Yves Carcelle: ‘I don’t think luxury has to be a ghetto’

If going global is a defining challenge for some luxury companies, for Louis Vuitton it has always been the natural way to go. Traveling the world – in style – is, after all, the company’s credo. The house is currently celebrating its first 150 years of sustained quality and increasing global hype. Not bad for the son of a French carpenter who founded the company in 1854. Yet what began with the creation of luxurious travel trunks in the 19th century has taken new shape in the 21st: From dog carrier bags to city guides, and from jewelry to watches, the ubiquitous LV logo lives on with a presence in more than 50 countries. In Greece alone, business activities are carried out in the heart of Athens, at the freshly refurbished outlet on Voukourestiou Street, plus another in Thessaloniki – while a new boutique is scheduled to open next month in Kifissia. Style politics If fashion politics dictate the kind of luxury world we live in, Louis Vuitton is open to everyone. «We like to use the term universal,» says Yves Carcelle, chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton Malletier. «For us, it’s as important that somebody saves money for a few months or years to buy a wallet, for the excitement of entering the world of luxury, as it is for somebody who puts in 10 special orders. I don’t think that luxury has to be a ghetto.» Carcelle was in Athens last week to attend the unveiling of the latest installment of Louis Vuitton’s «Carnets de Voyage,» a tribute to Athens – as well as to preside over a regional managers’ meeting of 180 executives. The Greek capital joins a distinguished group of fellow cities as part of the carnets de voyage series: Paris, London, Tokyo, New York, Sydney, Rio and Beijing. Illustrated by artist Pavlos Habidis, the Athens edition highlights the local art of living, no doubt to become an elegant companion to fashionistas traveling to Athens for the upcoming Olympic Games. A valuable aide to Bernard Arnault, the venerable chairman of LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton), Carcelle took over Louis Vuitton in 1990. Since then, he has been its driving force – except for four years, between 1998 and 2002, when he became chairman and CEO of the LVMH fashion division, overseeing Louis Vuitton, Loewe, Celine, Christian Lacroix, Givenchy, Donna Karan, Kenzo, Berluti, Stefanobi, Marc Jacobs, Emilio Pucci, Fendi, Thomas and Pink. At Louis Vuitton, Carcelle’s mission is to carry the brand forward while keeping the core of the company intact. «We strongly believe in the DNA of the brand, but if you respect the DNA, you can change the vocabulary,» he says. Given 150 years of accomplished linguistics, what does Louis Vuitton keep or eliminate from its language? «There is nothing to get rid of, the magic of the house is having accumulated 150 [years of] an extremely rich history built on values which we still adhere to while at the same time creating continuously. It’s a philosophy based on adding rather than replacing,» says Carcelle. One major addition to the company came about in 1997, with the appointment of American fashion designer Marc Jacobs as Louis Vuitton’s artistic director. The appointment signaled the company’s entry into the world of ready-to-wear clothing. Before that, in 1996, the company had relaunched the «Damier,» a design first seen in 1888. Meanwhile, the celebrated Louis Vuitton «Monogram» – with the logo stamped on the manufactured product – is constantly given fresh creative spins. How crazy can Louis Vuitton get? «I don’t think there is a limit to our craziness working with creative people,» says Carcelle, pointing to the 1996 celebration of the centennial of the Monogram canvas. In 1995, the company asked seven designers, including Vivienne Westwood, Azzedine Alaia and Manolo Blahnik, to design their own pieces as a tribute. Later on, it was Jacobs who came up with the idea of celebrating the Monogram canvas through painting, by bringing in the well-known fashion designer, artist and photographer Stephen Sprouse. Sprouse, who died earlier this year, came up with the graffiti logo bags which became the house’s mega hit in 2002. «It’s important when you are in the creative process not to fix any limits at the beginning,» says Carcelle. «Sometimes, the creative process needs a briefing, ‘we want this or that,’ but in some cases, especially with Marc, it’s ‘do whatever you want.’ Sometimes you have to allow total freedom and then check that we are not going beyond the limits of what is the brand.» Jacobs has been a pivotal figure in the company. «We are 10,000 people at Louis Vuitton and clearly he has played a big role; without him we would have never launched ready-to-wear and shoes, that was his first mission. Since then, he has brought a different eye.» A Jacobs idea for a charm bracelet, for instance, has now led to an entire jewelry collection. Just recently, the designer renewed his contract for another 10 years, attesting to the good relationships and confidence and above all the idea that luxury is all about long-term planning and a vision. At Louis Vuitton, however, creativity goes beyond the products; it is also about building special communication patterns between the brand and its customers. In Tokyo, for instance, the brand-new boutique situated in nightlife hub Rappongi Hills has made a splash. One of the reasons for this is that one of the architects working on the project came up with the idea of a bag bar – a 12-meter-long bar where the bottles are replaced by LV bags. Adding to the hip atmosphere is music especially created by a French DJ who worked on two different repertoires, for day and night. «That was a shock to the industry,» says Carcelle. «I recall people traveling from all parts of the company just to see that. At the end of the day, it was another relationship, after hours, between the product and the customers.» Good relationships have also been established with a rising new client – China. «I remember when in 1991 I took the decision to open the first store there,» says Carcelle. «In 1992 we had a meeting when people said, ‘Give us a break, opening a store in China is a marketing coup but don’t tell us there is a market’ and I said, ‘Let’s talk about it in 10 years’.» By the end of this year, the number of Louis Vuitton stores in the luxury industry’s major new player will reach 13 – the country has turned into the company’s fourth biggest client. For many observers, China might be the last frontier for the luxury industry, but, says Carcelle, don’t disregard the power of Russia and India (a second store is in the works in Bombay). Wherever the brand travels to, however, client attitudes to it tend to be the same. «We are a serious business; quality, for instance, is something we never compromise on, counterfeits are something which never make me laugh, but it’s not because you have a serious product that you have to talk in a serious way to the customer,» says Carcelle. «The world has changed. One of the reasons for our success in the last few years, I think, is to talk in the second degree. We don’t consider ourselves seriously, but we consider our products serious.»