What Leena Nair’s arrival at Chanel means to fashion

The very fact that Chanel is now a company with two women in top positions makes Nair’s appointment all the more historic



By Sujata Assomull

Published: Wed 15 Dec 2021, 8:04 PM

Last updated: Wed 15 Dec 2021, 8:12 PM

Leena Nair was the talk of fashion this week. A graduate of Jamshedpur’s XLRI, Kolhapur-born Nair has been appointed the new global CEO of Chanel, a position that comes right after her 30-year stint with Unilever. It is news that is being welcomed by those inside as well as outside the fashion industry, and the reasons are aplenty.

While she is not the first person to make the shift from FMCG (Patrice Louvet, for example, the President and Chief Executive Officer for Ralph Lauren since 2017 came from Procter and Gamble), what is interesting is that she comes from a human resources background and was Unilever’s Chief HR Officer.

Louvet held numerous executive positions at P&G across North America, Europe and Northeast Asia, and joined them in the marketing department and rose to become group president of the company’s global beauty.

The human element in fashion has never been more important than now, and anyone who has worked with Nair talks about how people-focused she is. As transparency becomes the buzzword in fashion, as we all become more aware of the need to be sustainable in our consumption choices, and as industry watchdogs are quick to expose any mistreatment of workers — a company’s approach to people and the planet has become as important as what they produce.

Historically, fashion has been an industry where being opaque about production methods was considered normative. For a brand to give away and divulge manufacturing practices would be like a Michelin chef giving away his recipes.

However, as it became apparent that fast fashion was not alone in crimes towards environment and to its workers, luxury has had to defend itself. Whether it’s Burberry burning excess stock, or revelations of how little Indian craft workers — who work on collections for top luxury houses — are paid, or the fact that creative directors have complained of burnout due to the number of collections they are now expected to produce, consumers are beginning to question luxury fashion houses and are demanding transparency.

In many ways, Leena Nair’s appointment is very much in line with the heritage of the company. When it comes to luxury, Chanel is a brand that is known for its craftsmanship — they hold an annual show called Métiers d’art, which is about showcasing the work of their artisans.

One of the best-known brands in the world, Chanel is still an independent label — and not part of the two giants that dominate this multibillion-dollar industry (LVMH and The Kering group). Owned by the Wertheimer family, Nair will be taking over from Alain Wertheimer, who co-owns Chanel with his brother Gerard, and now becomes the global executive chairman.

The only other fashion company in their position is Hermès. Both companies always made choices that are slightly out of the box. For instance, Chanel promoted Agathe Derain to be its first-ever head of human rights last year and was charged with providing guidance on social justice issues and identifying potential risks in the supply chain.

This year, Chanel has reported double-digit growth. Even at the worst stages of the pandemic, it fared better than most of its competitors. It’s unsurprising, given that Chanel has always been one step ahead of the game right from the time Coco Chanel put women in jersey dresses.

Their choice of Nair hopefully signals that luxury is now understanding that we need to put people at the heart of the industry. Of course, profit matters (and anyone who has worked at an FMCG understands the importance of this), but individuals are what make a company.

On Instagram, Nair says, “I am inspired by what Chanel stands for. It is a company that believes in the freedom of creation, in cultivating human potential and in acting to make a positive impact on the world.”

A bonus is: Nair is a woman (and let’s not forget Chanel is a label started by a woman that primarily caters to women) and also an Indian — so, it very much plays into the other huge conversation fashion is having right now... that of inclusivity and diversity.

Leena began her career at Unilever’s Indian subsidiary in 1992, and now becomes the second Indian-origin woman to take over as a global CEO after Indra Nooyi, who happens to be Nair’s mentor. Though other women have held senior positions at Chanel, including Maureen Chiquet, the timing of this appointment is interesting as the brand’s current creative director is Virginie Viard. She succeeded the iconic Karl Lagerfeld and despite being his right hand for many years was not a known name in fashion until her appointment in 2019.

The very fact that Chanel is now a company with two women in top positions makes Nair’s appointment all the more historic. It is an indication of what post-pandemic luxury will be about, where profit will be as important as people and the planet. And when fashion will finally become more inclusive and diverse.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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