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In Luxury, Bernard Arnault Alone Makes the Most Powerful List

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by Hannah Elliott at Forbes

Bernard Arnault and his wife, Hélène Mercier.

The annual Forbes Most Powerful People list launched last night, and it packed a few surprises. Most notably, China’s president Hu Jintao topped Barack Obama as the most powerful man in the world. (Michelle Obama, on the other hand, was No. 1 on the Most Powerful Women list that came out last month – go figure.) The first 20 or so entries are full of heads of state (Angela Merkel,  Dmitry Medvedev, Nicholas Sarkozy), religious leaders (Pope Benedict XVI) and executives (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates). But there is one fashion-related entry on the list: Bernard Arnault, the head of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, ranked at No. 43.

Arnault, 61, is valued at $27.5 billion this year (he was worth an estimated $16.5billion in 2009). He’s ranked No. 7 on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires–which goes to show that money alone doesn’t equal power. You’ve got to have real influence, too. Influence is one thing he has in spades. LVMH owns Louis Vuitton, Dior, Fendi, Céline, Pucci, Thomas Pink, Berluti, Loewe, TAG Heuer, Hublot, Zenith, Moët et Chandon, Krug, Dom Pèrignon, Hennessy, Belvedere, Guerlain, Sephora and Le Bon Marché–among many other luxury and retail brands. (Arnault also controls Carrefour, the second-largest retailer in the world, surpassed only by Wal-Mart.)

bonus video : Bernard Arnault CEO LVMH talks about luxury

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A tall, thin man with a quick smile and self-deprecating sense of humor, Arnault is a classically trained pianist and avid tennis player. He is also very proud of his art collection–in Paris last month, one of the first things he showed my colleague, Susan Adams, and me was a pencil sketch drawn by Christian Dior in the early 1950s. Arnault had bought the drawing that morning and planned to hang it in his office alongside works by Agnes Martin, Pablo Picasso and Yves Klein.

He also blew up to gigantic proportions the first sketch Frank Gehry drew to show his conception of what the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation should look like (an iceberg in a cloud, Arnault cultural adviser Jean-Paul Claverie told me). The drawing is stretched on what is maybe a 10′ x 20′ white canvas and hanging in the LVMH headquarters on Avenue Montainge in Paris.

The thing that struck me most about speaking with Arnault is his genuine curiosity for the world and his love of creative endeavor. He has lunch weekly with Dior’s John Galliano–an ironic foil for Arnault’s clean-cut, businessman look–and had the presence of mind to recognize and develop then-relatively unknown talent in Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs and Phoebe Philo, among other exceptional designers and artists. (Arnault has two large statues by Takashi Murakami in the foyer of his offices–his enthusiasm for the Japanese artist contributed significantly to Murakami’s current worldwide popularity.)

“He loves to be surprised,” Claverie said. “He loves to see something that he can’t have imagined could have existed.”

That attitude has served him well.

Click here to see Bernard Arnault’s Power Profile.

Click here to see the full list.

Click here to read the cover story about LVMH chief Bernard Arnault.

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