The leading French luxury goods brand Louis Vuitton has a long association with international yacht racing and its chairman and chief executive Yves Carcelle takes a hands-on approach to the company's sponsorship of some of the world's greatest races.
High fashion rides the high seas
Despite being aboard the yacht beaten by Emirates Team New Zealand, Yves Carcelle looked a happy man as he stepped off Mascalzone Latino Team Audi's vessel after sailing with them as the "18th man" in the final of the Louis Vuitton Trophy Auckland regatta a week ago on Sunday. As the chairman and chief executive of Louis Vuitton, the event's sponsor, and an avid sailor, it is a privilege he enjoys at every regatta the French luxury goods giant is associated with - an association that dates back to 1983. But this is not a question of the boss indulging his personal passions; Mr Carcelle stressed that the company's choices were driven by an understanding of the luxury market's tastes. "It's very important to differentiate the two," he said. Louis Vuitton's major sponsorship focus is in the arts and culture, with classic cars as an additional interest. Along with the sailing, this has been part of a marketing platform that has helped drive the fashion and leather goods division of its parent company LVMH to an average double-digit growth annually since 1980. Last year, business grew by 17 per cent when adjusted for currency variations, despite the recession. Among the brands that make up LVMH, Louis Vuitton is by far the most profitable. The publicity garnered by events such as these is significant. The Louis Vuitton Pacific Series, a regatta for America's Cup Class yachts, held in Auckland in January last year generated 543 hours of television coverage on 220 networks around the world, and stories in more than 1,000 newspapers, according to Bruno Trouble, the former America's Cup skipper who masterminds the brand's involvement in yachting. "We measure the return in terms of communication, media coverage and corporate image, of course," said Mr Carcelle. "But it has always been a way to launch new products and test new territories. Our first sunglasses and first shoes were launched via the Louis Vuitton Cup." The Louis Vuitton Cup was the prelude to every America's Cup between 1983 and 2007. But Mr Carcelle does not see it as sponsorship in the usual sense: "Our involvement here is not part of sports sponsorship strategy. "It is about the America's Cup and we feel comfortable with the heritage of a sport event that has 160 years of history. It doesn't mean that we will sponsor any other kind of sailing event." He described the relationship between the company and the race series as "probably a magic match". "It started a bit by chance. Bruno Trouble, who had skippered France 3 in the America's Cup [in 1980], knew my predecessor [the late Henry Racamier]. Louis Vuitton gave a bit of money to support a challenger selection series for the 1983 Cup and gave the name to the competition." The sum involved was US$250,000 (Dh918,250), Mr Carcelle said, refusing to be drawn on more recent figures. The collaboration is renegotiated for every America's Cup cycle - typically three to four years - and Mr Carcelle puts the attraction down to "shared values". "With the America's Cup born in 1851 and Louis Vuitton in 1864, we share a long and passionate history and tradition and [we are both] focused on innovation and modernity. What's more, the big tycoons of the Cup were mostly our clients," he said. Over time, Mr Carcelle added, Louis Vuitton came to see itself as the guardian of the America's Cup. "It's important, as a world leader in the luxury industry, to take on an institutional role, so we became a bit [like] the patron of it." It has not all been plain sailing. The relationship was seriously damaged prior to the 2007 Cup in Valencia. "Until then we had not been just sponsors but co-organisers [of the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger selection series], taking part in the decisions. When Alinghi won in 2003 they proposed that we would be just sponsors. The only reason we said yes is that for the first time since 1851 the Cup was returning to Europe. But we soon realised we were totally unhappy in that situation." Immediately after the 2007 regatta, the company announced its withdrawal from the America's Cup. But in January last year, with Alinghi and its challenger BMW Oracle dragging each other through the New York courts, it organised the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series, planned as a one-off event for America's Cup Class yachts, in Auckland. Last September it announced the launch of the Louis Vuitton Trophy, in conjunction with the newly formed World Sailing Teams Association, and a commitment until at least early next year to support five or more regattas, one of which will be held in Dubai in November. "That's where our guardianship role came in," said Mr Carcelle. "We were the only chance for the teams to survive. We knew that if something didn't happen, the whole thing might totally disappear." Last week, the Auckland newspaper The Sunday Star Times, quoted Mr Trouble as saying: "The total cost of the event is about ?3.5 million [Dh17.2m], half of which is paid for by Louis Vuitton. Of the rest, half comes from New Zealand taxpayers and half from the teams." Mr Carcelle insisted money was not the point. "Over the years people have spent their time, money and reputations not to win a big prize but to get the right to keep, for a few years, the ugliest piece of silverware you can imagine. "That makes the America's Cup saga very special and it justifies the fact that if you have the chance to be involved, you continue investing." firstname.lastname@example.org