Fondation Louis Vuitton’s opening

As the Fondation Louis Vuitton becomes Paris’s latest artistic landmark, its creator, head of LMVH Bernard Arnault, tells Nick Foulkes in an exclusive interview about how working with architect Frank Gehry is the apotheosis of his life as an art collector

Frank Gehry (left) and Bernard Arnault outside the Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris
Frank Gehry (left) and Bernard Arnault outside the Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris | Image: Richard Grassie

I have never knowingly gasped in awe and wonder but I came pretty close when, driving through the Bois de Boulogne during the summer, I caught my first glimpse of the new Fondation Louis Vuitton, the multigallery museum, auditorium and cultural space that opens its revolving doors to the public on October 27. The soaring structure of huge swirling planes of glass seems to hang like mist amid the trees of one of Paris’s largest parks. It struck me that this is what it must have been like to walk to the top of a sand dune in Giza around two and half millennia before the birth of Christ as they were putting the finishing touches to the pyramid of Cheops; to have seen the Colosseum rise above ancient Rome; or, for that matter, to have witnessed Monsieur Eiffel’s eponymous experiment in ironmongery climbing rivet by rivet towards the sky.

But this building is not a pyramid, nor an amphitheatre, nor even a tower. Instead it seems to revel in defying definition, which probably accounts for it having been described variously as a ship, a cloud and an iceberg dressed in a cloud. According to Frank Gehry, its white-haired, impish, octogenarian architect, it is all three. “The iceberg is the white stuff inside, the cloud is the glass, and the glass looks like sails,” he says.

Gehry’s personal style is laid-back West Coast USA: in T-shirt, chinos and blazer he would pass unnoticed. However, when he starts to talk he is impossible to ignore, as he weaves a sparkling and uninhibited conversational tapestry spanning Seneca, Proust, the importance of Japanese architecture, how his Parisian masterpiece could lend itself to displays of burlesque dancing, and how to deal with death threats.

But while his building is hard to categorise, except perhaps as Gehryesque, it is, he insists, just a practical answer to a brief. “It grew logically out of a series of galleries, a site and a park structure that demanded it be glass. It’s hard to hang paintings on a glass wall, so it had to have an interior building that had solid walls,” he says. Seldom can practicality have been so interesting. It has galleries in almost every shape and size, from the small and intimate to the vaulting and cathedral-like. But in Gehry’s opinion it is more than just a museum.

“The gallery space down below opens up totally to the auditorium, and we could do a fashion show down there if we wanted,” he suggests. “You can cross those lines back and forth – much easier than going into MoMA or the Guggenheim, which have a requirement to be something, intellectually, that have a line you can’t cross. I mean, I hope they have nude dancing!” he jokes. Perhaps one way of looking at this building is as an autobiography or self-portrait in glass, steel, concrete and wood: multifaceted, fascinating, capable of mixing high culture, popular culture and commercial culture.  

Gehry is one of the most important architects of our time – a sort of 21st-century Palladio, Mansart or Wren. But as well as receiving the Pritzker Architecture Prize and the respect of his peers, he also famously appeared on The Simpsons designing a concert hall inspired by crumpling up a letter from Marge Simpson that had described him as the “bestest architect in the world”.

His designs are powerful and immediately distinctive. Since the opening of the Guggenheim in Bilbao his work has been credited with almost magical powers of urban regeneration. But it was not always thus. “In Bilbao, when we showed them the models, they wanted to kill me,” he laughs. “There was a Basque artist who said, ‘Kill the American architect.’” He may laugh now, but at the time, in the context of the separatist movement, “it was scary”.

And while there have been no death threats this time around, there was initial opposition that halted work on the project. It is something of a Parisian tradition: once every generation or so a piece of architecture associated with the arts causes controversy. Back in the 1970s it was the Centre Pompidou – Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s exoskeletal cultural centre. After that proved to be accepted as a masterpiece, IM Pei put his pyramid on the Louvre. Now it is Gehry’s turn.

But while it opens this autumn, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is the destination of a cultural odyssey that began in the 1980s, when a rising young entrepreneur by the name of Bernard Arnault, with a family business in property and building in northern France, took control of a conglomerate called Boussac.

The Foundation Louis Vuitton, set in the Jardin d'Acclimatation
The Foundation Louis Vuitton, set in the Jardin d'Acclimatation | Image: Iwan Baan

Boussac was a sprawling commercial empire that seemed to have been assembled without any particular focus but rather on what had caught the eye of Marcel Boussac, including newspapers, textiles, furniture and racehorses. Along the way he had also picked up the fashion house Christian Dior. He even bought the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a children’s park and zoo in the Bois de Boulogne, because he lived nearby and his wife was bothered by the noise of the roaring lions. Soon after Boussac bought it the lions were sent packing to another zoo, but the children’s park remains and is right next door to the plot of land on which Gehry’s building now stands.

Boussac had collapsed in the late 1970s, failed to prosper under subsequent ownership and by December 1984 Arnault was in control of the conglomerate and, importantly, the fabled name of Dior. But if he was relatively unknown in 1984, five years later everybody in business and in the world of luxury knew who he was, as he took control of LVMH, a company formed from the venerable French luggage maker and some of the most prestigious names in champagne and cognac.

Much has been written about the rancorous takeover, which epitomised the era’s obsession with financial drama and branded luxury goods. Since then, as well as making him very rich, LVMH has made Arnault a polarising figure. He remains remote and sphinx-like, seldom giving interviews. Some laud him as the inventor of the modern luxury-goods industry. Others characterise him as a corporate predator, an ever-alert lupine figure, quick to identify an opportunity to acquire further trophies. Indeed, LVMH was fined €8m last year for failing to properly disclose its stakebuilding in rival luxury-goods house Hermès.  

By contrast, the acquisition of Bulgari in 2011 and Loro Piana in 2013 appears to have been accomplished smoothly. Besides, Arnault seems to have a genuine love of luxury for its own sake, even if neither big names nor big money are involved, videlicet his relaunch of the old luggage brand Moynat and his hiring of the young British designer JW Anderson. His theory is that in today’s market, the backing of a big group is a necessity. “You could not do today what Mr Dior did in 1947,” he says. “The world is completely different now. But you can be as successful – maybe with the help of a large and powerful organisation that gives you every means in terms of management and investment.”

I have no experience of Bernard Arnault in the boardroom; however at the breakfast table, over coffee, fruit, croissants and crusty French bread, he is utterly charming. But then I am meeting another Arnault, the collector and Maecenas. Quietly spoken, tall, pale and elegant in the international overalls of flawless dark suit, white shirt, dark tie and touch of red and gold in the lapel that betokens the rank of Grand Officer in the Légion d’Honneur, this is what a fortune of $33bn (give or take) looks like in human form.  

There have, of course, been rich men who collected art before; many of the world’s great museums started life as the collections of kings, aristocrats and plutocrats. And Louis Vuitton is far from being the first luxury brand to append its name to a cultural institution; in the same year that the Gehry-designed Fondation opens, the Fondation Cartier celebrates its 30th birthday over on the Boulevard Raspail. However, at Cartier there is no cross-pollination between the brand and the gallery that bears its name.

By contrast, what makes Arnault’s journey as an art collector so fascinating is the way that he has blurred, if not erased, the line between art and commerce. He has fulfilled at least half of Warhol’s prediction that one day all department stores will become museums and all museums will become department stores. Warhol would have loved what Arnault has done with Louis Vuitton. Its bespoke goods made at the old factory at Asnières are as good as anything you will find; it is also active in watches, jewellery, fashion and footwear. But it is in the collaboration with leading contemporary artists that the brand has changed the relationship between luxury, fashion and art. Takashi Murakami, Stephen Sprouse, Julie Verhoeven, Richard Prince, Olafur Eliasson and many others have been part of the Vuitton story, whether by customising the famous Monogram canvas bags, dressing windows or creating artworks for the brand. And now one of the world’s most famous architects, Frank Gehry, is part of the narrative, too. As well as the Fondation, he has designed a Vuitton bag; it is yet to be unveiled, but Gehry told me that his initial gunslinger-style design featuring a belt and two “holsters” was rejected.

As well as the bags, shoes, clothes and jewellery, some of the bigger Louis Vuitton stores, the maisons, have art bookshops with shelves curated by leading artists, and in the Ginza and Champs-Elysées stores there are espaces culturels – dedicated exhibition galleries. Even the Louis Vuitton shoe factory in the Veneto has a large Joana Vasconcelos sculpture at its heart, and a few early Warhols on the walls.

Now there is the Fondation.

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We meet at 8.30am one summer morning at the LVMH headquarters on the Avenue Montaigne. Walking down the tranquil corridors of Arnault’s private office suite, one encounters a luminous Rothko and then a Dubuffet, in front of which is a little tableau of Vuitton bags, including some glittering metallic iterations of the famous Keepall. I ask if these are examples of Sylvie Fleury’s sculpture of a Louis Vuitton Keepall. I am informed that they are just gold and silver leather bags.

Is it art? Is it fashion? The answer, according to Arnault, is that it is creativity. “Fashion is not art, but designers and artists speak the same language. So they are close, and sometimes they want to share ideas and work together.”

The more you speak to him, the more you realise that creativity is the quality he most prizes. Once one understands that, one begins to understand the man. “I am often asked, ‘How were you able to go from property development to creativity, fashion, luxury activities?’” he says. “And I answer that my success at the beginning of my career was mainly due to my proximity to architects and the fact that we were working on creating the most desirable buildings.”  

It is perhaps over-dramatising the matter to say that if he is the 21st-century Citizen Kane then the glittering glass palace in Bois would be Xanadu. But in a way it is also his Rosebud. Working with Frank Gehry is both the apotheosis of his life as an art collector and a sentimental return to his earliest working life – only this time with all the means and experience of the man he has become.

It is fascinating to see how he seems to relax when he talks about paintings and music, with discussion ranging from Chopin to Schubert, to Koons to Sterling Ruby. Later in the day when we meet again for the photoshoot he is erect, formal, by no means unfriendly but slightly reserved – until that is, he sees his friend and collaborator Gehry ambling down the corridor wrapped in his nimbus of Californian casualness. The tension leaves Arnault’s body as he inclines his head to talk to the shorter, far less formal man; he is solicitous, his features warmed by genuine pleasure at being in Gehry’s company.

Arnault’s relationship with the arts is much more than the one of status conferral. Nor is it a matter of admiring a gift in others that he does not possess himself. He is known to be a talented musician – a grand piano was installed in an upper storey of his childhood home – and he is married to a pianist, which is doubtless why the Fondation boasts an auditorium.

“The main explanation for the Fondation Louis Vuitton,” he says, “is the fact that the group success is based on creativity drawn from a lot of very talented people: designers, researchers, innovators. For us it’s a good way of doing mécénat, of giving back some of this fantastic creativity to the public. It is also fantastic motivation for our teams to be linked to something which is not related to numbers, to profitability, to growth. So we can create a feeling of belonging to a group with something other than just productivity, efficiency, motivation, something maybe bigger, giving more enthusiasm globally. It’s a way of cementing the group.”  

Something bigger than the individual, something that binds society together, something that transcends profitability and financial growth – creativity is close to a religion for Arnault and he was inducted into it early in his life. His family spent much time visiting museums and it was at the age of 10 that he experienced his moment of epiphany standing in front of a Van Gogh. “I was really fascinated by the colour… you see something like a firework display, which maybe was the first time I really saw modernism,” he says, a smile crossing his features.  

“The first major artwork I bought, which was not only a good painting but also a good investment, was when I was living in New York, at the beginning of the 1980s. I went to an auction and I thought, ‘No it’s not possible, there is a Monet for sale’.” It was a painting of Charing Cross Bridge, dating from the early 20th century when the impressionist painter depicted the landmarks of a fog-shrouded London from a balcony at The Savoy. “I immediately loved the painting, but I thought I would never get it,” he says. But he decided to try his luck. “I was the only one to bid for it, and I got it for a relatively low amount,” he says. 

Bernard Arnault pictured with his Rothko painting
Bernard Arnault pictured with his Rothko painting | Image: Richard Grassie

He clearly delights in appreciating things that others have yet to come round to. It was the same, he explains, with the rainbow-bright Rothko I encountered earlier. At the time he bought it he says everyone wanted dark, dramatic works dating from shortly before the painter’s suicide. He also believes the French expressionist painter Bernard Buffet may be underrated (Buffet’s portrait of Dior hangs in the Dior boutique on the Avenue Montaigne). Although whether there will be any Buffets on display at the Fondation is uncertain, as while Arnault has final curatorial approval at the Fondation and what is acquired for the permanent collection of LVMH, buying for himself involves different criteria.

“I only buy artworks I like, and can live with for a long time. I have to feel some emotion when I see a painting, and be moved by it.” Acquisitions for the Fondation are slightly different. “When we buy something it has to meet two conditions. One is that I have to like it, the other is that Suzanne Page [the curator of the Fondation] should consider it something worth exhibiting in the Fondation Louis Vuitton. I mean, I don’t think she would like to have my Monet,” he laughs. “The Fondation’s collection focuses on the link between contemporary artists and the second part of the last century. So you see the evolution.”

And the way he tells it, the designers with whom he has built LVMH have had a profound influence in leading him from the world of impressionism to contemporary art. Building LVMH, in itself a curatorial activity that has created a “collection” that simply could not be assembled today, has given him a ringside seat with a unique perspective on the art world.  

“What I have seen is the closeness between many of the creators, designers and artists,” he says. “If you take Marc Jacobs, he’s friends with a lot of artists in New York. They share ideas and sometimes work together. Many others are like that,” he explains, citing Raf Simons of Dior, who has collaborated closely with contemporary artist Sterling Ruby.  

Of course, he wants people to buy bags and watches and fine wine, but he also wants to enrich the experience of acquiring a piece of luggage or a dress, and, by linking it to other forms of creativity, elevate it above the seasonal cycle. Gehry sums it up rather well when he says, “I think of him as a kind of impresario who has access to all these avenues of expression.”

The way Arnault describes it, creativity is too precious to be left solely in the hands of the state. “Culture is something that is of another register to government planning. So yes, it’s good to have a culture minister, but you also need what you have in the US, which is private enterprise participating in artistic life.” One might infer that governments come and go but LVMH endures; certainly he feels that the contribution to public life made by such companies as his is under-appreciated. “Private enterprise is not sufficiently recognised as the real engine of global welfare. In France the state is too present in many activities, not only the museums.” It is worth noting that LVMH does not own the ground on which the Fondation is built and that it will revert to the city of Paris in just over 50 years; in effect the building is a gift from Louis Vuitton to the city.

He sees the role of the Fondation, and the broader art‑world-inclined activities across the group, as promoting cultural accessibility. “We are trying to create more opportunity, as it can be easier for people to go to a fashion store than an art opening. The fact that our brand names are recognised across the world, and their activities often covered on TV, means that when we host a show for an artist, like we do with Vuitton, it can attract a wider circle of people.

“We see our role as bringing the artists we show at the Fondation closer to the public, and encouraging a desire for innovation. It’s the same reason we show artworks in some of our maisons, because not only do they resonate with the products, they also give our customers the feeling of being at home. And at home from time to time you have art. We don’t want to be a museum shop.”  

Could it be that in blurring the lines between museum, shop and home, enigmatic luxury mogul Bernard Arnault has actually out-Warholed Andy Warhol?

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