Francois Pinault’s Ultimate Luxury

The luxury magnate becomes a champion of contemporary art.

Francois PinaultWith a triumphant second exhibition at his Venice Museum, Francois Pinault, the self-made french tycoon whose holdings include Gucci, Christie’s, and the Chateau Latour Vineyard, has found a new role: Champion of Contemporary Art.

On Friday, June 8, 2007, the thousands of art aficionados who had made the pilgrimage to the 52nd Venice Biennale experienced what felt like a miracle: after endless days of rain, just as the parties and art shows were coming to an end, the sun suddenly came out.

One man in particular benefited-Francois Pinault, the self-made French tycoon who owns, among other things, the Gucci Group (which includes Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, and Alexander McQueen), Christie’s auction house, and the storied vineyard Chateau Latour, in the Medoc region of France. He was throwing a dinner that night in honor of “Sequence 1,” the second exhibition at his Venetian museum, in the Palazzo Grassi, a famous 18th-century building formerly owned by the Fiat Group. For the party, 600 guests had been invited to gather on the small Grand Canal island of San Giorgio Maggiore, on which is located the Fondazione Giorgio Cini and its gleaming white 16th-century church, designed by Andrea Palladio. As guests arrived off water taxis and private boats to sip Champagne Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle, the paparazzi clicked away.

Naomi Campbell came, and so did French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, whose father had known Pinault. Designers Miuccia Prada, Azzedine Alaia, Stefano Pilati, and Alberta Ferretti mingled with actress Mia Maestro and Irish singer Damien Rice. Former Iranian empress Farah Pahlavi was there; so were financiers Sir Evelyn de Rothschild and Aidan Barclay. Al Gore’s daughter Karenna Gore Schiff arrived with her husband, Drew. The art world was out in full force-New York dealer Larry Gagosian brought a posse, and collector Peter Brant came with his wife, Stephanie Seymour. Pinault’s son Francois-Henri Pinault, 45, C.E.O. of PPR (Pinault-Printemps-Redoute), his father’s conglomerate, arrived with his pregnant fiancee, actress Salma Hayek.

Hovering slightly to one side were the artists whose works were featured in the show. Swiss sculptor Urs Fischer, 34, whose vast (23-by-23-by-30-foot) tree-like sculpture, Jet Set Lady, was the first thing you saw on the ground floor of the Palazzo Grassi, told me with a grin that he found all this “amusing.” But perhaps no one found it quite as amusing as the host himself. Slipping in and out of the crowd, almost unnoticed, as he likes to be, Francois Pinault seemed part of the scene and yet not.

A man who looks far younger than his 71 years and whose sharp blue eyes can turn from glittering to cold in a second, Pinault was taking it all in, allowing himself a brief moment of enjoyment. As people sat for a four-course dinner, he continued to roam, shaking hands quickly, then moving on. He doesn’t like to stand still, he’d told me a month before. Nor does he like parties. This, though, was an exception. This was his coronation. And even the weather had cooperated.

I’d met Francois Pinault twice before, and on each occasion found him to be odd and mesmerizing. The first time was on a snowy February day in Urs Fischer’s studio in Long Island City. Inside the enormous warehouse, Pinault, who stands around five feet eight inches, seemed utterly incongruous in his perfectly tailored suit beside the much larger, heavily tattooed Fischer, who was dressed, as he often is, in jeans and shirtsleeves. Yet, it was only when Pinault was standing next to Fischer, making jokes and clamping his arm around him, that he seemed relaxed. Otherwise, he paced like a caged tiger.

Our next encounter was in March in the three-star restaurant of the hotel Le Meurice, in Paris. I had been warned by a member of Pinault’s staff to be early, since the boss was in the habit of showing up 30 minutes ahead of scheduled appointments. But at the appointed time of 12:30 exactly, Pinault arrived. I joked that I had expected him earlier. He told me he had, in fact, been sitting outside in his car. We began our conversation by discussing his desire to build museums to house his contemporary-art collection-amassed over 30 years-which has, for the most part, sat in storage or been displayed in his private residences. The gauntlet was laid down, though, in October 2006, when Bernard Arnault, often referred to as Pinault’s nemesis, and the C.E.O. of rival luxury house LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton), announced his plans to build a $127 million, Frank Gehry-designed cultural foundation in Paris.

Pinault’s collection has been bought quietly for the most part, but it includes a great many important works. Under the guidance of French art dealer Marc Blondeau and then a coterie of advisers including Philippe Segalot, the former head of the contemporary-art department at Christie’s, he collected major post-World War II artists, including Willem de Kooning, Mondrian, Agnes Martin, Mark Rothko, Richard Serra, and Robert Ryman. More recently, under the influence of the Grassi curator Alison Gingeras, he has embraced younger, emerging artists. To make room he sold off some of the older work-which some critics claim is a mistake. One leading international art adviser says that Jasper Johns’s The White Target was sold by Pinault for $25 million to hedge-fund shaman Steve Cohen two years ago and has now doubled in value.

Even so, the first Palazzo Grassi show, in 2006, demonstrated that Pinault still has plenty of first-rate art, some of it dating back well into the 20th century. Entitled “Where Are We Going?,” the show included pieces by Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin, Andy Warhol, and Cy Twombly, as well as such contemporary stalwarts as Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, Richard Serra, Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter, Charles Ray, Mike Kelley, David Hammons, Cindy Sherman, and Rudolf Stingel.
“Sequence 1” was deliberately more edgy. “I know the critics are going to go for me for including Richard Prince”-the American artist known for his collages and re-photographs-Pinault told me, rubbing his hands together. He was wrong. The show was a triumph. The “600-pound gorilla,” as Artnet had labeled him, was outshining everything else at the Biennale. Yet the fact that Pinault was up for the challenge illustrates the very core of his character. He has long had a reputation as an outsider in the world of French business, and he is intensely proud of it. “I could not stand to be bourgeois,” he told me fiercely. He describes the “bubble” that most “rich people live in” as very “dangerous You must fight against that at all costs.” In fact, his support of the Grassi museum came about precisely because of an argument with bureaucrats in his home country.

In 2000, Pinault announced, with considerable fanfare, plans to open a contemporary-art museum on the Ile Seguin, the site of a former car factory outside Paris. He brought in Japanese architect Tadao Ando to design a new building, but in 2005, after five years and $24 million, he abandoned the project, claiming that the local government had made it impossible to go ahead. “I waited five years for them to get their act together and I just ran out of patience,” he says without emotion.

Actually, many French art critics were opposed to the very notion of a Pinault museum, which they saw as a colossal act of self-aggrandizement, not to mention the fact that Pinault’s collection included almost no French artists. Pinault is dismissive of such criticism. “I don’t feel compelled to collect and show contemporary French artists just because they are French,” he says with a shrug.

He responded by buying a controlling stake in the Palazzo Grassi for $37 million and getting Ando to subtly revamp the 6,600-square-foot space. He has also taken a 30-year lease on a much larger space (37,000 square feet), in Punta della Dogana, the Venetian customhouse, for which he had to top a bid from the Guggenheim Foundation. As with the Grassi, Pinault is footing the bill for a massive overhaul of the facade, again by Ando, expected to cost $26 million. Running costs are forecast at $2.6 million annually. This October, Pinault also opened a video-and-photo exhibition of his collection in Lille, in northernmost France. He has talked recently about opening museums in New York and, possibly, London and Berlin.

Small wonder he has been called “the Gallic Citizen Kane.”

When Pinault enrolled in the College Saint-Martin school, in Rennes, in 1947, classmates mocked his modest background, so he dropped out and went to work at his father’s Treverien lumber mill. He sold it when his father died but eventually took it over again. Pinault’s early strategy of cutting out middlemen and going straight to suppliers and shippers didn’t make him popular, but it did make him rich.

In 1981 he helped a friend, a rising young political figure named Jacques Chirac, get re-elected by buying a bankrupt local sawmill and saving 20 jobs. In 1986, when Chirac was prime minister, Pinault bought another failing wood business-but this time, reportedly breaking his pledge to the French government, he resold it and eliminated 1,800 jobs in the process. Yet his bond with Chirac remained close.

Having climbed to the top of the timber business, Pinault turned his eyes elsewhere. He started to build the company that would become Pinault-Printemps-Redoute. In 1990, with the help of Serge Weinberg, an investment banker from the French bank Paribas, he bought an undervalued African trading company, CFAO, and turned it around. Weinberg would go on to become Pinault’s right-hand man and PPR’s C.E.O. Pinault also hired a bright executive from Renault, Patricia Barbizet, whom he appointed managing director.

Pinault added to his holdings by acquiring Printemps, a French department-store chain, in 1992. In 1994 he bought La Redoute, a mail-order-catalogue company. But the most profitable-and most controversial-move in Pinault’s career was his involvement with Credit Lyonnais and New York financier Leon Black in the French bank’s 1991 takeover of Executive Life, an American insurance company that had posted enormous paper losses on its extensive junk-bond portfolio. Credit Lyonnais proposed a rescue package that enabled both Black and Pinault to profit hugely by buying the junk bonds-to the tune of hundreds of millions for Pinault. To do so, Credit Lyonnais had to promise U.S. regulators that a new company, Aurora, which was taking over Executive’s insurance contracts, would be independent of the bank-as required by federal law. In fact, Aurora’s new shareholders were mostly fronts for Credit Lyonnais, including Pinault, who bought 50 percent of Aurora in 1993 with money loaned to him by the French bank. Regulators subsequently accused Pinault of being in on the deception.

In 1999 a grand-jury investigation was convened. Pinault absolutely denied he had known of Credit Lyonnais’s fraudulent scheme. In fall 2003, in an unprecedented step, Jacques Chirac intervened, and an agreement was reached. Pinault agreed to pay a settlement of $180 million, and Credit Lyonnais was fined $525 million, which went to California’s Department of Insurance. Civil litigation is ongoing.
While the legal battle raged, Pinault was hardly standing still. In 1994 he purchased fnac, a retailer of everything from books to electronics. He would later put Francois-Henri in charge of it “as a test” and came to feel that his son “emerged as a proven C.E.O.”

Then he turned his attention to the luxury market.

Weinberg, who retired from PPR in 2005, explains: “The idea of luxury for PPR was simple. We were in the distribution business It’s hard to expand internationally Having a luxury business helps you get across to (America and Asia) without having investments.”

In 1998, Pinault bought Christie’s; in 2001 he purchased Gucci-a three-part deal costing more than $5 billion-beating Bernard Arnault to the post.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which occurred the day after the deal, Gucci stock plummeted. Asked if he overpaid, Pinault becomes animated and says, “(Gucci designer) Tom Ford was the best and you have to pay top dollar to get the best. People are stupid. They react to a deal and its price immediately, but really the proof of whether a deal was good or was not only comes seven years later.” He is no doubt referring to the fact that Gucci now generates more than $7 billion worldwide annually.
In 2004, Ford left the company after he and Pinault could not come to terms. The fashion world equated Ford’s departure with the death of a king. “I have no regrets,” says Pinault now. “It would have been better if I had hired him 10 years earlier.”

Weinberg explains that PPR came to feel that Ford’s ego was too big for its management style. “He’d lost touch with the ground He had no experience of management on this scale,” he says.

“It is amusing that Serge says that he felt that I had ‘no experience of management of this scale’ as it was precisely our management of the company for 14 years that built Gucci Group into the company that it is today,” replies Tom Ford. “At that time I was vice-chairman and creative director of Gucci Group, and the entire organization had reported to me for over 10 years on all matters of product, merchandising, P.R., advertising, store design, etc As for my ego, I am afraid Serge is confusing that with my job description, which was to guard and maintain the integrity of the brand and to protect it from exploitation for short-term benefits. Serge was a fish out of water at the Gucci Group, as he had absolutely no experience in the fashion or luxury-goods sector. He is a nice guy, but had no understanding whatsoever of our business. He was a bit surprised, I think, when I challenged his knowledge of certain things, which I often did. I tried to explain to him that Gucci was not Conforama or fnac or even Printemps. In any case, he didn’t last long after we left.”

Now Gucci has opted for a completely different tack, employing designers less well known than the brands themselves.

Over dinner one night in spring 2003, Pinault handed Francois-Henri the keys to his office. “I felt (he) was ready,” Pinault says. “I had watched other families in similar positions and I felt they all had made mistakes. I didn’t want to let Francois-Henri run the company too soon, nor too late. Also, I didn’t want him to think ever it was his right. He had to earn it.”

In fact, Pinault had long before appointed a special board to discuss the appropriateness of his son’s succeeding him, and for 20 years had put him through a grueling apprenticeship as they all watched. “In some ways I think my son is better than me,” Pinault says. “I am all about instinct. I have no training. He is educated.”

But many still consider Pinault the elder to be at the wheel of the company, given that PPR is essentially controlled by a private holding company called Artemis, whose management and finances have never been fully revealed.

When Pinault talks about the business, he does not sound emeritus. “You have to keep making deals or you are out of the game,” he told me. At the time of our meeting, PPR had just bought Vinci, a giant French construction company, surprising people who had expected it to buy a water utility company called Suez. “I love that!” he almost shouts. “Everyone is looking one way at Suez, and we went for Vinci. I love to do the unexpected.”

His hands make the motion of a stealth missile seeking its target.

There are those who see Pinault’s entry into the luxury market as grandiose, the same way they view his need to build art museums. Pinault disputes this furiously. “The last thing I want to be thought of is egomaniacal,” he says. He insists that he collects and displays art “to provoke thought and ideas.”
People close to Pinault say it is far too simple to label him a ruthless opportunist and leave it at that. And his attachment to art is real, say those who have advised him. “I’ve shown him work that he will look at for half an hour, study intently, then say, ‘There is no choice. How much is this?'” says Segalot.
Pinault did not pretend to know anything about art when Marc Blondeau showed him what would become his first acquisition-Mondrian’s Tableau Losangique II, for $8.8 million-but he threw himself into his new hobby with a passion that few can rival, and is now, according to experts, extremely educated. “He has superb taste,” Peter Brant told me.

“I find myself running to keep up with him,” says Alison Gingeras. “On a recent trip to California we’d go to look at an artist’s work all day, then have dinner, and then we’d agree to meet the next morning, and he’d be waiting an hour early, saying, ‘Let’s go.’ … I had to ask galleries to open early especially for us.”

The hiring of Gingeras was a significant and gutsy coup for Pinault. Just 34 years old, she is the blonde, American-born partner of Polish artist Piotr Ukla’nski. She was a curator at New York’s Guggenheim, and then at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, where she met Pinault. Frustrated by the bureaucratic hurdles one had to leap to get Paris shows curated-a sentiment echoed by Pinault-she left the Pompidou, and Pinault hired her to curate the first Palazzo Grassi show.

It was, on the face of it, a risk, because she was still so young. But Gingeras introduced him to several of the stars of this year’s show, including Roberto Cuoghi, a 34-year-old Italian painter, Anselm Reyle, a 37-year-old German artist, and 32-year-old American Kristin Baker, an abstract painter.

Baker, a tiny, shy blonde, told me she was petrified a year or so ago when Gingeras informed her she’d be bringing Pinault to her Brooklyn studio. “First, I don’t like anyone seeing my work, so that freaked me out. I was so nervous that I fell over and scraped my knee just before he arrived. My jeans ripped and there was blood on it, so I just stood there, one leg behind the other, hoping he wouldn’t notice.” (He didn’t.)

Getting Baker’s work to Venice required a huge amount of effort because of its enormous size. A Luxembourg cargo plane was required, and then a special scaffold had to be erected to get the paintings up the Palazzo’s walls and into their designated room. Pinault, according to Gingeras, was in on every detail.

“He is most comfortable hanging out with artists,” Baker explains. “When he flies in to New York (which he does regularly), he is not out at some high-society party but hanging with people like Urs (Fischer) or Rudolf (Stingel).”

After this year’s installation was set up at the Palazzo Grassi, Pinault and his wife, Maryvonne, a connoisseur of 18th-century furniture, took all the artists in the show out to dinner at Da Fiore, arguably the best restaurant in Venice. After the Pinaults left, the artists closed the place down. “Kristin was having this intense debate about art with Franz (West) and Piotr,” says Gingeras. Pinault, unable to stay away, kept coming back into the restaurant. “He just didn’t want to miss out on all the fun,” she adds.

Pinault sees himself as spiritually linked to artists in that he is forever making connections, seeing a bigger picture than the microcosm before him. “I really believe it was my destiny to do all this,” he tells me without irony, adding, “There are other people who are far happier. It is not my job to be happy.”

He wants his tombstone to read, why me?

Yet for all the grandiose talk and image-carving of a ruthless financial titan-“I am not rich enough to be tender,” he says, only half humorously-there are examples of a softness beneath the thick skin. Bernard-Henri Levy gave a very moving account of how Pinault saved the ailing timber business of Levy’s father on terms that were unfavorable to Pinault. This seems all the more uncharacteristic, given that Pinault and Levy Sr. had long been rivals. But Pinault explained to the young Levy that he was prepared to help his father save his reputation because he considered him an old “lion” for whom he had the “deepest respect,” and he had no wish to see him brought down.

Now Levy and Pinault have breakfast once a month in Paris and are extremely close friends. It is an unlikely pairing, considering Pinault’s right-wing tendencies (he is great friends with France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy), but Pinault helped finance Levy’s 1994 film, Bosna!, on the war in Bosnia. In 1997, after Levy Sr.’s death, he also bought the timber company from Levy, who was struggling to manage the business and find time for his writing. “It was a completely unnecessary thing to do,” says Levy. “By now he had no need of a timber company. There was no financial gain in it for him.”

The day after the “Sequence 1” dinner, Pinault called Gingeras to get her impressions. He asked her about the after-party. She told him that Urs Fischer, Kristin Baker, and the other artists had been dancing all night. Slowly, as the conversation unfolded, she realized that he already knew.

Like Jay Gatsby watching the lights of his neighbor’s house at night, Pinault had been on his boat, outside his own party, bobbing up and down on the water, watching, celebrating vicariously. V

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