Homegrown: Maureen Chiquet
John Burroughs grad and former global CEO of Chanel, Maureen Chiquet is coming to town May 28 to discuss her new memoir, Beyond The Label: Women, Leadership, and Success on Our Own Terms. Chiquet (née Popkin) laughs when we ask her which was harder—writing a book or wrapping her arms around a global fashion empire. “They each had their challenges,” she says. Chiquet, now a New Yorker, grew up in Creve Coeur—a “beautifully green, outdoorsy childhood”—and attributes her worldly ambition to parents who exposed her early to the arts.
How did your JBS education influence your career path?
John Burroughs prepared me for college magnificently. I really enjoyed the school academically and worked hard. So when I went to Yale, I actually found it easier than high school. My history teacher, Ellen Moceri, was a wonderful model of a powerfully feminine woman.
What led you to Chanel?
I had been in fashion since 1989. My husband and I moved from Paris (where I had been working for L’Oreal) to San Francisco. We didn’t have jobs and went on a whim. I loved it there and assumed I’d fall into marketing. I saw an advertisement for The Gap—that photo of Miles Davis wearing a pocket T-shirt!—and I knew at once that was where I wanted to work. I started out as an assistant merchandiser and went on to become executive vice president of merchandising. I joined Chanel in 2003.
What did the Chanel job entail? What was your first day like?
I was responsible for all divisions (fragrance and beauty, fashion, watches and fine jewelry), all stores and boutiques worldwide, and all advertising and PR. My first day, I was the only woman around a table of male execs. They were all European; I was American and, at 43, at least 10 years their junior. I had never been in the luxury business before. What can I say? It was incredibly intimidating!
So perhaps writing a book was easier?
A memoir is very personal, and it’s so hard to have the words you feel in your heart make it onto the page. But the sheer physicality of my life at Chanel was exhausting—being on planes, going without sleep, having to be away from my family.
What surprised you most about the fashion industry?
Its speed. Fashion happens immediately. There’s a reactivity—immediate feedback on what the customer thinks about something. The Internet makes it faster still.
How would you describe your own fashion sense?
I had my first love affair with a Chanel jacket when I lived in Paris, working for L’Oreal. But I created my own look and paired it with jeans. It became a bit of a trademark and seemed to say I couldn’t be categorized. If you are head-to-toe in Chanel, it can look like the clothes are wearing you. But mixing it up becomes much more interesting.
What do you think remains women’s greatest challenge in the workforce today?
We’re making progress with flexible schedules and equity in pay. But there are still too many occasions when we might be noticed for our appearance rather than our work. If we address this, we are made to think we are making a mountain out of a molehill. If we swallow it, it bites into our confidence.
What famous person do you most admire?
I love Michelle Obama. I always say she has strong arms and a soft heart. I admire her for being the woman she is despite all the ways people try to categorize her.
How do your St. Louis roots manifest in you?
I grew up in a wonderfully protected environment that gave me the confidence and curiosity to go out and explore. I worked at Saint Louis Art Museum one summer, and it opened my eyes. It was such a beautiful place to be.
What is your definition of ‘beauty’?
My definition is that there’s no real way to define it. Or that it exists in the imperfections.
What do you do for fun these days?
I love hiking and I really, really love TV. I go to the theater a lot, and am developing friendships I didn’t have time for when I was CEO.
The St. Louis Jewish Book Festival hosts ‘Breaking Fashion Barriers with Maureen Chiquet’ AT 7 p.m. May 28 at THE JCC’S Staenberg Family Complex. The event is free and open to the public.