Helming the leading couture brand’s ₹1,28,000 crore business empire, Kolhapur-born Leena Nair, Global CEO, Chanel, works hard to ensure the iconic fashion house remains a beacon of inspiration, in multiple ways, for the next 100 years.
By Nichola Marie
In April 2023, Leena Nair, Chanel’s Global CEO, declared that the company would hold on to its privately owned status and remain the world’s second-biggest luxury brand by revenue. Owned by Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, whose grandfather Pierre Wertheimer was an early business partner of founder Coco Chanel, Chanel began publishing annual results in 2018 to “provide the ammunition to remain who we are: private and independent”, as Chief Financial Officer Philippe Blondiaux had said at the time. The disclosures have, however, fuelled speculation that the Wertheimers may be preparing for a possible public listing. In an interview with ‘Financial Times’, Nair clarified, “We’re going to stay a private, independent company. Rumours always float around, but you can put those to rest.” She added that she remains “cautiously optimistic” about the luxury goods market, which is grappling with slowing growth amid a global economic slowdown, high inflation in the US and Europe, and record youth unemployment in China.
Chanel has the right person in the hot seat in these challenging times. Despite the odds, the family-owned, Paris-based group recorded revenues of $17.2bn in 2022, up 17% from the previous year. The company’s financial results are expected to remain quite high thanks to the strong relationships the company has fostered with clients, especially the ultra-wealthy for whom Chanel has opened several “salon privés” within existing boutiques in Asia, Europe and the US.
The brand also continues to invest in multi-day destination events such as the Métiers d’Art show at which Nair invariably marks her presence, dressed top to toe in Chanel. Taking over as CEO at Chanel in 2022, after a whopping three decades at Unilever, Nair is the first Indian national to lead a major luxury brand, in addition to being the first from an HR background. She is the second female boss in the French luxury retailer’s 113-year history. When she was appointed as its Global Chief, she had no prior experience in fashion or as a CEO. Pivoting from her last job at Unilever, operating in 190 countries with a total of 400 brands, to an exclusive luxury label charging premium prices, needed a change of mindset for Nair. “One is about mass, mass, mass — get it out there. This is about rarity, precious, fewer. It’s a completely different world,” she explained. She would spend the first 16 months of her tenure on a ‘listening tour’. Visiting 25 regional offices, 40 manufacturing locations and heritage sites, 100 points of sale, and every creation studio, she set about developing her “100-year vision” for the company. And yes, she also set about learning French! Above all, as she said in an interview with ‘Financial Times’, “As Global CEO, my goal is to ensure that our iconic house continues to be a beacon of inspiration for the next 100 years. And that means constantly investing in disruptive capabilities.”
The Growth Curve
Daughter of Indian politician K Karthikeyan, the 1969-born Nair nee Menon, knows a thing or ten about disruption. Growing up in the small Indian town of Kolhapur, some hours south of Mumbai, she schooled at Holy Cross Convent followed by Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering from Walchand College of Engineering in Sangli, Maharashtra. Among the few women at her college at the time, she went on to complete her MBA in Human Resources from XLRI, Jamshedpur in 1992 as a gold medalist. Her ambition and drive were a cause of worry to her mother who wondered if these qualities would stunt her marriage prospects. In an interview, she revealed, “I’ve spent so much of my life hearing that I can’t do something because I’m a girl, especially, you know, the first 15, 20, 25 years of my life. And then afterward, you stop listening.”
Beginning her career as a summer intern at Unilever in 1992, she later became a management trainee, and went on to hold various managerial roles at Unilever’s India operations. Post 2012, she was moved to the British conglomerate’s headquarters in London. She has built a global reputation for progressive human-centred leadership, delivering significant business impact. Under her leadership, the number of female managers at the company grew from 38% to 50%. She was also part of the company’s efforts to advance different social commitments including paying living wages (a theoretical income level that allows individuals or families to afford adequate shelter, food and other necessities) to all workers across the supply chain by 2030.
Under her stewardship, Chanel has also focused on sustainability and renewable energy efforts. In 2022, it launched a sustainability-focused beauty range, N°1 de Chanel. Nair also increased the funding to Fondation Chanel to $100 million annually; the foundation supports women and girls, in fulfilling their careers.
A Higher Mission
The World Economic Forum describes Nair as a highly respected “visionary leader whose ability to champion a long-term, purpose-driven agenda is matched with a consistently strong track record of business outcomes.”
She has spoken about how she is immensely 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 have a positive impact in the world.” She emphasises that it “was never the power or anything that is associated with being CEO” that attracted her to the job. The main draw for her is the “influence and voice a business can have.” She had received around 7,000 emails and letters from women and girls praising her appointment with the French luxury fashion brand. As she put it, “I’ve been the first at every job I’ve done. The first woman, the first brown person, the first Asian, the first Indian – but I don’t want to be the last, and I am going to try and make it easier for those who come after me.” One of her mottos is “lift as you climb”. Her LinkedIn profile notes that as Global CEO, she is passionate about people reaching their potential through personal growth, the power of creation to inspire and purpose-driven business.
Driven By Purpose
In an article originally published on ‘Thrive Global’, Nair wrote, “People with purpose are more important than the latest technology. It’s time businesses learnt the true power of purpose…”
Emphasising that purpose is the key to everything, she said, “In fact, I would go so far to argue that in this world of unprecedented change, finding our purpose and helping others find theirs, is now more important than ever if both the people and the planet are to thrive. Technology must enhance our humanity not diminish it. Yes, we see incredible new technologies developing each and every day — from AI, to robotics and facial recognition. But we will only be able to harness these technologies and use them to our advantage, if we first discover the very human sense of purpose that makes us all tick. …Purposeful people work smarter, feel happier and live longer. Purpose is both liberating and grounding. By connecting to something bigger than ourselves, we feel united with others behind a common cause. We’re able to forget the fears and anxieties we experience amidst all this change — and instead, feel grounded and empowered to thrive in it. Human purpose is the driving force for business growth.”
She has won numerous awards in recognition of her career including most recently being named in Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business list in 2023, WWD 50 Women in Power List 2023, Forbes India’s W-Power list in 2022, and Role Model of Year in 2021 by The Great British Businesswoman’s Awards. She is part of the Thinkers50 List – Thinkers Who Will Shape the Future of Business. She was also recognised by Queen Elizabeth II as one of the accomplished Indian business leaders in the UK in 2017.
On being chosen for the Global Indian Award, ET Awards for Corporate Excellence in December 2023, she said, “I am humbled and delighted to receive this prestigious award. India has shaped my values; it is where I grew up, where I completed my education, and where I spent 40 years of my life, including two decades of my professional career. This award is a recognition of Chanel, an iconic and admired luxury brand, and our teams across the world. We believe in the freedom of creation, encouraging human potential and acting to have a positive impact in the world.”
On the personal front, she is married to Kumar Nair, a financial services entrepreneur. They have two sons, Aryan and Sidhant.