What do you think of when you hear the words fashion and luxury? The brand Chanel comes to mind. Global CEO of Chanel Maureen Chiquet visited Penn last Thursday to speak about the path that led her to Chanel and her experiences at the legendary company. As one of the ultimate, if not the “ultimate house of luxury,” Chanel has solidified its name as the final word on elegance and taste. Yet in this age of rapidly updating technology and globalization, how has Chanel adapted and continued to innovate while staying true to its heritage? Ms. Chiquet discussed these and other challenges she has faced at the helm of this business.
Ms. Chiquet regaled the audience with stories of her “rather circuitous path” to Chanel, while imparting helpful wisdom on the lessons she has learned while on the job. Chiquet, a self-proclaimed Francophile, graduated Yale with a degree in film and literature and no clue what she wanted to do with her life. Casting about for different career options, she took the LSATs- only to walk out during the middle of the exam because she couldn’t let go of the notion that, as she put it, she “had to go to France.” Her career is rather different from the average businesswoman in that she learned all her marketing skills along the way. Chiquet started her career at French cosmetics company L’Oreal; her next adventure was moving to San Francisco, where she joined The Gap. Her success there led to an offer to lead a new lower-end line that eventually became Old Navy, which generated yet another offer to run Banana Republic in 2002. In some ways, her long career prepared her for her move to Chanel in 2003, and yet, in other ways, she was completely unprepared for the shift to a private, luxury company with a long history of supporting the creative vision of its designer-whether it is the iconic Coco Chanel then or the iconic Karl Lagerfeld now.
Chiquet stressed the emphasis on creativity, quality, and staying true to the brand image at Chanel- she called their approach “heritage mixed with modernity,” where everything from products to ad campaigns to stores are designed to incorporate classic Chanel symbols treated in a contemporary way. Indeed, in her first year with the company, she visited all of its departments, simply listening and absorbing its business environment before she contributed her own vision. Regarding how Chanel is moving forward in the internet era of social media and e-commerce, Chiquet underlined the inherent contradiction between the old Chanel model and the new rules of the digitial landscape- every rule that applied to marketing an exclusive brand image previously is reversed in the digital world- as opposed to a ‘monologue’ in which Chanel is creating the demands and desires of its customers, there is now a ‘dialogue’ in which consumers are asked what they want.
Chiquet debunked various business myths and shared the lessons she lived through. “Let passion lead your choices.. get your hands dirty and learn the business from the bottom up…and break some rules, especially when it comes to creativity,” advised Chiquet, asking the audience, “What would you do if you didn’t think you could fail?” We’d probably take a risk or two.
-Iris You ’13