Hubert Burda Media

Age of Revival

Steering luxury powerhouse Louis Vuitton into uncharted waters is MICHAEL BURKE, a visionary with a penchant for nostalgia.

Age of Revival

Leading the world's largest and most well-known luxury brand is by no means an easy feat, which explains why the challenge was bestowed upon 57-year-old luxury industry veteran Michael Burke. One of LVMH Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bernard Arnault's most trusted executives, Burke has worked with LVMH entities since 1986 (preceding even the merger between Louis Vuitton and Moët Hennessy).
Since inheriting the position of Louis Vuitton Chairman and CEO from the late Yves Carcelle in 2012, his first and most definitive move thus far has been to hire Nicolas Ghesquière as the Maison's new artistic director of women's collections. Recognised as one of the most forward-thinking fashion designers today, Ghesquière's much-anticipated first collection sparked a sudden frenzy for narrow cropped coats and skinny vinyl trousers after his Autumn/Winter 2014 show closed Paris Fashion Week in March. His Spring/Summer 2015 collection, revealed in late September, was edgier and perhaps more familiar to the legion of fans that continue to worship (and copy) his avant-garde designs.
“In his first two collections, Nicolas really showed how you can stay true to your past and yet, not be a slave to it,” says Burke, who having helmed Christian Dior Couture in the US, Louis Vuitton North America, Fendi and Bulgari prior to assuming his latest role, is familiar with the need for introspection to steer progress.
He goes on to talk about fighting complacency, challenging one's self and writing new chapters — all of which are quintessential to maintaining the success of the 160-year-old brand. “What can we do different? It's a fine line and you need to place the cursor at the right place: Between being forward-looking and respecting where you came from,” he continues.
Another case in point? The Maison's latest high jewellery collection Acte V, unveiled to its VIP clients in Singapore five months ago. Inspired by the 1920s, it references the period when Gaston-Louis Vuitton first introduced personalisation to the Maison's signature travelling trunks. As a glittering tribute to the third-generation scion and his stylised V-shaped monogram signature, the “V” motif is now interpreted in precious gold and rare gemstones. “V” also represents five, as this is Louis Vuitton's fifth high jewellery collection.
“The last few years have been a watershed moment for jewellery. It makes for a much more interesting situation where you can be more creative and where you're free from the tyranny of the four (diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires). There is also a desire now for certain stones with imperfections,” he says of Acte V's unusually liberal usage of coloured stones. Led by an 87.92-ct Australian opal in the shape of an inverted “V”, a 7.93-ct Paraiba-like tourmaline, a 20.03-ct red spinel, a 12.52-ct green beryl and an 11.06-ct mandarin garnet are some of the other focal stones used.
When Louis Vuitton launched its first high jewellery collection L'ame du Voyage in 2009, it caught the radar of high jewellery connoisseurs because of its secret weapon: Two patented and fancy-cut diamonds based on the shape of the Louis Vuitton Monogram flower. This year, only three jewellery pieces from Acte V feature these diamonds. “We're going back to an age-old fascination with gemstones. We lost that for awhile when everyone was into carats and clarity. We learnt about the rules but now that we've mastered them, we have to break them,” he explains.
Unlike the four previous high jewellery collections that were centred on the creative viewpoints of renowned jewellery designer Lorenz Bäumer (also the House's artistic director for fine jewellery since 2009), Acte V was the collective effort of the Louis Vuitton design team. “It's a natural evolution. Lorenz was instrumental in establishing a certain credibility and he allowed us to be relevant. As a House, Louis Vuitton needed to enrich what we are doing from a stylistic point of view. While Lorenz continues to design, there will be other influences too,” he explains.
Burke goes on to pick the Apotheosis cuff with onyx, diamonds and a green tsavorite as his favourite. Bearing a contemporary and bold design, it was snapped up by a client on the first day of the jewellery preview in Singapore. “There's a richness and simplicity that is encapsulated within that one single object. Although it's not the biggest or most expensive, achieving that combination is one of the most difficult things to do in jewellery,” he explains. Another piece that tugs at his heartstrings is a ring with a 20.94-ct Burmese sapphire hued in the same bluish-grey colour as his wife Brigitte's eyes. Like the cuff, it was sold on the first day, before he could show it to her.
“Vuitton can be almost anything but it's a difficult challenge and you need to make careful choices. While we can go in many directions, there are guidelines to keep to and a certain discipline that needs to be imposed,” says Burke. Even as the current custodian of a 160-year heritage, here is a man unshackled by history, eager to chart his own course and make his own mark: “At the end of the day, I want to be remembered as a great coach and mentor.”