NEW YORK — Chanel Inc. has confirmed the appointment of Maureen Chiquet as its president-elect, finding an eventual successor to Arie L. Kopelman from the unlikely ranks of Gap Inc.
Chiquet, a 14-year veteran of Gap who became president of its Banana Republic division in August, was named to succeed Kopelman as president and chief operating officer, but not officially until he relinquishes his operating duties in January 2005 to become vice chairman of Chanel’s board. In the interim, she will move to Paris for a year to study the Chanel SA corporate culture, before returning to the U.S. subsidiary Chanel Inc. next fall, Kopelman said.
Following a report in WWD on Tuesday, Gap said in a statement that Chiquet was resigning as president of Banana Republic and that the company would consider internal and external candidates with strong merchandising and retail apparel expertise to determine a successor in the division.
Chanel’s search for Kopelman’s successor began in February 2002 and reached a global scale to locate candidates with a combination of people skills, bilingual abilities and leadership characteristics that would reflect the values of the privately held firm, one of the world’s most prestigious luxury brands with more than $2 billion in global sales.
It raised some eyebrows that the ultimate selection came from Gap Inc., where Chiquet’s background included successful launches of belts and side-zip stretch pants at Gap to running the Old Navy franchise, yet both Kopelman and Chiquet expect a fruitful transition.
"It will be very different," said Chiquet, who will move from San Francisco to Paris in June or July. "But there are some things I know I can bring with me. I have a deep love for product and design, first and foremost, and I also bring a balance between my love for product and creativity and analytical skills."
Chiquet, who is 40, is also a self-described Francophile. Born in St. Louis, Mo., she spent her junior year studying in Paris while attending Yale University and couldn’t wait to get back after graduation.
"I took the plane straight to Paris," she said. "I got very lucky and started a job at L’Oréal as a brand manager for hair color. It was amazing training."Chiquet also met her future husband, Antoine, working at L’Oréal, and after three years, they decided to move to the U.S., picking San Francisco by pointing on a map. She sent her résumé to Gap and was accepted as an assistant merchandise trainee in accessories in late 1988. After developing the belt and accessories businesses, and then women’s skirts and pants for Gap, Chiquet was called over to Old Navy as it was being launched in 1994, although she was hesitant.
"I felt I was predestined more for the luxury sector than Old Navy, but I thought it would be more interesting for me to get into another consumer mind-set," she said, and worked up to the title of executive vice president as the division reached sales of $5 billion. "Whether you are at a company as prestigious and wonderful as Chanel or one as great as the Gap, it’s really about understanding the customer."
Kopelman was similarly discovered through an unusual source, coming from Doyle Dane Bernbach, a Boston advertising agency, more than 15 years ago, where he had worked on Chanel’s ad account. Having committed to remain as president of Chanel Inc. through December 2004 and vice chairman through 2008, he expects Chiquet will blend into the Chanel corporate culture because of her people skills, as well as her level of comfort with both the creative and analytical sides of the business.
"As a general rule, there are people who are very creative, but not analytical, and people who are analytical, but do not understand creative," he said. "We felt it was important to find someone who is comfortable on both sides of that equation, and that is especially important in the luxury field."
He dismissed any question of whether the perception of a Gap background would portray the right image for Chanel, asking, "What is image? Image to me is very quickly shaped by what people do and how they perform. We felt on the specific axes of what we were looking for, that this executive measured up in a terrific way. Where she came from in terms of image doesn’t mean anything, and Banana Republic has done a pretty good job. What is important about where she came from is her experience base. She has a very strong merchandising background. It may not have been at the high end, but she has a real feel for the product and will be a quick learner to the luxury field."Kopelman also pointed out Chiquet’s year in France will be a "total immersion process."
"She will be able to get a good picture of what it’s all about," he said. "When she comes back, she will be able to take over with a lot of experience under her belt. She will have the view to look at areas more closely where there is room for improvement. She has that kind of focus and perspective and that’s important."
Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s designer since 1982, said he had not yet met Chiquet but was familiar with her background, praised her accomplishments and said her familiarity with French culture would likely make the transition "easier."
Yet Lagerfeld’s focus, as ever, remains trained on the creative side, making two couture and almost a dozen ready-to-wear collections a year for Chanel.
He described Kopelman and his wife, Coco, as an "extremely charming couple," but said he did not get involved in the U.S. subsidiary and its business strategy. Lagerfeld, whose contract at Chanel is believed to run until at least the end of this decade, liaises directly with Chanel SA chairman Alain Wertheimer, Paris-based president Françoise Montenay and Bruno Pavlovsky, general manager of fashion and accessories.
Chiquet’s performance at Gap, particularly Old Navy, has been lauded by her colleagues, as she helped build the business almost from inception and launched many of Old Navy’s most iconic products. According to Gap officials, she led marketing teams to adapt these products and market them, investing heavily in key items through such programs as the "item-of-the-week" and circulars.
"Old Navy was about developing a brand strategy," said search executive Elaine Hughes. "It was hot for awhile and driven on price, cheap product and a fun environment. I think it is a stretch moving to Chanel, but I understand that sometimes you have to think out of the box. This raises the question as to what Chanel’s strategy is, going forward. She’s not someone with exposure to the luxury market. It’s not like Rose Marie Bravo going from Saks Fifth Avenue to Burberry and already knowing the luxury customer. There will be a steep learning curve in a difficult economy where disposable income has been affected.""Although we regret to see Maureen go, we understand and respect her decision," Gap Inc. president and ceo Paul Pressler said in a statement. "Maureen has the opportunity to join a legendary fashion brand and give her family the chance to once again live in France, where her husband is from and where she began her career."
Some sources believe Banana Republic has a tough road ahead, first in finding a suitable successor to Chiquet and with former Gap ceo Millard "Mickey" Drexler now heading up J. Crew.
"J. Crew will be a direct competitor to Banana Republic," said David Diamond, partner in Highland Partners executive search. "Mickey Drexler is raising price points, focusing more on fashion and strengthening the image. For example, he’s putting one item on a catalog page for a stronger message, whereas before there could be 10 items on a page."
"There are not a lot of places Banana Republic can go to on the outside to find a suitable successor to Chiquet," said Kirk Palmer, of the search bearing his name. "You could look at J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Limited Inc. divisions and other vertical specialty retailers."
Others noted that there’s been lots of turnover in the specialty arena this year, with several top retail executives currently between jobs. Among them is Kim Roy, former head of Ann Taylor; Rob Bernard, formerly with Limited Stores; Kathy Bronstein, former ceo of Wet Seal, and Beth Pritchard, who ran Bath & Body Works. Also, Ken Pilot, who left J. Crew when Drexler stepped in as ceo, and former Jones Apparel Group president Jackwyn Nemerov, are both said to be available.
As for Chiquet, she’s busy lining up a new wardrobe.
"Unbeknownst to me that this would happen, I bought my all-time favorite Chanel jacket two years ago, but I’ve been purposely wearing it with jeans," she said. "I look forward to dressing head-to-toe in Chanel."
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