man in the global fashion industry. …

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