Cannes Fashion Partner Francois-Henri Pinault on His Festival Strategy and Why the Red Carpet Matters

Charlie Gray
Francois-Henri Pinault

A French billionaire who puts women's issues at the forefront? Mon dieu! Cannes' new fashion partner puts his money where his mouth is as his behemoth luxury brands hit the festival with a progressive message on females in Hollywood (and an environmental message to boot).

A version of this story first appeared in the May 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Au revoir, red-carpet selfies; bonjour, luxury goods magnate Francois-Henri Pinault. As part of an effort to class up the crass that has crept into the Cannes Film Festival in recent years, Pinault's Kering is the new official fashion partner of the event. The French billionaire steers a portfolio of high-end brands that includes Gucci, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Brioni, Bottega Veneta and Stella McCartney, whose tres exclusif gowns, tuxedos and accessories should be as ubiquitous on the red carpet as last year's fake tans and Pellegrino signage. Pinault, 53, represents a seamless blend of commercialism (his empire brought in $11.2 billion in revenue in 2014) and old-school glamour (he's married to Salma Hayek, with whom he has a 7-year-old daughter). And he's as comfortable talking about women's rights and environmentalism as runways and hemlines. Fortunately, both causes will be on display at the fest, thanks to the Kering-sponsored Women in Motion talks (co-sponsored by THR) that will shine a light on how females are represented in movies and the Kering-financed global-warming documentary Ice and the Sky, the closing night film. The Kering empire — owned 40.9 percent by Pinault's family — can trace its roots to the timber industry.

In 1963, the family patriarch, Francois Pinault, founded Etablissements Pinault, which focused on wood and construction material; it changed names several times and entered the luxury-goods space in 1999 when it acquired Gucci. Today, Kering's emphasis is on luxury only, and the company is present in 120-plus countries, with a workforce of 32,890 employees. Still, Kering is navigating a volatile global economy, with revenue down across the luxury industry. Sales for Gucci (now headed by creative director Alessandro Michele), which represents nearly 60 percent of Kering's operating profit (with such former brand ambassadors as Blake Lively and James Franco), fell nearly 8 percent in the first quarter of 2015. But the father of four sees the industry poised for a rebound, and there's no better platform for his aspirational brands — which include Balenciaga (Emma Watson and Lily James have worn it on the red carpet), Sergio Rossi (Nicole Kidman is a fan) and Puma (Rihanna is the new creative director) — than the world's most glamorous film festival. Pinault, who splits time between Paris and London, invited THR to his office in London's Mayfair district to discuss his five-year Cannes strategy, balancing volume with exclusivity and why he won't object to an unflattering film about the Gucci family.

Why are you investing in Cannes?

For years, there have been so many ties between the movie industry and luxury industry, and the idea was to seize that opportunity. Consider the number of brands we have and the fact that some of our brands will have access to Cannes for the first time, and we'll have such a platform. But we also told them we would like an agreement that is not only commercial but has a [socially relevant] side, and the theme would be the status of women, which is one of our two major causes, the other being the environment. As in other industries, the movie industry has an issue with women. The question is, why does it happen?

What are you hoping to achieve with this female-focused speaker series?

If we can contribute to this issue by having leading voices of this industry talk about and try to understand why are we in this situation, that is a starting point to find solutions. Sixty percent of our employees are women, and roughly 80 percent of our clients are women. When it comes to violence and women, this is something I've been aware of since 2006. Thanks to my wife, I discovered that domestic violence is such a huge issue in all countries, and it's something no one was talking too much about.

Pinault married Hayek in 2007. "My wife has been very influential on women's issues," he says.

What is the percentage of women in management and upper management at Kering?

For managers, it's 50 percent. It's not so bad. But for executives, 30 percent. So, yeah, we have an issue. Of course, you ask yourself, "Why?" We need to work on the way we recruit, working with headhunters, which are already unbalanced 70 percent to 30 percent in terms of men to women. It's many, many types of attitudes linked to the past that are still there. You need to understand that to start, you need to change things one by one. The parallel with the movie industry is the same. This commercial partnership in Cannes, bringing the cause of women in the film industry to the forefront, there will be something very measurable.



What is your overall assessment of the luxury goods industry?

It's a year of changes because the international environment has changed significantly. We have geopolitical issues, Ukraine, Hong Kong, even China with the anti-corruption situation that has hurt the industry over the last two or three years. Since the end of last year, the euro has gone down, changing the pricing perception from the client's standpoint, which is another issue. It's still a growing industry over the long term. But [in the short term] you have to [institute] a new pricing strategy because of currencies. You need to make sure that you're well balanced between the different markets. There's many, many things to cope with. So it's a year where we are doubting ourselves in this new environment, but I'm not worried for the future.

The pen "was given to me by a friend, Jean-Michel Signoles, owner of Goyard. It's made by hand."

How important is China to your business?

It’s the most important clientele in the world. It's probably, right now, one-third of the worldwide customer [base]. And it’s not only China that’s important. It's Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Thailand and also Chinese in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, Chinese in America. So it's absolutely key that you understand that market. There's a huge potential for growth in that country. It won't be a linear growth, of course. It will be more difficult than that.

How much did the anti-corruption efforts in China hurt?

It had an impact on some product categories more than others, like watches and jewelry. To a lesser extent on clothing and accessories. But it’s also important for an emerging market to strengthen its development over the long run. The fight against corruption is necessary. When you look at the short term, it hurts. But being ruled by law is the prerequisite for long-term structural economic development.

Claire Wilcox's book about designer Alexander McQueen. "When he passed, it was such a big shock," says Pinault. "There were people around us who said, 'You should close the company.' The McQueen I remember would never do that."

Where are the growth markets now?

Asia for all the brands. America still has very strong potential. America has always been a good market for luxury because of all those communities that make America what it is. It's like handling different types of clienteles in the same country. Mexico is another one. It has been changing a lot, and it's become a significant market for luxury. Brazil, of course.

Europe, not so much?

We have a strong setup in Europe, but the European economies are flattish. The luxury industry has a very strong [link] with tourism. For Europe, it's about how do you handle those huge waves of tourists coming to you as a French brand, an Italian brand, a British brand. You need to be very consistent there.

How do you balance scale and volume with the exclusivity of luxury?

That is the key challenge of the industry. Considering that our brands grew very, very, very fast over the past five, six years, we need to make sure we don't lose exclusivity. It's interesting to see the change over the past 50 years. In America, you had to be in New York, in L.A., Miami maybe. In France, you had to go to Paris. More and more, [luxury products] are accessible because we developed our own stores all over the world. But luxury is about strong creativity, exquisite materials, exquisite craftsmanship and great functionality. This is what makes people dream and desire our products, and this is why you've seen most of the brands moving upward in terms of quality of products.

"This bag was made for me because I always carry a lot of things. I used to have a smaller one that was completely cracked, and Gucci offered me this for my 50th birthday."

What is the value of the red carpet these days?

It's really important because it's another runway. It's as simple as that. Celebrities are the desirable people. People dream through the movies, and these amazing stars are wearing our creations.



What factors go into signing an actor or actress to represent one of your brands?

It's different brand by brand. We have this amazing Chime for Change campaign that has been created by Gucci with Beyonce and Salma. Beyonce's so active about women and young girls, like my wife. So it depends what you're talking about. We had this partnership with Rihanna and Puma. It resonates between what she stands for and the brand. Plus, she wanted to be much more committed to what she was doing with Puma, not just being the face of Puma. Puma found the idea very interesting to have her involved in these design efforts for fitness.

"Six months before the Beijing Olympics, we renewed Usain Bolt's [Puma] contract despite the fact he was [in a slump]. We believed in him."

How important is product placement in film and TV in furthering the brand message?

It's not one of the main levers for visibility. It helps. When it becomes part of the storytelling, like a shoe with Sex and the City, that's the exception. But it's not one of our priorities. It's not as powerful as having an amazing actress wearing an amazing dress on an amazing red carpet. This is much more powerful than any product placement.

Ridley Scott is producing a movie about the Gucci family at Fox 2000. It is not supposed to be flattering. Will you participate or try to stop it?

No, I'm friends with Ridley. [We wouldn't fight it] because it's not about the company. It's about the family. There were two movies about Yves Saint Laurent in the past two years. We'll give access to the archive, of course, because it's part of the story, but otherwise, we won't get involved.

Kering has financed several films in recent years. What type of investment are you making there?

It depends. [2009 documentary] Home was almost $11 million. It's one by one.

What star would you most like to sign?

All of them. (Laughs.)

"It's a present from my father. George Washington has a red clown nose on his face. It means money is not everything. Don't take it too seriously."