Fashion’s Maureen Chiquet Landed Big Roles By Accepting Small Ones

Maureen Chiquet learned a valuable life — and business — lesson in a high school acting class.

She was working on a scene with a male classmate. And working. And working. But despite their best efforts, it didn’t click.

So the teacher came on stage, took over her role and asked her to play the male’s part. “I realized that he wanted me to wander into the other character, hear what he heard, and feel the impact of those words I had been speaking,” Chiquet wrote in her new memoir, “Beyond the Label: Women, Leadership and Success on Our Own Terms.”

“He was asking me to see and feel myself from another perspective, to understand how the other character might respond to my lines so I could refine my own presence.”

That bit of role-switching not only made the scene work, but also proved a basic precept instrumental in Chiquet’s career, which has included an executive position at L’Oreal in France, the presidency of Banana Republic and Global CEO of the fashion brand Chanel.

Chiquet grew up in St. Louis, majored in literature at Yale (Class of ’85) and almost immediately headed off for France. She’d stayed there for extended visits twice before — a summer abroad in high school and a semester in college — and fell in love with the country. An uncle of her French roommate during Chiquet’s college stay was a L’Oreal exec; he helped her land a job as an intern in Paris.

On The Road

As part of the company’s lengthy training program for new marketing hires, she started on the road, selling — in her case, in a largely rural area in Northern France. It was a region she was totally unfamiliar with, so much so, in fact, that one night she checked herself into a charming little hotel that she discovered (the next morning) was a bordello.

Her biggest client was a buyer of numerous wares for a large supermarket, of which beauty products seemed the least of his responsibilities.

Still, Chiquet made her pitch — which didn’t work. So she switched to another pitch. And made no progress. Finally, she realized that all the marketing mumbo jumbo she’d been laden with at headquarters wasn’t going to work here.

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So she stopped to think about what the buyer was hearing, and what he wanted to hear, and switched gears. She just asked him what it would take to get an end-cap display during a promotional period. Happy to finally hear something that he could respond to, he told her the percentage discount that he needed. He got the discount and she got the end cap.

“I was trying to sell hair gel products to a guy who was buying cheese,” Chiquet said in a telephone interview with IBD. “What does he care about hair gel? I needed to listen and figure out what he needs.”

During her two-plus years at L’Oreal, Chiquet received more than an education. It’s where she found her husband. In 1998, the newlyweds decided to return to the U.S. and settled in San Francisco. At first, her search for a job was fruitless. She had offers, but to market canned goods and household cleaning products. She’d fallen in love with the beauty-and-fashion business and said, “I couldn’t really see myself marketing ketchup and bleach.”

Walking down the street one day, she saw an advertising poster, an Annie Leibovitz portrait of trumpeter Miles Davis in a Gap T-shirt. “I went to visit a store, and said, ‘Something’s happening here.’ And three or four days later I was called in for an interview.”

Learning The Score

Retailing maven Mickey Drexler hired her and she thought she was on her way — until she discovered her first title: trainee, socks and belts. Her first task: cleaning out the sample closet.

At first, she admits, “I was insulted because I was sure I’d gained (at L’Oreal) all the skills I’d needed. But I quickly got over it.”

She did so by remembering her early experiences at L’Oreal, the importance of learning a business from the ground up — seeing products where they were sold and meeting people who purchased them.

Also, she understood that “making the most of small jobs helps you establish the credibility you need to assume bigger roles and manage larger teams later.”

That she was directed to Gap by a photo of a jazz great somehow seemed fateful. “Jazz was one of the things I came to learn about while living in France. I went to see Dizzy Gillespie. I’d heard many of the songs he and his band performed before, but each time they would add something new.”

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It taught her to learn the score, but not be afraid to add her own riff, “learn the rules and then kind of bend them.”

Belts had been a largely ignored accessory, but one that Chiquet paid attention to. She took particular notice of the fancier belts people were wearing, while the Gap offered relatively staid and old merchandise, almost as afterthought. Working with the company’s production manager, she came up with a new line of fancier belts with a cooler C-shaped buckle.

The problem was: It came at a slightly higher price-point than the Gap’s, which hovered in the $10 range. She got pushback on the price, but was able to get her bosses to give it a try. Of course, it worked, and then her boss complained that she hadn’t ordered enough.

She learned a great deal from that boss. “He was meticulous in terms of the way he looked at the business and I learned a lot about follow-up on details from him. I also learned what I didn’t want to be as a leader. I saw so many young merchants so intimidated by him that they took their focus off their jobs.”

Her successes prompted numerous promotions. And somewhere along the line to the top job at Gap’s Banana Republic unit, the company wanted her to undergo a 360-degree assessment. Chiquet wasn’t pleased with the prospect — at first. She thought that kind of process was only for executives failing at their work.

But it turned out that Drexler only wanted to help her get to the next level. The feedback received was that her team loved working for her, but “I was not appreciative enough of my team,” she discovered. “I was so enthusiastic about what we were doing, I wasn’t taking into consideration their feelings.

“I changed my behavior. It certainly helped me.”

She learned to motivate her team by asking questions. “Leadership wasn’t about asking questions and moving on. It was asking the right questions.” And by the right questions, she means asking questions that allowed her people to discover better solutions.

Transition To Chanel

She was hired away by Chanel in 2003, and spent a year in a comprehensive training program familiarizing herself with the luxury goods business and the company’s storied history dating to founder Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel. While the products she was now responsible for had obviously different price points, some of the management tools she’d acquired at the Gap and L’Oreal stayed much the same.

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The transition wasn’t easy.  She was an outsider and she wasn’t French. She made it work by listening.

Stephanie Kramer, vice president for global marketing for cosmetics retailer Kiehl’s, but 11 years ago a young strategy analyst at Chanel, remembers admiring Chiquet’s “presence.”

“It is of course an executive presence — with confidence and grace, but more than that. It is a thoughtful energy which is engaging and inspiring — she truly listens and is curious. She has the ability to encourage you to change your perspective as a leader, in her words and in her actions.”

Julie Thibault, currently Chanel’s VP of fragrance and beauty retail innovation, was a young strategy analyst:

“In my first meeting with her there was a lively debate among a large group. I remember her looking at me as I said quietly, ‘I have an idea.’ She got everyone to stop talking and says ‘Julie has something to contribute.’ She had just met me, but wanted to let me have my voice.”

Chiquet and Chanel parted ways in 2016 over what was described as “differences of opinion about the strategic direction of the company.” But she left an amazing legacy.

Chanel is privately held and doesn’t release financials. But industry observers suggest that the company’s performance during her tenure — an estimated 13% sales compounded annual growth rate — was twice the industry average.

Chiquet’s Keys

As worldwide CEO, drove luxury fashion house Chanel’s sales performance to twice the industry average.

Overcame: Resistance to the fact that she was an outsider and not French.

Lesson: Ask the right questions — and listen to the answers.

“I learned asking questions is OK. Even admitting that you don’t know the answer. It’s OK to ask for help as you work through problems.”


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