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- 15 Sep 2014
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What Yves Carcelle Taught Us About Luxury


Yves Carcelle, former CEO of Louis Vuitton, passed away at the age of 66 in Paris

The passing of Yves Carcelle marks the passing of an era in more ways than one. This is the man who has been called “Mr. Louis Vuitton”, in a way that none of the descendants of the original Mr. Vuitton ever were.

Just as the celebrated trunk maker redefined the branding of luxury for generations to come, Yves Carcelle recalibrated our understanding of modern luxury. Not only did he pioneer the remaking of a venerated, old name in luxury, shaking its very foundations and transforming it into a powerful juggernaut that would sweep all from its path, but he also remade an entire generation’s vision of what it means to be a luxury house in the 20th century.

By the late 1980s, European luxury houses were facing an uncertain future, following years of slow decline as these family-run empires struggled with traditional ways of functioning in a world that was looking for modern ways of being. Their old-fashioned ideas of management, coupled with wide spread licencing and decentralisation of marketing, meant that many old brands were fast losing control of their identities.

 Yves Carcelle recalibrated our understanding of modern luxury 

They were fragmenting, and though still rich in potential, they had tangled themselves in far too many and far too complex geographic and commercial agreements. The house of Louis Vuitton, still run by family members, was no exception. Although the 1980s were highly profitable for the company, with multiple international store openings, many new product lines, and the merger with Moët & Hennessy, the brand itself was widely considered to be nearing the end of its desirability.

On the one hand, the ubiquity of its presence, and especially the monogram, had damaged its image as a status symbol. On the other, it was widely seen as a stuffy, almost dusty label, brandished either by decaying aristocrats or by arriviste wannabes.

Enter Carcelle, under the aegis of Bernard Arnault, the new chairman of LVMH. The early years of the new regime were marked by radical changes: weeding out the old guard, implementing modern production and management techniques and battling rampant counterfeiting, compounded by the flagging brand image and tough economic conditions.

 Carcelle stuck to his guns. He had faith in his vision of a modern, vibrant brand 

However, Carcelle stuck to his guns. He had faith in his vision of a modern, vibrant brand and the future of such a brand in better times to come. He and Arnault used the unsettled 1990s to consolidate and rebuild the brand from the ground up, redefining its codes and polishing its image.

The focus shifted from the cultural and intellectual process to the production and marketing process, transforming it from a “luxury” to a “fashion” house. Not only did Carcelle introduce fashion in a very literal sense into the brand, by bringing on board Marc Jacobs as artistic director and launching a ready to wear line, but he also democratised the brand, making it accessible to a vastly enlarged audience.

This accessibility was not necessarily in terms of price, but most certainly in terms of the appeal of the product, and by extension the brand, to a much larger – some would say lower-end – audience.


Marc Jacobs at one of his runway shows in the 1990s as the Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton

The French word vulgarisation means to reduce to simple terms, and thus to popularise. This very democratic approach to luxury, coupled with Carcelle’s own passionate belief in his vision and his undeniable genius for image and retail management, is responsible for revolutionising the way we think of luxury brand management today. He effectively created a template that the current generation of managers still pin their faith on, blindly trusting that if they hold on to the master’s mantle, they can coast on the wave of his success.

His template is also responsible for the vulgarisation of luxury brands in a more obvious and less desirable way. Twenty-five years after Carcelle took a hard look at where old luxury brands were headed and decided to inject them with glamour, to celebrate their fun and put their intellect under wraps, we seem to have come full circle.

Another run of economic upheavals, a generation that has only ever seen the giddy silliness of “fashionable” luxury brands, and a marketing spin that seems increasingly fake and oily with every campaign, is taking its toll on the performance of the very house that Carcelle turned around.

 The very monogram that was the emblem of the house’s success is increasingly shunned 

The very model of industrial production that enabled massive growth for the brand he revived is today at the core of the luxury customer’s dissatisfaction and distrust. The very monogram that was the emblem of the house’s success is increasingly shunned. We seem to be back in the late 1980s, at the point where the brand still posts profits but growth is dramatically slowed and the image tarnished.

The time may be ripe for another turn around, but where is the next Yves Carcelle? Because what made Carcelle unique was his understanding of what made up true luxury combined with his courage to break the rules. Or rather, to create new ones. And this is the essence of luxury, where there is no template, but only a deep understanding of processes, beyond glamour and stage props, and the audacity to go all the way in search of the ultimate.

Carcelle had this conviction and he had the strength to hold on to his vision. But his vision cannot be made into a template because it was formed by specific conditions, for a specific brand at a specific point in its history. He has rightly been called a pioneer, often by those who forget that even a pioneer cannot use the same trail twice and still claim to have broken new ground. A magician who uses the same techniques over and over is soon reduced to the level of a trickster.


Lupe Fiasco, Antoine Arnault, Pharrel Williams and Yves Carcelle attend the Louis Vuitton fashion show as part of Paris Menswear Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2011

Perhaps it is time to take the wraps off the intellectual and cultural capital of luxury brands, to reveal the dark side of the moon as being as much as object of beauty as the bright and glamorous one. It is time to refocus on human-centred approaches to luxury, to encourage responsibility, respectfulness, innovation and individualism in ways that juggernaut brands find hard to do. To engage with luxury customers looking for authenticity and for simpler, more personal relationships.

Perhaps it is time to pay homage to Yves Carcelle by breaking new ground once again.


Nair-Safir are brand and communications strategy advisors whose mission is putting people in business. We work with your organization’s goals and values to build a brand platform and messaging that help your customers, colleagues, and shareholders understand and support your business and objectives.