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Chanel’s Ex-CEO Wears American Apparel and Thinks REI Rules

French luxury doesn't spoil everyone.

The two chat in a booth.
Chiquet, left, with Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld at the brand’s cruise show in 2008.
Photo: Patrick McMullan

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When she was the CEO of Chanel, Maureen Chiquet’s daily uniform was a Chanel jacket and jeans. Chic by any measure, but it was a startling shift from the dress code most employees at the company followed before she took the job in 2007.

“No one wore jeans. Are you kidding?” Chiquet says. “It kind of became my identity, and then other women were like, ‘Phew! We can dress in jeans, too!’”

Chiquet, who grew up in St. Louis and wears her hair in an unfussy pixie cut, has a drawer full of American Apparel tank tops and says she’s always on the hunt for the best T-shirt. (Quality, she says, is a matter of weighing price against value.) Though she has enjoyed the freedom to collect pieces from non-Chanel brands like Céline, Gucci, and Isabel Marant since leaving the French fashion house early last year, casual clothes are very much her thing. For a long time, she worked at the pinnacle of relaxed American clothing, Gap.

Chiquet’s time at Gap, as well as her subsequent roles at its offshoots Old Navy and Banana Republic, occupy a significant portion of her new book Beyond the Label: Women, Leadership, and Success on Our Own Terms. (Though Chiquet delves into the lengthy process of getting hired at Chanel, her actual time there figures very little into the narrative; when she left, the company told the New York Times that it was “due to differences of opinion about the strategic direction of the company.”) Part memoir, part career guide, the book is also a look into how the sausage got made at one of the country’s most visible companies, from its surge in popularity under then-CEO Mickey Drexler’s instinctive direction to its slide in the opposite direction, which eventually ended in his dismissal.

Beyond the Label comes at an uncanny time. After leaving Gap, Drexler went on to refashion J.Crew into a raging success; that upward trajectory has now come crashing down, too, and the brand is reworking its image, having parted ways with longtime creative lead Jenna Lyons as it works to stabilize its financials. Gap is still trying to find a killer formula again, and Banana Republic, whose shifts in brand identity Chiquet describes as “schizophrenic” when she was there, continues to waffle.

Some patterns repeat, but as brick-and-mortar retailers crumble one by one under the pressure of e-commerce, Chiquet’s recollections also seem like documentation of a bygone business — no less worthwhile for it, but a snapshot of an industry now struggling to keep up.

Chiquet, for her part, is currently doing some work at Rag & Bone with Marcus Wainwright, who has been running the ship alone since his co-creator stepped down in June. She’s excited about Nike and REI. They’re far cries from the rarified waters of Chanel, but Chiquet loves the former for its “Equality” campaign and its introduction of a Pro Hijab for Muslim athletes and the latter for its unique co-op ownership structure, split between millions of people.

“When there’s a reason why your brand exists — not just to sell beautiful clothes, not just to sell expensive clothes, not just because our label is so great — I think that’s much more sustainable,” Chiquet says. “Nike exists to make us all athletes. REI, they exist to get us outdoors more. These are longer-term purposes that allow for something greater.”

The emphasis on long-term gains was a marked difference between Chiquet’s time at Gap and Chanel, which interviewed her for over a year before hiring her. There’s a very obvious reason for that: Gap is publicly traded, meaning its sales figures are aired for anyone to see every few months. Investors expect constant growth. Chanel, on the other hand, is a private company and almost impossibly opaque. As an outsider you just can’t know how well it’s performing, but so long as it keeps putting on magnificent haute couture shows and turning out beautiful bags, the impression is that things are just dandy in luxury land.

As CEO, that knowledge buffer gave Chiquet breathing room.

“You can take an action and allow it to have the time to work and really evaluate it and give yourself the space to see whether it’s going to pan out,” she says. At a company like Gap, constant scrutiny from retail analysts meant that on a good sales day, everyone on the team was in a good mood, and on a bad day, everyone was depressed. Unsurprisingly, that sort of external validation isn’t great for creativity.

“On our design teams at Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic, when our comps [comparable sales] were down, we were all scrambling to make things better, and that takes your eye off the long-term goal and who you are as a brand,” she says.

Nor does she feel that consumer research, focus groups, or excessive use of data — of which direct-to-consumer brands have tons — should guide a brand’s design choices. In the course of reading Chiquet’s new book, it sinks in that clothing design, even at the mass market end of things, is a totally human affair. And just like people, it’s endlessly fallible.