NEW YORK, United States — Eddie Borgo and Maureen Chiquet are both what one might call “sharp” dressers. It’s a day of downpours in New York, and Borgo is sitting at a conference table in Chanel’s corporate offices, wearing his signature skinny black tie and crisp white shirt. Chiquet — clad in blue jeans and a double-breasted grey Chanel blazer, her hair neatly cropped — sits next to him. There’s something quite meticulous, if not entirely formal, about both of their looks.
But a clearly defined personal style is just one small thing the two have in common. For the past five years, Chiquet — who was appointed global chief executive of Chanel in 2007 — has mentored Borgo, offering insight, assistance and, sometimes, simply a sounding board, as the New York-based jewellery designer has faced the challenges of building a still-nascent brand, which, he says, is profitable — growing 30 percent year over year, with turnover projected to hit $12 million in 2016.
“When you start, you jump in and you have to make decisions very hastily, moment to moment. Not all of them are well strategised or as thoughtful as you would like them to be. Mistakes are made, holes develop,” Borgo admits. “Meeting Maureen allowed me a moment of fresh air. She gave me permission to slow down and to really evaluate what was going on in the business and look at my vision for my brand.”
Chiquet also advised Borgo on the launch of his handbag collection, which debuted this autumn, seven years after the brand was born. The line is scaling in a “very impressive way,” says Borgo, and is budgeted to break even by the end of 2016.
The duo sat down with BoF to discuss their collaboration:
Eddie Borgo: I met Maureen through the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. There's a moment in the fund after the winners are announced where you're invited to Diane von Furstenberg's apartment. They give you your cheque — essentially — and sort of reflect a bit on why you were chosen as one of three winners. And then they announce your mentor, who, in my case, was Maureen.
Maureen Chiquet: Well, Anna Wintour actually called me directly, which was great because I had always really admired Anna and the work that she did at CFDA and supporting up-and-coming young talent. So I felt compelled to contribute, and interested, as I'd never actually mentored a designer. I had been a mentor to many in my years at Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, but never to a talented designer like Eddie. So that was really cool. And recently — what was it, two years ago? — Karl Lagerfeld gave a speech at the [CVFF Awards]. He said something about how being a young up-and-comer will fade, but talent, if you're lucky, will last. In the speech he talked about working hard. I came away from that thinking that whatever I can do to help support creative talent to endure is really, really important.
My approach to mentoring in general is asking a lot of questions and being in conversation and batting around ideas and looking at different scenarios. So I never — you can tell me if I’m wrong, Eddie — but I never told you what to do or even what was the right thing. Because what's great about Eddie is that he has an amazing intuition and an incredible business sense, incredible marketing sense. Above his very clear design perspective, he really has this great already sixth sense of what to do and what to do about the brand in business. So for me, it was really about asking questions and helping him in the confidence. Specifically, we worked on organisational stuff together.
EB: Sales. I think within the first couple months you loaned us members of the sales team [at Chanel] and they helped us put together an analysis of the brand.
MC: I forgot about that. So connecting him with people too. Opening doors. Eddie would come to each meeting with sort of an outline or problem, or questions, and that was great for me. We would talk things through, and sometimes it was just connecting him, like, “I know somebody who knows how to do that.” Sometimes, it was asking more questions of him, so he could get really clear on what he cared about and what he really wanted to do, because nine out of ten times Eddie knew already what the right answers were. In our world, you just need somebody to talk to and help play it out. What else did we work on? The core assortment — you were asking me how to establish core.
EB: Exactly, our core collection. Now that represents 60 percent of our sales.
MC: As a born and bred merchant, it was something I intuitively knew how to do.
EB: And then we worked on opportunities as [potential] investors started to surface. We started to think about an angel round of investment.
MC: What to give, what to not give, what kind of agreements he felt comfortable making and just asking me how I felt about things. It was a lot of sharing. We talked about hiring, what kind of talent he needed. For a lot of people starting a business, you've got a small team, and I thought the thing that would be so good for Eddie and for the business would be for him to be able to focus on design and on creativity — which he had so much of — and start to figure out how to surround himself, with the resources he had, with teams to help him do the other things. Because, Eddie, you're good at everything. But you're probably even better at design. And there was the office space…
EB: Yes, you came down to see the new office after we moved in. During that first year in particular, Maureen was so outrageously helpful. I was saying, before you came into the room, Maureen, that you know, it goes without saying when you're starting your own business your head is so scattered. You're doing so many things, and one of the things that you gave me right away was the clarity to sort of slow down and focus and really take my vision into account. And plan accordingly. Not just agreeing to do everything and sort of trying to keep up with it.
MC: I remember one time, you came and said, "They want me to do cell phone covers!" I just started to think, that's probably an opportunity because everybody has a cell phone. But you know, given all the things that you have to do… do you think that's the thing that you want to pursue? And just even helping him think through so many opportunities. So many people were coming to you with ideas. We talked about what would make a good collaboration, what might not make as good of a collaboration? Always keeping his interests in mind, so sort of continuing to ask him or put that question out there, what's in it for you? What would Eddie get out of it. About two and a half years ago, we started talking handbags. We were at Barneys.
EB: Yes, we were at Barneys.
MC: Sometimes lunch is at my desk — well, at my table — but that's okay.
EB: We have lunch in Paris every once in awhile.
MC: Yeah, it's nice.
EB: Handbags, for many different reasons, were so far outside of the reach of our organisation, simply in terms of resources, that even if it had come up in conversation in terms of doing a minaudière or something smaller, it was an impossibility. We didn't have the resources to manufacture. It wasn't within our reach. There were some conversations about expanding outside of the designer jewellery business into fine jewellery, and we realised quickly that the cash flow couldn't support it.
All the while, Maureen and I were meeting, and she was enabling me to create short-term and long-term strategies. And it was scaling quite impressively at that time. [100 percent annually.] Thank god it slowed down a little bit. But at some point, we had lunch and Maureen brought up this idea of expanding outside of jewellery into a new classification. What did I think about handbags? Maureen was sort of the first person to plant that idea in my head. And it was coming from a merchant perspective as well, thinking about margins and what you can do with the handbag business that you cannot do with the jewellery business. There were lots of different factors that were feeding into that conversation, but...
MC: Given the way that he works metals, it felt like a good place for him to go that could be a stable and potentially larger business than the accessory business. I think I was coming at that from a little bit of a merchant-consumer perspective, just knowing that the appetite would be there given, like I said, Eddie's great talent. It seemed to be a good fit.
EB: Maureen then connected me to a gentleman who has now become the chief operating officer of my leather division. He is based in Paris, but has an extensive, well-rounded background in luxury leather goods merchandising, production and sales. I ended up meeting with him in Paris, while we were showing the jewellery collection there, and he asked if I would visit some of the facilities in Milan and Florence — where we now manufacture the handbags — to get to know the ateliers. It was that trip that made the idea of doing handbags much more concrete. Seeing the craftsmanship, visiting the ateliers, seeing the amount of handwork that went into bags, realising what we could do here in the United States in metal that they could essentially use in the handbag constructions in Milan and Florence. It was this beautiful marriage between two very, very different crafts. And it ended up becoming this wonderful resurgence of creativity and inspiration within the studio, and a true engineering process.
When I was speaking to Maureen about this whole process, I think that at a certain point, and I hate to speak for her, but she was as excited as I was about the ordeal. We had gone through this whole growth process with the jewellery division, and now starting a new division of the business, watching it come to fruition, launching it. I remember sending her a lot of the press coverage that came out, and it was so gratifying. As a young business owner, there are very few moments that stand out as much as when we were able to launch our second category. It was really fulfilling. But it took a lot of thoughtful strategy, especially regarding distribution and expansion.
MC: That was a big thing when we talked. Distribution impacts your brand. Where you’re sold has an impact on your image and talking through that.
EB: We talked pricing, too. We had the brand guardrails that Maureen had helped me through: our brand DNA, who we believe our customer is, who we believe she isn't, and then all of the analysis that either supported those preconceived notions or didn't support them. This packet, which we now use as our brand book, gave us a very clear sense of our customer. What we found was the women who are purchasing our jewellery are also purchasing luxury leather goods. They're wearing our jewellery alongside their fine jewellery, their timepieces. We really felt strongly after doing that analysis that we could carve out a niche for ourselves within the luxury leather goods stratosphere.
MC: It’s interesting. For me, mentorship is a question of affinity. Eddie and I got lucky because we immediately got along. We clicked. But the mentees I've had have usually either been people who have worked for me or somehow or another we find each other within the organisation. When I think about some of best mentors I've had, I think about Mickey Drexler and Jenny Ming, who were my bosses at some point or another.
EB: One of the things that I've learned from Maureen is her vision of leadership. I think that it's so unique and something that, unbeknownst to her, was such a huge gift for me as I was starting a young company. You're so overwhelmed, there are so many things happening. And then in steps Maureen, with such a clear understanding of entrepreneurship through her varied background, guiding me to really follow my intuition, which sometimes is very difficult. The preconceived ways that you feel you may need to run a business aren't necessarily the ways that you need to run it. She also taught me that vulnerability can be very empowering, and it's not a weakness. Those were all things that I really learned from her over the years that we've been in this long conversation with one another. It's been an incredible experience having someone like Maureen there at my side. I really have the ability to reach her if I need to, I don't feel...
MC: Even in a car in Paris.
EB: Yes, yes.
MC: A lot of the work we've done here at Chanel has been around how to rethink the frame of leadership. I think empathy, listening, being vulnerable are often ignored parts of what make really great leaders great and so it's been a mission of mine. Thank you for saying that, Eddie. I'm glad that actually helped you and made an impact.
EB: Well it's very much a part of a mentor-mentee relationship in a sense, right? You have to be vulnerable when you're talking to someone about all of the things that not a lot of other people know about. When we were going through our first round of angel investment, those are very private conversations. To have a confidante and to sort of expose your feelings to someone... Maureen made me feel so comfortable and was so open and communicative. Those are all things that I have now taken back hopefully, and absorbed into my own organisation.
MC: That's so cool, thank you. It's amazing though, being on just the other side of it, and being with Eddie, seeing somebody who actually knew so much more than he actually gave himself credit for. I mean, this incredible intuitive sense. I just remember some of the different options you were exploring. I'd say, “Did you feel good about this conversation?” And he’s say, “No, I don't really feel good about it.”
EB: Yes, sometimes it would be that clear. To have open conversations like that with Maureen is such a gift. Sometimes it would lead me to my own realisations, but a lot of the time it was due, of course, to Maureen's guidance and her expertise and her background.
MC: I learned a lot from Eddie, just about how complicated and how complex it is to be a young designer trying to bring something new into the world. There are incredible opportunities and incredible challenges, particularly for someone who is starting out without financing. But I think it's amazing what Eddie's done. It's such a tough road.
This interview has been edited and condensed.