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Stepping out of Luxury’s Comfort Zone

Young RIMOWA CEO Alexandre Arnault was one of several guest speakers invited to exchange in an HEC-LVMH event devoted to answering the challenges of innovation, digitalization and disruption in the luxury industry. “Reinventing luxury in the age of new entrepreneurs” was the theme of Arnault’s masterclass, chosen as part of an evening of debate led by HEC Executive Director of the LVMH Chair Anne Michaut.

Soirée HEC-LVMH - 25 oct. 2018

When Alexandre Arnault stepped up in late 2016 to run one of Europe’s leading manufacturers of travel luggage, more than a few business observers cocked an eye. But in these intervening 25 months, the third of LVMH founder Bernard Arnault’s five children has exceeded all expectations. Arnault’s ability to rejuvenate and innovate has transformed the fortunes of RIMOWA. “Why RIMOWA rules the luggage carousel”headlined the Financial Times earlier this year, underlining that two years after taking over the German outfit, the 26-year-old "repositioned the company among the industry’s highest flyers”  and currently “oversees one of the most dynamic, bristling and disruptive businesses in his family’s portfolio.” No small compliment for Arnault’s first-ever executive role in the business world. On October 25, 2018, the gangly and relaxed chief executive shared some of the secrets to his rapid-fire success with, and proffered advice to, the 250 people gathered at HEC’s Blondeau Amphitheater.

“Use your age as an asset!” he told an audience dominated by the school’s students. “Your relative youth gives you a huge advantage in understanding where disruption is coming from.” Arnault admitted that the world’s larger corporations can seem daunting: “But don’t be scared to push open those doors. We’re looking for those initiatives in the talents of tomorrow.”

Working like a Lean Startup

But for the entrepreneur who graduated as an engineer from Télécom ParisTech and Ecole Polytechnique, the most important tool to develop is passion. “Learn about our brands and our products. Through passion you convince us – and the customers - about your value. Through passion you learn to embrace failure, to transform it. I failed many times before getting to where I am. At RIMOWA, we accept the risk of failure and we don’t blame people who fail. That’s part of entrepreneurship”  

This passion has also allowed the executive to be a vital yet discreet player in LVMH’s digital strategy, notably with the launch of the multi-brand e-commerce platform 24 Sèvres“This is a very lean organization and we work like a startup… with profits.” Arnault’s vision and drive at the head of RIMOWA has allowed the company to rebrand, launch new collaborations and open up unexplored outlets in a highly competitive field. “But to achieve that, we had to take risks and, yes, sometimes we failed.”

Harnessing a New Digital World

For Anne Michaut, this willingness to accept failure as part of entrepreneurship in luxury is crucial. HEC’s Affiliate Professor of Marketing hoped it would be the biggest take-away of the evening of debate. “Our students need to learn how to fail. They have to explore new territory and challenge traditional business approaches. It’s what flagships like LVMH are expecting from them and I feel Alexandre Arnault is an inspiring role-model to follow.”

Dior’s Chief Digital Experience Officer, Marie Dagrenat, concurred before directing her attention to the qualities her companies seeks in all recruits. “Your ambition and demands must be enormous,” the former HEC student (H09) insisted. “Dior is a very big boat, we have strong resources. We are looking to hire people who can harness this new digital world, disrupt, motivate and create, this is what can keep us abreast with the startups who are competing with customers nowadays.”

Soirée HEC-LVMH - 25 oct. 2018

© Cyrille George Jerusalmi

Bouncing Back From Failure

Dagrenat was part of a five-person roundtable debate in which the speakers shared their variegated experiences in and around the luxury industry. Some, like Sophie Guerin of Berluti, described how she “sold dreams” when commercializing a shoe made without stitches. “Berluti  is rooted in craftsmanship, but remains daring and innovative through the technological advances of today,” she explained.  Several other panelists underlined the growing tendency to reach out to customers via digitalization. “Often it’s the first contact we have with our customers,” said the director of HR digital transformation at LVMH, Isabelle Faggianelli“It’s forcing us to re-invent new approaches and services in our shops.”

The rapid expansion of digitalization in luxury has been tapped by SmartPixels, a young company hosted at La Maison des Startups LVMH. This is the conglomerate’s incubator on Luxury & Tech, hosted by Paris’ Station F. SmartPixels’ co-founder, Jeremy Verdo, the only man on the panel, believed agility and embracing the unknown are key factors in succeeding in a highly competitive market. “You have to be design-driven and not have too much of an ego. Once you have that, failure comes easy, and so does bouncing back from setbacks.”