Maureen Chiquet shows up to a Midtown photo studio with two different looks in tow, opting for the less formal fringed chocolate brown suede Saint Laurent jacket, slipped on over a creme-colored silk camisole with jeans. Her casual-luxe look is an apt translation of her decades-long business career in retail, which is the subject of her memoir-style book “Beyond the Label: Women, Leadership and Success on Our Own Terms,” out April 18 on Harper Collins’ HarperBusiness imprint.
“Someone once said to me that writing a book will change your life — and it did,” says Chiquet, her slow, controlled speech reflective of her years of leadership training. “It got me clear on what I cared about, because you’re tracing back your entire arc of a career, and your family life, and who I want to be. And I think it helped — there was a way that it was therapeutic.”
Chiquet began writing the book three years ago, when she was still working at Chanel as the brand’s first global chief executive officer, inspired by her experience as a woman ascending the corporate ladder. Chiquet, who began her career with L’Oréal in France, later moved to San Francisco and rose through the ranks at The Gap, as a merchant under the tutelage of Millard “Mickey” Drexler. She also helped launch Old Navy and was president of Banana Republic before being recruited for the Chanel post in 2003.
“The book started when I started thinking about leadership,” she continues to explain. “I had started a leadership initiative called Active and Conscious Leadership at Chanel, really trying to get us all to broaden our perspective on what good leadership looks like. I started writing because the work that we did to shift our culture into those behaviors is yielding amazing results. People were feeling really great about what we were doing. Innovation was really starting to grow in the company. I thought, ‘I should share this,’ because I felt like other companies could benefit and other readers could benefit.”
Chiquet exited the brand in 2013, and anyone reading in hopes of juicy intel from her years at Chanel will be disappointed. She is much more detailed about her time behind the scenes at The Gap Inc., describing the emotional boardroom moment of Drexel’s firing in 2002. Drexel was an influential mentor for Chiquet — her loyalty to him is evident in her writing, and he provided a cover blurb for her book.
Working across France and the U.S. over 30 years has given her perspective on being in business as both a woman and mother, and what factors enabled her to rise to the top.
“I think we have made a lot of progress in terms of hiring a lot of women; unfortunately, the statistics of only 4 percent of ceo’s in this country [being] women are still a little low in my mind,” she says. “I used to have this notion, or this preconception, that good mothers did certain things. So, good mothers stood on the sidelines of every single soccer game. They went to the school events, they went to the swim meets and they worked sometimes, but they showed up at places that they needed to be all the time. And it was really hard for me in the beginning because I couldn’t do that. I’d chosen to work.
“Antoine, my then-husband, had chosen to stay home and take care of the kids, and we figured out how to create a life that worked for us and for the kids. But, I think it’s still hard for women to figure out that perfect formula. No perfect formula exists,” she continues. “It was an interesting and painful and enlightening moment for me that [realizing] this idea of having it all is kind of one of those things that’s set us up to fail.”
Chiquet writes that her hire at Chanel was driven by an alignment of values and shared understanding — although her résumé and track record at The Gap Inc. certainly helped her get the job. While the retail landscape has changed drastically since she graduated from Yale in 1985 — not least the rise of e-commerce — she maintains that loyalty to core values is critical for brand health, and also for becoming a successful leader.
“The cool thing about being at a historical brand — and Chanel for me, obviously — is you’re constantly figuring out how to tap into that incredible well of history and identity that already exists, while making it new and exciting all the time. And that balance and figuring that balance out ends up being sort of the crux of the work,” she says. “What I’ve seen is that brands that do really well are brands that fundamentally have a purpose. It’s somehow deeper than, ‘we want to sell really beautiful clothes with labels on them,’” she continues. “Why do you exist? What would happen if you never existed? Those are questions that lots of brands don’t ask themselves, and that’s why you see the closures and all of the different things that are going on today in the industry.”
While Chiquet is vague about whether — or when — she will return to the retail world, she is enthusiastic about continuing her commitment to the female leadership beat, at least until other inspiration strikes. She is already thinking about her next book.
“I was thinking about this on the way over: every job I’ve had has come from inspiration,” she muses, when asked about what qualities would bring her back to a brand. “I had the job at L’Oréal because I loved France. I was so inspired by the beauty that I saw, by the way the French looked at beauty. That’s what inspired me to go to Paris and get that job. Going to The Gap, I thought I was a marketer and I had the marketing label, and I walked down that street and saw that Miles Davis poster and Annie Leibovitz picture. I had no idea at the time who Annie Leibovitz was, all I knew is it was incredibly beautiful and it said something beautiful to me about the brand, that you can wear this T-shirt and be who you want to be,” she continues.
“And then Chanel — I learned about Chanel’s story, that iconoclastic woman who broke all the rules and changed the way that we all get dressed, and did something sort of long-lasting and enduring. So, I guess my best answer is that where the inspiration comes, I’ll move in that direction.”
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