“You are the first to hear this,” François-Louis Vuitton says, leaning in with a smile. It is the first time in our conversation that he has broken from French into English; we are sitting in Brown Thomas on Grafton Street in Dublin, and are a table of four — one associate translates what I say into French, another relays what he says back to me into English; the remnants of my Leaving Certificate French fills some gaps. The table is covered with glasses and canapes chosen to match the wines.
“You know Louis Vuitton?” François-Louis asks, with a discernible gleam in his eye, because we both know that of course I know the name Louis Vuitton. “It’s my family,” he continues, still in English. “Louis Vuitton was my great-great- grandfather. So I was always brought up with this idea that one day, I would go join Louis Vuitton.”
Originally, he adds, the now famous fashion house had just one factory and two shops in France. He spent his childhood living near Paris, in the family home that now houses the workshops of the family’s luxury brand. But joining the family business was never part of François-Louis’ plan.
“I never wanted to be seen as someone’s son.” He describes how, over the years, his father, his uncle, and Bernard Arnault — co-founder and chief executive of the world’s largest luxury goods company — LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) — have asked him to speak about the brand, because he knows it intimately. “But I don’t want to. I am François-Louis Vuitton, I am not just somebody’s son.”
One of three brothers — all very different — he says he was certainly the most independent. Back speaking in French now, he tells me he’s sure I can appreciate that working every day next to your father is “unimaginable”.
Instead, he decided to start his own career, independently of the family. The secret, if you will, is that nothing was given to him, he says. In fact, when he went looking for jobs, the famous name worked against him. Potential employers doubted the longevity of his plans. “People would say, ‘Oh yeah, you might stay one year, two years, but you’re not going to stay — eventually you’re going to leave for Vuitton.’” He had to work hard, he recalls, to convince his employers that that was not the plan.
François-Louis went on to run several businesses, never once reconsidering his decision to not join the family business. “Never, never, never. Because I am free, and I’m very happy to be free,” he says with a smile, finishing this sentence in English, something he does when he wants to emphasise a point.
Being able to do things independently is, in part, what led him to create this wine collection — Collection Personnelle: Mr François-L Vuitton — he explains, adding that it is hard to imagine the happiness and the pride he feels about this project.
The wine, which is now available in Brown Thomas, Dublin, began as a hobby and quickly became a passion. He has been visiting the Bordeaux region for roughly 36 years now. During these trips, he would find himself wandering through the vineyards, without any sort of preconceived plan. He started to learn about wine through talking to people working in the vineyards.
“It was indeed a way to get away from it all, because at the time, I had two businesses on the go.” Initially, he would leave Paris for Bordeaux on a Friday evening. “Then it was Friday afternoon, then it was Thursday. And I would just spend more and more time there.”
His ex-wife’s father had bought a property in the region which enabled him to follow, step by step, everything that went into bringing that particular chateau up in quality. The individual steps that went into making wine fascinated him and he began making his own.
How did it go from private pursuit to a business with international stockists? “First and foremost, I’m just a chatty man, and I wanted to share this passion with friends.
“You know, it started with a tasting in Paris. Then it became a weekend in Paris.” Before long, he was bringing his friends down to Bordeaux. “It was just a way of sharing the fascination, the passion. And then it just sort of took off that way.”
He began to formulate a plan. He had just sold the last company he owned at the time. “Then I found myself with a lot of free time. My friends said, ‘Keep going, we still want to be part of this, keep sharing’.”
What he wished to do was to create a collection with some of the finest chateaux in the Bordeaux region. This involved working with them to create his own eponymous line under their label — the kind of collaboration we see so often in the fashion world but one that was unheard of in wine circles at that time.
He wanted to do it with some of the region’s top producers of what are known as the ‘classified growths’ — a ranking system that dates back to Napoleonic times.
“To take a ‘classified growths’ wine, and put somebody else’s name on top, and have it as a uniformed presentation, nobody else had done that in Bordeaux before,” one translator says, and the three men shake their heads in amazement.
François-Louis understands exactly the power and respect a name can yield. Before embarking on this project, he approached his family, and Mr Arnault, to ascertain that they were happy for him to use the family name.
He was assisted by Patrick Bouey of wine wholesaler and importer Maison Bouey.
“Patrick was quite curious about what I wanted to do. ‘You don’t just want to take your name and put it on a chateau’s label. You want to take the chateau’s wine, and put your own branding, your own collection, on it.’ Which is something that had never been done before,” says Francois-Louis.
Next, François-Louis needed to convince the chateaux owners themselves. He began to meet with them individually, explaining his plan each time. It is fair to say they were not initially bowled over. He did the same speech. He talked about his passion, his desire to do something that was very premium and high level.
The owners would ask: ‘Who the hell are you? Well, who else have you seen?’ He would list off yesterday’s meeting, the one planned for the next day, only to be told: ‘All right, well, come back and see me when you’ve spoken to them.’
Each time he could feel the sweat trickling down his neck.“It was like a baby taking its first steps,” he says of watching his business come to life.
The collection started with just six chateaux; this is the one now available in Brown Thomas. Today the collection is present in over 23 different countries. “And now, in Ireland,” he says, smiling.
Collection Personnelle: Mr Francois-L Vuitton is available in Brown Thomas, Dublin and brownthomas.ie