How Bernard Arnault became the world’s richest person

The lord of luxury is a model European capitalist—but with American characteristics

A STORY BERNARD ARNAULT likes to tell is of a meeting with Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple and father of the iPhone. Jobs was on the verge of launching the Apple Store. Mr Arnault, a Frenchman whose company, LVMH, provides high society with its Louis Vuitton luggage, Christian Dior couture, Tiffany jewellery and Dom Pérignon champagne, knows more than most about turning storefronts into temples of desire. As they talked, the conversation turned to their products. Mr Arnault asked Jobs whether he thought the iPhone would still be around in 30 years’ time. The American replied that he did not know. Jobs then asked the same question about Dom Pérignon, whose first vintage was in 1921. Mr Arnault, the story goes, assured him it would still be drunk for generations to come. Jobs agreed.

In many ways Mr Arnault, the first European to rise to the top of the world’s rich lists, is the epitome of how to do business in the old continent. As his remarks to Jobs suggested, he thinks about the distant past and decades into the future, not just about next year’s profits. He relishes craftsmanship, championing outré designers, perfumers and cellar masters, while often reserving for himself the last word on product details. His own presence as a business titan is understated. Unlike Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, his most recent predecessors as the world’s richest people, he is not a household name—unless the household is a maison de couture, or palatial. He is a regular on the Parisian fashion-show circuit, yet lets the clothes and those that wear them grab the spotlight. He is soft-spoken but is no soft touch. As a writer on this newspaper put it back in 1989, he has “a charming smile but teeth, apparently, of steel”. That reputation, which goes well with his lupine looks, is one he has never seemed to mind.

Mr Arnault has been high on the rich list for more than 15 years. Some might think that his rise to the top this month, with a net worth, according to Forbes, of $180bn, is a…