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Chanel Looks Ahead: The Search Begins For Kopelman Heir

NEW YORK -- Chanel SA and its U.S. subsidiary, Chanel Inc., are getting serious about succession planning, and are on the prowl for a new U.S. chief to eventually replace Arie Kopelman, WWD has learned.

Kopelman, among the most visible figures...

NEW YORK — Chanel SA and its U.S. subsidiary, Chanel Inc., are getting serious about succession planning, and are on the prowl for a new U.S. chief to eventually replace Arie Kopelman, WWD has learned.

Kopelman, among the most visible figures in the fashion industry, holds the title of president and chief operating officer of Chanel Inc. and reports to Alain Wertheimer, chairman of Chanel SA. However, Kopelman’s role has extended internationally, and it is believed that his successor would assume a role that could be even bigger than his.

Kopelman couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

Sources said Heidrick & Struggles, the nation’s second-largest executive search firm, has just been retained by Chanel, suggesting that the search process will be broad, going beyond retail and fashion into other industries, possibly consumer products and advertising. Fifteen years ago, Chanel plucked Kopelman from Doyle Dane Bernbach, a Boston advertising agency, shocking many retailers who never thought Chanel would select someone without retail or fashion experience, though Kopelman did work on the Chanel account at DDB. Before that, he worked at Procter & Gamble.

Kopelman is said to have set his retirement at December 2004, though he might remain on the board after he leaves his executive position. A search for a successor could take several months to a year, which would still facilitate a long transition period. Often, transitions are trying times, resulting in a tug-of-war for the reins of power and confusion over who’s the boss and reporting structures.

Most likely, Chanel will pick an outsider, but has not totally nixed the notion of tapping an insider. Top insiders at Chanel Inc. include Jean Hoehn Zimmerman, executive vice president of sales and marketing for fragrance and beauty for Chanel, and Barbara Cirkva, executive vice president for fashion. Another is Francoise Montenay, president of Chanel SA. Anyone in the new role will be required to spend much time in Paris, where the $2 billion Chanel is based.

Sources credit Kopelman with forging strong relations with retailers and magazine publishers and keeping Chanel in high standing as one of the world’s great brand names, maintaining its sophisticated, elegant appeal, broadening the product range, most recently into such categories as jewelry and watches, and all without taking its products on a promotional path, even in difficult times. He is also credited with leading a slow and careful retail expansion in the U.S., and being very selective and patient in choosing locations for new stores.

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Kopelman is 63 and turns 64 in September.
It’s possible that while the company must deal with the issue of succession, it must also consider bringing in new talent with fresh ideas, given the ongoing luxury downturn. Like other mature brands, Chanel must maintain a balance between serving its loyal following and seeking a new, younger audience.

The company is owned by the Wertheimer family. Rumors that the family would consider selling the business or that its star designer, Karl Lagerfeld, was leaving have popped up from time to time, but are not considered very credible. Lagerfeld has emphatically denied such rumors; his contract runs to 2004.

Founded 90 years ago by Coco Chanel, Chanel garners much of its energy from the creative drive of Lagerfeld, who has been with the house since 1983.

Chanel appeals to the classic customer, and has a core following, but also keeps current, particularly with its cosmetics and colors without getting trendy. Its top door for cosmetics is reportedly the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship here, though Barneys New York, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s are also said to be top venues.

During his long stint with Chanel, Kopelman has been about as visible as anyone on the social and charity scenes.

“Chanel is not very promotional, and because of that, it’s more challenging for the company to individualize the offerings to retailers,” said one retail source. “But Chanel does it to some degree, with some new products, some exclusivity and some special events that they would provide to stores.”

“Chanel has been a good business for us,” said another top department store executive. “But like any business, it’s had its 360s. When a trendier line comes out, Chanel could take a dip, but then it would bounce back. It’s been a good, stable brand.”