NEW YORK — If she were still around, Coco Chanel most likely would approve.

As operating reins at Chanel Inc. were officially handed over to Maureen Chiquet this week, a new star has joined the ranks of the industry’s top luxury merchants — and she showed up for her debut interview wearing jeans.

Granted, the remnants of a hurricane were pouring through town, obliterating the Central Park views of her new Peter Marino-designed office. But Chiquet has made designer denim a regular part of her working wardrobe at Chanel since she was recruited from the executive ranks of Gap Inc. last May to succeed Arie Kopelman as the company’s president and chief operating officer.

The dressing down was a conscious decision on her part, as Chiquet — an attractive, 41-year-old who is stylish in a modern way — is emblematic of the latest shifts in fashion. Following that logic, she represents the future of Chanel, not only as its president, but also as its ideal customer. Chiquet, who is a working mother of two and runs five to seven miles every day, wore her Seven For All Mankind jeans with a black muscle T-shirt, accessorized with Chanel jewelry and, naturally, a fitted tweed jacket, much as Chanel herself was not averse to mixing a little costume jewelry with an expensive suit.

“The way that people used to approach brands, wearing a logo as a badge, is very different than the way people approach brands today,” said Chiquet, who has spent the past year and a half preparing for her role at the helm of Chanel’s U.S. business, including a nine-month intensive immersion in the Chanel SA corporate culture at its headquarters in France.

Although Chanel and its owner, Alain Wertheimer, have not spelled out their plans for Chiquet, observers have said she is expected to take over Chanel’s global operations in the coming years. During that time, the company — which has traditionally treated the U.S., its largest market, as an independent business from those in Europe and Asia — will likely move to integrate its operations as part of its plan to remain at the top of the luxury pyramid.

Despite the lengthy notice given by the outgoing Kopelman — who remains vice chairman for another four years — and the 15-month, global search for his replacement, the timing of Chanel’s executive transition remains intriguing for a number of reasons, each as complex as the construction of its iconic tweed jackets.

This story first appeared in the October 1, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The luxury business is in the midst of its own sea change, which has radically altered the way consumers perceive not only fashion, but also everything from automobiles to coffee beans, opening up all sorts of opportunities for not only new markets, but also new competition. Chanel, which happens to be riding one of the strongest moments of demand for its product, thanks to the ingenuity of its longtime creative force, Karl Lagerfeld, is operating at peak performance, generating sales estimated at $2.2 billion worldwide. But, as the unique example of a luxury business dedicated exclusively to the more rarified extreme of fashion and beauty, it faces much the same question for its future as it did when Kopelman was recruited to head the American business 19 years ago: How will it remain on top?

In telling their stories in separate interviews, Kopelman and Chiquet may not have realized that they have far more in common than would seem to be the case with two aggressive marketers from different generations and genders. But when they first met, it was apparent they would be fast “pals,” as each described the other. Their common link, it would seem, is that both prize creativity — in this case Lagerfeld’s — above anything, and then the ability to turn such ideas into dollars or francs.

But there are more coincidental parallels in their respective interests, with both having considered film among their early ambitions, both cutting their teeth in the world of beauty marketing and each taking their third jobs at Chanel — with the mind-set that this would be the place where they would ultimately end their careers.

“This was the first time in my life when everything came together,” Kopelman said. “It was all the things I looked to do. It was advertising, it was merchandising, it was retailing, it was running a business. And I loved fashion from a distance — I was one of those rare husbands who didn’t mind when his wife asked him to come and look at two dresses and help her make a decision.”

By Kopelman’s account, Chanel was quite a different place when he joined the company in 1985. The firm was just beginning to open its own stores and Lagerfeld had been designing the ready-to-wear collection for only a few years. The mind-set among many of the long-term Chanel employees he encountered was that the house’s fashion was on a pedestal of its own and shouldn’t be advertised at all, or at least not in the same way that fragrance was promoted.

“The interesting thing for me was that I felt I could play a role in taking Karl’s raw talent and helping market the product,” he said, pulling from his war chest a Kopelman-trademarked proverbial business practice: “If you have the right product, you can have a very good business, but if you have the right product backed by the right marketing, you can have a great business.”

Kopelman is known among Chanel’s primary retail accounts as a shrewd businessman, one with a sense of humor who has endeared himself to the industry with his clever takes on the standards of marketing lingo and his uncanny impersonations of department store figures — “Retail is in the detail, darhlink,” is one of his favorites.

Looking back on his career, Kopelman is like a proud grandfather, recalling Chanel’s expansion in the U.S., now with 16 of its own stores and eight fine jewelry boutiques and more than 90 retail accounts; the introduction of the fragrance Coco Mademoiselle, and his most recent triumph, the 20-month-long negotiation to lure Nicole Kidman as the new face of Chanel No.5 for a Baz Luhrmann-directed commercial debuting Oct. 29 in theaters and Nov. 11 in the New York and Los Angeles markets during “ER.”

It makes this a fine moment to retire, following his 66th birthday on Sept. 23, and the perfect project to conclude his career at Chanel, for if he hadn’t been in fashion, Kopelman said he would have gone into the entertainment business.

Kopelman once even considered a career as a stand-up comedian. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University, where he studied pre-med but majored in art history, he got a job at Procter & Gamble, marketing its Ivory soap bar. As part of his training, Kopelman spent six months in the sales field, in Reno, Nev., where he also took flying lessons, met Bill Harrod of Harrods casino as a classmate and was talked into trying out his comedy routine.

“I was funny and good at delivery, but not great at creating the material,” Kopelman said. “It was kind of disappointing. But what it did point out to me was that I loved creative ideas and making them happen was what I was good at.”

After three years at P&G, Kopelman was lured to New York in 1965 to work for Doyle Dane Bernbach, the advertising agency, where he eventually became vice chairman and general manager. It was there, while working on the Chanel advertising account, that he met Wertheimer. When he decided to leave, Wertheimer persuaded Kopelman to become president of Chanel with the line, “‘I’ll never find another guy whose wife’s first language is French and first name is Coco,’” Kopelman recalled. (Coco Kopelman, his wife of 33 years, is retiring next year in her role as president of the Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and has remained a glamorous ambassador for the Chanel brand.)

Chiquet’s story is equally charming, and she also looks great in Chanel, speaks perfect French and cites the late Coco Chanel as a fashion inspiration. The St. Louis native’s fascination with French culture led her to Paris for the first time at the age of 16, when she studied abroad with a French family. She studied literature and — more specifically, literature as it related to film — at Yale, “because I was most intrigued by how image and sound can be read almost like a text, and how audiences relate emotionally to films, almost as consumers react to brand and product.”

After graduating from Yale in 1985, she moved back and immediately went to work at L’Oréal as a brand manager for hair color, where she worked for three years and met her husband, Antoine.

“I’ve always been adventurous and love to see new things, and so does Antoine, so we decided we had to experience something new and we dropped our jobs and decided to move to San Francisco,” Chiquet said.

She joined Gap 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, where she worked up to the title of executive vice president and was instrumental in building the brand into a $5.5 billion force of its own. She became president of the Banana Republic division in August 2002, 10 months before she was singled out to lead Chanel.

“Given my love and passion for everything French, it was just something I couldn’t refuse,” Chiquet said, adding that, among brands, she could not think of another more rich with its breadth of fashion, skin care, fragrance, fine jewelry and shoes. Then there was the history of Coco.

“I’ve been inspired by Coco Chanel,” she said. “She broke all the rules of her time when she was designing. She pretty much revolutionized the way that women dressed at the time, and in doing that, she modernized the way they looked because they could move more freely in their clothes. When I look at Karl Lagerfeld, who is continually reinventing the business every day, I love that idea there are roots and that in another sense it is reborn.”

Anyone stepping into Kopelman’s shoes would face an anxious audience, given Chanel’s importance as a resource to the stores that carry not only the rtw, but also its cosmetics, fragrance and accessories. Understandably, there is a lot of curiosity among retailers about Chiquet, as she is not widely known among them given her past experience at the vertically structured Gap. At the same time, she is more likely to be welcomed with open arms by stores that are facing their own shifts in executive ranks thanks to a number of leading merchants nearing retirement age or who have moved into new jobs.

“Certainly, it’s difficult to step into someone’s footsteps like Arie Kopelman,” said Fred Wilson, Saks Fifth Avenue’s chairman and chief executive officer. “But the real point is that he has the brand so well organized that it’s a good place for somebody to go in, simply because he’s done such an exceptional job. Chanel is modernized, it is current, it is consistent — it’s an extremely important brand.”

Chanel is also one of the most important resources at Bergdorf Goodman, which recently set a record with a trunk show event that generated upward of $5 million in advance orders for Lagerfeld’s fall collection, a retail phenomenon by all accounts.

“Chanel is at the top of the game right now,” said Robert Burke, senior vice president of fashion and public relations at Bergdorf’s. “The brand still has so much appeal and allure, and I would hope that she would bring it to the next level, which is not an easy task. It’s at such a high and functioning level right now, but the room to grow is still great.”

Chiquet is showing no signs of intimidation, having embraced the company during her lengthy introduction in France, studying its artisanal satellite factories, touring the couture studio, smelling the rose fields in Grasse, conferring with more than 150 employees — from its in-house fragrance creator, Jacques Polge, to Jacques Helleu, creative director — and bonding with Lagerfeld. Kopelman plans to remain actively involved in his role as vice chairman, one both he and Chiquet described as a “sounding board and mentor” to help guide the new president through her early years at the company. She has been an eager and fascinated student.

“I’m like a sponge, I like to listen,” Chiquet said. “What I’ve really taken away is that it’s all about creative. The brand really works. A lot of companies talk about letting creative lead, but Chanel actually does let it lead.”

In the short term, Chiquet said she plans to speak with as many Chanel workers as possible as she formulates her own vision for the future, figuring out how to continue building on the strength of the brand’s current position and keeping it fresh. While current projects, such as the introduction of its Ligne Cambon handbag line, and new products in lipsticks and fragrance are rolling out in the coming years, Chanel executives are talking about the Kidman commercial with the most excitement, viewing it as the final medium to crystallize in the public’s consciousness the rejuvenation of Chanel that has been in the works for years.

“The ad is modern, it is elegant, it is really exciting,” Chiquet said. “Not only will it be an incredible boost to the No.5 sales, it will have a halo effect on the whole brand. That ad really reflects a modern view on the brand.”

So does Chiquet, the mother of two young daughters: Pauline, 11, and Mimi, 8. She is a high-powered executive who is also proud of the time she spends with her bicultural family, and she shops like a woman who understands the value of paying $2,500 for a jacket. While she was working at Gap, Chiquet bought her first Chanel piece on a research trip to Paris several years ago. She saw it at Colette and obsessed about it for several days before she finally returned and bought a tweed jacket, which she frequently wears with any number of designer jeans in her wardrobe. She is an active participant in the expansion of luxury to different customers and different income levels, “the new luxury or the near luxury,” she said.

“It could be things like Starbucks — you now have designer coffee,” she said. “It’s no longer as exclusive as it used to be, and there are implications for Chanel and for everybody. What that forces us to do is to stay one step ahead by continuing to emphasize our creativity and our differentiation.”

Lagerfeld appreciates this development, of course, and Chiquet said she would shop the designer’s offerings at H&M when they arrive in stores next month. (Kopelman said he would buy them “if I like them.”) It is Lagerfeld’s innovativeness in every type of product he designs that Chiquet said “reminds me of why I came into the fashion business in the first place. Every time I came into the studio or go to a show, I am in awe of him.”

When Kopelman accepted his position at Chanel, he recalled thinking that he would live out the remainder of his working days at the company. Chiquet said, “When I decided to do this, this to me was the place I was going to start and finish my career after Gap. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”

Yet neither Kopelman nor Chiquet, who, if her prophesy holds true, would in all likelihood be at Chanel when Lagerfeld leaves, would consider the possibility of what will happen.

Kopelman said Lagerfeld had somehow found a way to do it all, but probably because he’s on the creative side of things, not dealing with the daily nuts and bolts of business. Kopelman even has a marketing slant on his own retirement: “I look at it just like that, as an opportunity to take life to a whole new level. This is all about a really exciting upside.”