A model presents a bag creation by designer Virgil Abloh during a preview show for his Fall/Winter 2019/2020 collection for fashion house Louis Vuitton. Picture: REUTERS/GONZALO FUENTES
A model presents a bag creation by designer Virgil Abloh during a preview show for his Fall/Winter 2019/2020 collection for fashion house Louis Vuitton. Picture: REUTERS/GONZALO FUENTES

Paris/Geneva — Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, Europe’s richest man, got another boost as LVMH shares reached a record due to better-than-expected sales of Louis Vuitton handbags and leather goods.

The Frenchman, whose fortune has increased by more than $19bn in 2019, is rubbing shoulders with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, with a net worth of more than $87bn.

LVMH shares rose as much as 4% on Thursday to €342.80, the highest level since the stock was listed in October 1989, propelling the company’s market value close to $200bn. The luxury conglomerate’s first-quarter sales report showed its strategy of tapping hip new design talents, such as Virgil Abloh, has re-ignited interest in its biggest brands.

Arnault has been gradually advancing through the ranks of Europe’s billionaires, surpassing Inditex founder Amancio Ortega and L’Oréal’s Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, the richest woman on the planet. His wealth has again moved past that of Buffett, the Berkshire Hathaway chair.

Arnault’s rise continues the trend of Europe’s richest people coming from the luxury and consumer-goods sectors. The continent’s wealthiest include the founders and heirs of companies including Chanel, Nutella maker Ferrero and EssilorLuxottica, the owner of the Ray-Ban brand.

LVMH sales beat analysts’ estimates in the first quarter as fresh propositions, such as Christian Dior monogrammed low-top sneakers, and $1,200 Louis Vuitton utility harnesses, hit stores. The key fashion and leather division — where good news often lifts shares across the fashion industry — posted a 15% gain.

The luxury industry is now in its third year of rapid growth as millennial and generation-Z shoppers warm up to the revamped offer and newfound digital savvy of brands such as Kering’s Gucci. The bonanza has been driven by China, where booming sales of high-end fashion have resisted an economic slowdown that pinched revenue for some car manufacturers and Apple.

LVMH’s reshuffle has focused on menswear, with Abloh — who rose to prominence as the longtime creative consultant to rapper Kanye West — taking the helm of Louis Vuitton’s menswear division last year. At Christian Dior, designer Kim Jones released buzzy new sneaker models and adapted the brand’s famous Saddlebag line for men. The company said fur-and-handbags label Fendi, shoemaker Berluti, which also changed its designer, and Loro Piana also boosted the fashion division’s growth.

Upward momentum

The level of growth in fashion and leather “should be enough to sustain the upward momentum of the shares”, Rogerio Fujimori, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, wrote in a note to clients.

Star designer Hedi Slimane, known for his influential skinny silhouette and successful turnaround of Kering’s Saint Laurent, returned to LVMH last year to expand the Celine brand, with plans to add menswear, couture and perfume. His new store concept and first collections, including a line of unisex suiting, were rolled out during the quarter.

Overall, LVMH’s first-quarter sales rose 11% on an organic basis to €12.5bn, the Paris-based company said on Wednesday after markets closed. The group — France’s biggest company by market value — promised to “reinforce” its leadership position in luxury this year.

LVMH’s watch and jewellery division was the slowest growing — a sign that high-end timepieces are still struggling to make a comeback in a smartphone-equipped world where brands also face mounting competition from online resellers.