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Who Is Chanel’s New Global CEO?

The French luxury giant has appointed Unilever human resources chief Leena Nair to lead the business in a time of transformation. ‘Human capital is as important as financial capital,’ she said in an interview with Time in May.
Leena Nair is Chanel's new CEO.
Leena Nair is Chanel's new CEO. (Chanel, Getty Images)

Chanel’s new global chief executive officer Leena Nair doesn’t fit the typical profile of a European luxury executive. But the British-Indian woman is unusual for more than her identity: she is a fashion outsider who has spent decades at Unilever, focused on people, culture and values, most recently as the consumer goods giant’s chief human resources officer.

“I am so inspired by what Chanel stands for,” said Nair on Twitter, following the announcement. “It is a company that believes in the freedom of creation, in cultivating human potential and in acting to have a positive impact in the world.”

Chanel’s current CEO Alain Wertheimer, who co-owns the brand with his brother Gerard, will move to the role of global executive chairman when Nair joins the company in January. (Wertheimer has served as CEO since 2016, when American fashion executive Maureen Chiquet departed after nine years leading the brand).

Nair’s appointment follows several changes to Chanel’s governance and financial structure in recent years and signals a new chapter in its efforts to modernise.

While the brand’s creative hub remains in Paris, where it was founded over a century ago, the company regrouped financial and legal operations in London in 2018. The closely-held fashion and beauty house also reported consolidated financial results for the first time that year, revealing a brand that was even larger by some measures than Louis Vuitton, which had long been considered the biggest luxury name. (While Chanel’s revenues are lower than estimates for Vuitton, analysts believe its overall turnover in retail terms is higher due to the mark-ups by wholesalers on its popular makeup and perfumes.)

While Chanel has repeatedly denied that it is paving the way to a future sale or IPO, the choice of Nair, a 30-year veteran of listed consumer goods company Unilever, may do little to dampen speculation that a deal may be in the works.

The appointment also comes amid a wider changing of the guard at Chanel. Since the death of Karl Lagerfeld in 2019, many longtime employees have left the business, including former head of public relations Marie-Louise de Clermont-Tonnerre and former image director Eric Pfrunder. Recently, Chanel appointed a new head of fashion and beauty PR, Emmanuelle Walle, named former Serpentine Gallery CEO Yana Peel as head of arts and culture and hired a new chief sustainability officer, Kate Wylie, from food and drinks company Mars.

There is a successful history of consumer goods executives taking the helm at luxury brands. Veterans like Henkel alum Pietro Beccari and Procter & Gamble’s Patrice Louvet rose to the top jobs at Dior and Ralph Lauren, respectively, in recent years. But they have typically come from a career in marketing or finance.

Nair, by contrast, has focused on human resources since the start of her career. Born in Kolhapur, India, she joined Unilever almost 30 years ago, rising through the ranks to become the first woman on the conglomerate’s South Asia Leadership team as its head of human resources. She moved to London at the beginning of 2013 when Unilever promoted her to global senior vice-president for leadership and organisation development, and she took on the top HR job in 2016.

Nair’s HR background is unusual for a luxury chief and suggests that Chanel’s greatest challenge may be modernising its corporate culture and embedding stronger values across the organisation as it competes for top talent and dials up its focus on corporate responsibility issues like environmental and labour abuses.

Bringing a strong set of values to supply chain and employee management is “a huge concern for all the luxury groups today,” said executive search specialist Anne Raphaël. “It’s not enough today to be a desirable brand; it’s what’s behind the brand — the people, the values — that also matters.”

Here, Chanel has lagged luxury peers like Kering, which put values at the core of its corporate rebrand. “Chanel has been one of the most traditional organisations... [Nair] is going to be pitching the organization in a different way,” said Raphaël.

“Human capital is as important as financial capital,” Nair said in a May interview with Time magazine.

Chanel took a heavy hit from the pandemic, which sent annual revenues down 18 percent to $10.1 billion last year as the collapse in travel retail punished its beauty division and as its choice not to sell fashion and accessories online damaged sales. But in the first half of this year, the brand bounced back, growing revenue by double digits over 2019 levels.

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