Concetta Lanciaux is universally credited with changing the face of both LVMH and the fashion world at large. She tells Charlotte Dennis-Jones why, after more than two decades at the luxury group, her work is done

Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Narciso Rodriguez, Isaac Mizrahi… all are stellar names in the design world brought into indomitable luxury goods house LVMH because of one woman: Concetta Lanciaux. It is not hard to work out why she is widely considered to be one of the most powerful women in fashion.

And both the appearance and office of chairman and chief executive Bernard Arnault’s diminutive and impeccably presented adviser befit her reputation. Sporting killer designer heels and carefully selected accessories, she looks out of her monochrome, orchid-strewn Parisian workspace – complete with marble fireplace – directly into Dior and Jimmy Choo boutiques on the esteemed Avenue Montaigne.

The road that is now the fashion centre of the French capital was not always so revered and LVMH can take a lot of the credit for its gentrification. Since gradually building up a substantial portfolio of real estate there, the street has become a magnet for other luxury retailers. Lanciaux jokes that if she had bought an apartment in the area when the group was busy establishing its stores there, she would have made a killing.

In fact, the vivacious, Italian-born, part US-educated Lanciaux laughs a lot – particularly when she talks about the perceived glamour of the luxury sector. “For the past eight years I don’t think I’ve left the office before 10pm. We’re lucky that we can live in an aesthetic environment but, on the other hand, that superficial beauty is the result of extreme rigour and assiduity.”

After 22 years at LVMH, she is leaving her role as group executive vice-president of synergies and right-hand woman to Arnault to become a luxury strategy adviser. But, unusually for someone who has made such a mark in luxury fashion, her background lies not there, but in academia. She spent 10 years at Pennsylvania’s Carnegie Mellon University, where she became an associate professor of film and script writing.

Eventually, she moved to the private sector, working for Intel as an HR director. It was while she was speaking at a conference in 1985 that her industrial acumen became evident to Arnault, who was keen to prepare a team to build up his luxury group. Her initial role had a heavy emphasis on HR, when she was tasked with helping Arnault restructure and integrate the companies he was bringing into LVMH and finding the talent to develop them.

Ultimately, as Lanciaux points out, the development of LVMH was about “inventing luxury”. She explains: “In the beginning, the companies Arnault was buying were artisanal companies. We had to professionalise them and help them grow, retaining their values and know-how but giving them a global organisation and top management that didn’t exist and renewing the design.”

Finding senior executives who had an affinity with creativity was no mean feat. Lanciaux’s solutions attracted considerable controversy – but then, she does not appear to be the type of woman who is overly bothered by others’ disapproval. One incident that she still finds particularly amusing is the time a newspaper article declared she was “killing the luxury industry”. And she probably finds it amusing because the critics were wrong.

Die-hard Gallic design traditionalists were incensed that she was daring not only to look outside of France, and to the US for talent, but also outside of the fashion sector. For this creative talent, she focused on New York, hunting out the most prominent designers. “I’ve always been a futurologist, trying to anticipate what was going to happen. I found the designers who really understood European culture,” she says. She introduced designers including Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors to Arnault and the rest is history.

Ahead of her time
It was her decision to scan the FMCG sectors for management talent that proved most controversial. At that time, her approach was not just courageous, it was revolutionary, but this model has since been replicated throughout the sector.

“We were heavily criticised and, without the total support of Bernard, it wouldn’t have been possible. He was an innovator and extremely open to ideas. When you submitted an idea, he bought it,” she recalls. “You had to have a thick skin but when you have a vision that you know is right, that helps you.”

Years later, LVMH is the one that’s laughing. Even with the difficult US economic climate, the group posted a full-year net profit rise of 8 per cent earlier this month. Lehman Brothers analyst Allegra Perry said at the time of the results that LVMH was “one of the best-positioned [luxury goods companies] in the present environment” and predicted a continuation of its “recent outperformance” in the sector.

Lanciaux believes her pioneering approach gave France “a new life”. She explains: “It helped make France the centre of fashion again. It had lost that at that time and New York was picking up. New York had been relaunching its designers and there was a certain malice towards France.”

The most important thing, stresses Lanciaux, has been ensuring that the “DNA” of the group’s employees fits with the brands they work with. “We had to find executives who do not find it difficult to manage designers. If you find that difficult, you should not be in this industry,” she says.

Designers are, she enthuses, “wonderful, creative people”. Her favourite moment of the day is receiving information about up-and-coming talent. Yet, reading between the lines, it seems that working with such creative minds at the high end of the fashion spectrum is far from straightforward. One example is Alexander McQueen, chief designer at LVMH’s Givenchy, who defected to Gucci in 2001. Rumours of him feeling constricted by LVMH were the subject of many a fashion column.

But Lanciaux admits there had been problems with the DNA mix well before the designer’s move. “I saw McQueen several times to try to understand what wasn’t working; what wasn’t working was the fact that he was very romantic and gothic. That didn’t work with Givenchy, which is a chic, bourgeois brand.”

Equally, fashion commentators around the world gossiped that McQueen’s departure would destabilise LVMH – it didn’t. As Lanciaux points out: “A designer is extremely important, but the brand is as important as the designer.”

Some of those who founded the companies that LVMH brought into its stable posed management dilemmas too. Lanciaux recalls one that stands out in particular. “He was the chief executive of a shirt company. Bernard had said to him that the group wanted to find new managers to help him. The chief executive came to my office and said: ‘I’ve been doing very well so far – I don’t need you’.”

Lanciaux leans back in her chair and runs her hands through her hair in a manner that suggests her incredulity at this response has not waned over the years. “I had the patience to look at him, smile and say: ‘Okay, I won’t bother you but, just in case you need something, you know where I am’,” she adds with a wry smile.

Whether she responded quite so affably in reality is debatable, particularly when she later hints at her no-nonsense approach to management. “I came up against that a lot and it gave me the reputation of being tough sometimes when you have to change the management. But it’s all good in the end, because it was recognised that we did the right things.”

It is clear that Arnault and Lanciaux have worked hard together to ensure that LVMH’s brands have achieved the goals laid out for them. Their magic formula has made the group one of the most powerful conglomerates in the world. But “powerful” is a word Lanciaux dislikes. “Large groups give the impression of being powerful, but if you’re inside them and see how they manage each brand individually, you would find out you can be less scared of it,” she insists.

Moreover, she points to consumer groups as far more potent forces to be reckoned with. “They can take one formula and spread it through 200 products. In luxury, it’s the opposite. You have to treat each brand separately and cultivate that difference,” she says.

Leading by example
Rather than be fearful, Lanciaux says other, smaller businesses should look to what groups such as LVMH have done for the fashion industry. “They’ve made it relevant. They’ve established it as a powerful industry and that is a great advantage for the start-ups. More people should look at the luxury sector and ask themselves: ‘Can we learn from what they’re doing?’”

In a literal sense, it could be argued that high street retailers learn a considerable amount from what groups such as LVMH are doing. One area of retail that many may assume riles the luxury sector is the high street’s tendency to copy catwalk designs. Lanciaux, however, is surprisingly pragmatic about this practice.

“I don’t see it as ripping off,” she muses. “Yes, high street retailers imitate, but what does that mean? They make these more aesthetic products accessible. It’s about educating people. Before, people were putting on t-shirts with no style; now, they’re putting on a t-shirt that they buy at Topshop that has style.

“Actually, these high street businesses are helping us because they’re saying: ‘Don’t wear non-designer things, wear things with style’,” she says. And, she continues, by educating these new consumers, “when they have money, they will buy luxury brands”.

This last comment is spoken like a true luxury sector professional. To assume all high street shoppers who buy a Chloé-inspired shirt will, by definition, have enough cash to trade up to the genuine article in future seems a little optimistic, but Lanciaux clearly lives and breathes luxury.

Having spent a large chunk of her career in the sector, she has seen how it has evolved. “There is so much competition now that, to expand internationally, you have to be super-good. In a way, years ago, that was easier and in many cases LVMH was the first mover,” she says.

From now on, her role will involve giving independent strategic advice to the luxury goods sector. “The group no longer needs me; it’s in its maturity phase,” she says. “There is a real need for intermediaries in the sector.”

Lanciaux’s mere presence at the fashion shows of non-LVMH brands used to ignite frantic whisperings about potential recruits she may have been eyeing to join the fashion powerhouse. Even without the LVMH buffers around her, Madame Lanciaux’s impact on the luxury sector looks unlikely to diminish.