Bernard Arnault Talks La Samaritaine, Tourism and Breakfast on the Seine

PARIS — After opening a Louis Vuitton leather goods workshop in Texas in 2019 with then-President Donald Trump, luxury mogul Bernard Arnault secured another G7 leader for the opening of the renovated La Samaritaine department store in Paris: none other than French President Emmanuel Macron.

The two men, accompanied by First Lady Brigitte Macron and Arnault’s wife Hélène Mercier-Arnault, spent almost an hour on Monday touring the department store, which is due to open to the public on June 23 after a 16-year renovation process.

“The reopening of the Samaritaine today is also an event [that] we hope marks the end of this tragic period,” Arnault said in a speech before Macron and 700 members of staff, dressed in the store’s uniform of blue suits, striped T-shirts and white sneakers with laces in the retailer’s signature yellow hue.

Afterward, Arnault stopped for lunch at Voyage, the restaurant under the gold-hued peacock mural on the fifth floor of the Art Nouveau building. Over caviar and sushi, he recounted that, during the visit, Macron bumped into his niece, who happens to work at the department store. “Emmanuel didn’t know,” he chuckled.

In an interview with WWD, the chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH discussed his ambitions for La Samaritaine, the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic on tourism and why, despite the challenges, he was never tempted to give up on the project.

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WWD: What does the fact that President Emmanuel Macron attended the inauguration say about the importance of this project in the eyes of the French government?

Bernard Arnault: This reopening is symbolic on three counts. La Samaritaine is a powerful symbol of French know-how: architectural know-how, with this exceptional building that is a historical monument located right in the heart of Paris. The neighboring Art Deco building, which used to be part of La Samaritaine and is now a Cheval Blanc hotel, is also a noteworthy building, and then there is the new building we designed with [architect] Kazuyo Sejima on Rue de Rivoli. So I think, in purely architectural terms, this is an event in itself.

Then there is the whole artistic dimension. We just walked past this peacock mural which is the largest existing monumental Art Nouveau painting in the world, an exceptional work of art that was painted by the son of architect Frantz Jourdain and which is a historical monument in itself.

Lastly, there’s the fact that we are bringing to the center of Paris today 3,000 jobs between La Samaritaine, the Cheval Blanc hotel and the group’s offices, which will be located in the modern building. I think that also explains the president’s interest in this project, which marks the reopening of the economy after a period of intense crisis in France and the rest of the world over the last 18 months. It partly accounts for why the president came to cheer the opening. You saw how enthusiastically he was greeted by our teams, who gave him an ovation on every floor. I can tell you that I’ve seen several presidents visit our facilities, and I’ve never seen as much enthusiasm for any president as our teams showed for President Macron.

WWD: Looking ahead beyond this period, what do you hope this project will contribute to the economic and cultural development of this rapidly evolving area of central Paris?

B.A.: We want to make La Samaritaine a model department store with a mix of products and brands, but also the notion of pleasure, like having lunch here in this exceptional environment. A view like this in Paris is quite remarkable. So it’s a destination that goes beyond mere commerce.

The same is true of the Cheval Blanc hotel. You have to visit the rooms. It’s incredible, because in every room there’s a little alcove where you can have breakfast overlooking the Seine, and you feel like you’re having your breakfast on the river. There’s not a single noise, not even traffic. It’s terrific, and the architecture and interior design are quite magnificent.

WWD: The whole process took 16 years. Were you ever tempted to throw in the towel?

B.A.: Frankly, no, because I’m not in the habit of giving up and it’s not in the DNA of the LVMH group. We think long-term and even if it was very difficult, even if there were times when people felt a little discouraged, I always stayed the course, because I was convinced that fundamentally, it was impossible for a city like Paris and a state like France not to let us renovate such a beautiful building, not to let us reopen it, especially in this location. It occupies one of the most beautiful spots in Paris, between the Louvre museum, which you can see from here, and the Pompidou museum, which is within walking distance. So I was always confident we would prevail. Having said that, as I mentioned in my speech, this job could only be done by a group that thinks like we do: a family-run group that thinks long-term and that can afford to invest in a project for 15 years with no turnover and no profit. I think we’re the only ones in France capable of doing this.

WWD: Tourism is the lifeblood of DFS. What is the outlook for your travel retail division this year, and when do you expect tourists to return to Paris?

B.A.: In the short term, there are very few tourists, not just in Paris but in many parts of the world. The situation is a consequence of the crisis. The question is not whether things will return to normal or not. Clearly, they will return to normal. The question is when? Will it take six months, a year or 18 months? It’s impossible to say, because it will depend on the evolution of measures to control the virus in the various countries concerned. For example, when will French people be allowed to travel to the United States as they did in the past? For the time being, it’s still very difficult. Some say it will be on July 4, others say it will be later. We don’t know, and everything depends on that. But we’ve waited 15 years, an extra year won’t make much difference.

WWD: How many visitors a year do you expect when the situation normalizes?

B.A.: I don’t have a figure off the top of my head, but I would expect it to be similar to other Paris department stores and we hope even better, given that’s it’s new and extremely well located. I think every tourist goes to the Louvre and it’s within walking distance. It’s 50 yards away.

WWD: But you’re much smaller than say, Galeries Lafayette. Doesn’t that limit capacity?

B.A.: No, it’s an advantage being small. It’s not good to be too big. If you’re too big, you have lots and lots of space to fill. We focus on the essential.

WWD: You were speaking earlier with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who has banned cars on the banks on the Seine and on Rue de Rivoli, and has plans to go further by creating a restricted traffic zone in central Paris. Is this policy harmful for your business?

B.A.: I think City Hall, and the mayor in particular, are very sensitive to the fact that bringing 3,000 jobs to this area of Paris demonstrates that she does not want to transform the city of Paris into a museum, and that she will be sensitive to the fact that we have to give this economic development the means to be competitive. She assured me that we would not be economically disadvantaged with regard to our competitors, which are the other Paris department stores. She gave me her word and I trust her implicitly.

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