Maureen Chiquet discusses her extraordinary journey from L'Oreal Paris to Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic, before becoming the first global CEO of Chanel.
WOOL: Who is Maureen Chiquet without the labels?
Maureen: Ah, interesting question! I still walk around with some of my old labels sometimes, like “Former Global CEO” but I feel I’m gathering new ones too-labels of author, speaker, and consultant.
But beyond labels, I think I’m someone who cares deeply about transformation. And I’ve noticed we often get stuck with labels that don't allow us to express aspects of our individuality unless we move beyond those definitions and define ourselves on our own terms.
WOOL: You seem to have followed a ‘jagged path’ to success; your early career choices seem to be completely non-obvious ones. What made you take those decisions?
Maureen: (laughs) Yes, jagged indeed, but exciting too. When I was 16, I made my maiden voyage to France. and that literally changed my life! In that one month, all of my senses were blown open by the sheer beauty that I saw and felt around me.
My two great loves from then on were France, and stories. As a very shy child, I would raid my parents’ bookshelves and because I was already fluent in French, I majored in Literature when I got to college. For better or worse, I wasn't really thinking about what that meant for my career or what the future held. It is not easy to find your “passion” when you’re young and the world is full of possibilities. I just started recognizing the things I didn't want to do, and sifting out what wasn’t resonating - that became my technique. From the outside, my career path may look jagged but in so many ways, I kept getting to know myself anew by staying close to what felt right. I went from majoring in literature to marketing with L'Oreal in Paris, to retail and merchandizing, to the premier of luxury fashion.
WOOL: What is ‘luxury’ for you, Maureen. How do you define it, and what are the elements that define luxury brands?
Maureen: Luxury is defined by four intangible but powerful elements:
1 . H E R I T A G E
2 . A R T I S A N S H I P
3 . U N I Q U E N E S S O F D E S I G N
4 . E X C L U S I V I T Y
Uniqueness of design is what really becomes the hallmark of a luxury brand. Think about luxury cars. Can you spot a Mercedes Benz without seeing the brand logo? A unique design feature often becomes the identifier and emblem of a luxury brand. About two years ago, Apple was rated as the number one luxury company in China. Is an iPhone exclusive? Not at all! But Apple’s unique and beautiful design features have made their logo a powerful and instantly recognizable symbol around the world.
UNIQUENESS OF DESIGN IS WHAT REALLY BECOMES THE HALLMARK OF A LUXURY BRAND.
A UNIQUE DESIGN FEATURE OFTEN BECOMES THE IDENTIFIER AND EMBLEM OF A LUXURY BRAND.
WOOL: I’ve noticed you advocate a blend of research and instinct. That’s rather unconventional. Any lessons from how you achieved this?
Maureen: Observation is a form of data. It is one of the key ingredients that form what people call intuition. We take in data all day long, often without even realizing it. And because it doesn’t come in the form of a spreadsheet, it surfaces later as what seems just like instinct or intuition. But when we can combine those instincts with data points we do recognize – consumer research, sales or any other factual data – the result is immeasurably powerful.
And it helps you to factor in consumer desire, which is important in the luxury and fashion business, where people are buying something not because they need it but because they want it. Spreadsheets can’t tell you about desire.
WOOL: You have steered global brands like Chanel using counterintuitive managerial and business strategies, prioritizing empathy for example. Do you think brands are losing that skill today in trying to deliver quick delights and immersive experiences?
Maureen: Yes and no. For brands to succeed, they have to listen more carefully to consumers. Sometimes, we mistake consumers for consumer data. These are really different things! Understanding consumers requires a kind of empathy; it is not just about looking at figures, a slicing and dicing and segmentation exercise. You can have all the data in the world about your consumer but somebody has to understand and connect the dots from that data and create a story. And that story will always have a bit of subjectivity in it because of the different ways in which people look at data. Leaders need to delve into the consumers' hearts and minds and put themselves in their shoes to understand what will best delight and satisfy their customers.
For brands to succeed, they have to listen more carefully to consumers. Understanding consumers, which is often mistaken for consumer data, requires empathy; not just looking at figures, slicing & dicing and segmenting them.
WOOL: That’s so true. So you have millennials as employees, but also as customers! This new customer segment has diﬀerent ideas about ownership, diﬀerent patterns of consumption. How is the luxury retail industry dealing with these changing customer expectations?
Maureen: I have two girls who are 21 and 25, and they care so much about social justice, the environment, etc. Older companies may not be involved in these domains yet, and I do wonder about whether or not great brands can afford to remain on the sideline of issues that this next generation cares so much about. A brand like Tesla is very interesting to me because it has no history, no heritage and yet makes a car that is as or more beautiful than other luxury cars. It has the technological advancements that other cars don’t have, and is better for the environment. It is fascinating as a case study as it is starting to change the way we might have been thinking about the backbone of luxury. In the past, deep history was essential to the category, but in 2015, Tesla outperformed Mercedes and BMW. The reason people buy a Tesla is not just because it is so advanced and beautiful but also because it tells the world something about you when you are driving that "I care about the environment". I am seeing luxury brands beginning to shift that way but not all of them have truly committed to incorporating these new values into their core offerings or operations.
WOOL: What are the things or technologies that you have done to change your role and perspective over the course of the many years you spent steering Chanel?
Maureen: Before the onset of the digital revolution, we owned our brand communication with complete authority. But the internet radically changed that. Suddenly, we had consumers talking about us 24/7, making images with our images, and influencing other consumers. And then, the transparency where almost anything, from anywhere, positive or negative, would be seen and shared. The idea that we might be able to control things started to seem impossible. So, we had to begin thinking on ways to co-create the brand with our consumers proactively, as it was happening, whether we liked it or not.
WOOL: Wonderful insight, Maureen. How easy or diﬃcult was it to bring together innovation and creativity at a luxury powerhouse like Chanel, and rally an entire team around it?
Maureen: Innovation and creativity are two different things, depending on the industry and the brand. One of the things that I found particularly appealing at Chanel was that applying creativity and innovation meant putting leaders in a position where they were no longer afraid to express the things that they really thought were important for the brand. It is often intimidating for people to think how their ideas may be different or how they might stretch established limits, especially with such a strong heritage brand. I prioritized creating a culture where people could be vulnerable enough to share more innovative thoughts and not be afraid to be shot down, and where people could disagree and push each other more effectively.
I also worked to create diverse ecosystems of thought. People on the fringes of the organization were afraid to express themselves, and I’ve always found those are the very people that sometimes have the most “out of the box” ideas.
WOOL: How did you, as someone who was at the helm of such a large, iconic fashion brand, resolve idea clashes?
Maureen: Particularly in the last 10 years, many clashes had to do with so many new millennials as employees. They had very different ideas about what a brand should be doing, how the organization should be running, and what their participation and contribution should be. It is really important to get those disagreements out on the table and hear everybody’s point of view, so that we can play out all the different elements of a problem and discuss all the pros and cons. I’m someone who, no matter how sure I may be, really wants to hear the opposing view, as there might be something in there that I missed, and it may change my mind or just give me a new perspective. There is never just one answer, and when you can really get the ideas out on the table and explore, the right idea will emerge.
WOOL: Luxury fashion brands have been trying to sort out their relationship with technology. Do you have handy examples of brands who are doing some breakthrough work in this area?
Maureen: Most luxury brands have been slow to adopt new technologies, as there is a lot of fear of losing contact with consumers or losing the ability to communicate the beauty of the brand through exquisite boutiques. With technology, no matter what brand, whether you are luxury or mass market, it is important to remember who you are. So, if you are Gucci, you are Gucci online, you are Gucci in a store and you are Gucci on social media. Whatever gets expressed or whoever has contact with the customer or works at the boutique needs to be exuding the essence of your brand. Though it is not a technological thing per se, I like how REI used technology when they started this huge movement on Black Friday - #optout. They closed their doors on Black Friday, and used the social media to tell us that they care about all of us getting outside and connecting with nature. Nike has done good a job with this kind of on-brand social media messaging, too.
Wool: Most luxury purchases are still happening in-store. How do you think luxury fashion and other categories of luxury brands can connect the dots between changing customer expectations and millennial behaviors? How do you improve customer experience and deliver bespoke in-store and online shopping experiences?
Maureen: It’s been a big debate in the luxury community - how to give that one-on-one type of service point - because increasingly, customers are shopping from a screen. Boutiques are becoming less and less a place of transaction, which means that they have to become something else if they want to survive. I believe customers will continue to want to have direct contact with the products and even a relationship with the people from whom they are buying. If done right, the store can be a place beyond just selling and become a place of connection, of relationship, of entertainment, discovery, or even exploration. We are already seeing it to a certain degree but to keep that kind of contact with the customers, brands have to amplify what happens in one or more of those ways. I don’t think that it is about trying to spread yourself thin or venturing away from what’s true to your brand, but figuring how to cultivate relationships with customers and creating meaningful interactions and experiences.
IN LEADERSHIP, THE WORD "SUBVERSIVE" IS VERY IMPORTANT. SUBVERTING IS TAKING SOMETHING AND LOOKING AT IT FROM A RADICALLY DIFFERENT ANGLE FROM WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE CONSIDERED BEF ORE.
WOOL: How do you see the future of luxury fashion brands in the next ﬁve years when fashion and technology come together?
Maureen: I wish I had a crystal ball! There are already few luxury brands moving towards e-commerce market platforms that are more efficient; and over time, I suspect nearly all brands will be on e-commerce as a part of the ecosystem. You cannot not offer your customer the ability to buy online, nor can you only offer online. Technology has a lot of offer. For me, Luxury is time. It is connection with other people, and with myself. I feel like some of those values that we have as busy human beings will start to get embraced by luxury brands and technology will enable them to give their consumer an even more luxurious experience. Let’s say I see something on a runway that I like and I want to get it, but I don’t want to drive or maybe I am in a hurry because I have a party. Luxury brands are going to start to figure out how to make those experiences, and decide what their contribution toward these newer values might be. I think brands like Tesla know why they exist. Tesla is very clear, and everything they do is towards the notion of less emissions. The brands that know who they are and then combine that with technology are going to be the winning brands.
WOOL: Talking about leadership, as a woman who stood her ground, made strides and tackled challenges on ‘her own terms’, what do you think are some of the attributes that will make women leaders stand in good stead?
Maureen: Sociologists and leadership gurus talk a lot about feminine versus masculine leadership. But I think that 21st-century leaders anyway integrate a lot of these qualities. We all have masculine and feminine qualities; it is really a question of how we combine them to make great leaders. I don’t think women need more of something or less of something than men do. Leaders who can be both assertive and empathetic, visionary and adaptable, and listen to others as well as to themselves will be the most resourceful and resilient in this radically changing new world.
WOOL: In your book, "Beyond The Label", you talk about asking the right question at the right time and leadership on your own terms. Do you think there is a formula that has helped recognize and look beyond your own blind spots and navigate cross-roads better?
Maureen: I wish I could say there is a formula, or maybe don’t have one! I have been fortunate in my career to have had the help of coaches who could help mirror what was happening for me. I became very aware and interested in understanding what my blind spots were, and continuing to develop my thoughts and looking at them. The first step is seeing yourself clearly, but avoiding judgement. Often, there is a tendency to try and fix who you are and then say - this is the bad part of me. But I’ve found our blind spots are often just the other side of the coin of our greatest strengths, so really being able to come to terms with all of who you are and making an effort to balance your strengths and perceived shortcomings will only make you a better leader.
WOOL: What are the essential qualities of the leader of tomorrow?
Maureen: I think it is a combination of some of the qualities that we have learned like being driven, ambitious, strategic, visionary and also putting equal emphasis on empathy, listening, collaboration, flexibility. These will become increasingly important in an age where everything is connected by the internet. I really like the word subversive when it comes to leadership. I feel we need to continue to look at other ways, other points of view, other things that we might do in our business to disrupt ourselves. Subverting is kind of taking something and looking at it from a radically different angle than you might have considered before. That is very important to keep us from getting stuck in the past.