Leena Nair: focused on bringing Chanel into the 21st century

Feb 7, 2024


On a crisp November day in Oxfordshire, Leena Nair, the statuesque 54-year-old CEO of the uber luxury fashion brand Chanel, sat inconspicuously in the second row of BoF Voices, a prestigious annual conference organised by Business of Fashion, the fashion focused digital media company. Wearing a gold buttoned red Chanel jacket, with leather pants and short black boots, Nair was speaking at the conference, her first such public engagement after assuming the top job at Chanel, the French luxury fashion house, in January 2022. A 30-year veteran of Unilever, the Kolhapur, Maharashtra, native has been keeping a low profile since her appointment, a milestone moment not just for her, but for the fashion industry as well.

Chanel CEO Leena Nair

Chanel CEO Leena Nair

Indian-origin CEOs have broken glass ceilings in tech, finance, and consumer goods, but the global luxury fashion sector is stubbornly white and male. Nair is the first Indian, first non-white and only the second woman to assume the CEO role in Chanel’s 114-year-history. It is now the only major fashion company with both a female CEO and a female creative director (Virginie Viard).

“Gobsmacked,” is how Nair described her initial reaction when she got the call from Chanel. “I hadn’t seen it coming,” she told Imran Amed, BoF’s founder, who interviewed her at the conference. “To be honest, I was in tears because I loved Unilever so much. I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to leave Unilever.’ And, you know, my husband said, ‘Honey, you’re not getting a divorce. You’re just leaving and joining another company.’”

Chanel, which is owned by the Wertheimer family, is one of the last privately held luxury fashion companies, with annual revenues of more than $17 billion, from the sale of clothing, leather goods, beauty, skincare, perfumes and cosmetics, jewellery, watches and eyewear, sold across its 310 boutiques (the brand’s iconic Maxi 2.55 handbag, for instance, retails for $11,500 while a classic tweed jacket starts at $6,000). Its charitable outlay is about $100 million annually. In a freewheeling and candid chat with Amed, Nair said she decided to take the plunge to join Chanel because of fashion’s enormous impact and influence, and because of its philanthropic work with women and girls globally. She received 7,000 emails and letters from women around the world when her Chanel job was announced.

“Leena Nair’s appointment as Global CEO of Chanel was a watershed moment in fashion. Whereas most luxury megabrands hunt for executives from within the industry, Chanel made the decision to hire someone with no fashion industry experience — someone who came through the HR function and someone who is a woman and South Asian. All of these make Leena a unique leader. She is also very inspiring as she is an authentic and clear communicator who has been busy listening, learning and crafting a vision and strategy for Chanel. I see this as a bid to modernise the corporate culture of Chanel, which has historically been a very discreet — some might even say secretive — organisation. So much of the work that Chanel does remains a mystery to its customers, at a time when they expect the brands they buy from to uphold a shared sense of values.”Imran AmedFounder and CEO, Business of Fashion

Meeting challenges head on

Nair has spent the past year and a half on touring and visiting 100 Chanel retail outlets, factories and offices, from Panama to Pacific Palisades (in Los Angeles), interacting with people on the shop floor, taking senior executives to meet innovators at Google and Disney, and pushing Fondation Chanel, the company’s charitable arm. She has spoken of supportive mentors like Indra Nooyi and Nigel Higgins of Barclays; her deep experience in HR has made her hone in on the importance of human capital.

She has taken a cautious approach to the press, giving very few interviews. Instead, she has focused on how to bring Chanel, which has a reputation for being conservative and somewhat stodgy — it doesn’t have an e-commerce presence except in beauty — into the 21st century. Nair’s aim, she said at Voices, is to concentrate on innovation, by investing in 30 startups tied to academic institutions, and in pushing sustainability and philanthropy.

Leena Nair and Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel, with King Charles III during a visit to the 19M Campus in Paris.

Leena Nair and Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel, with King Charles III during a visit to the 19M Campus in Paris.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

These days Nair finds herself hobnobbing with King Charles and Queen Camilla, French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a world away from the industry in which she cut her teeth: mass, fast moving consumer goods. Not one to shy away from a challenge — she describes herself as having accomplished many ‘firsts’; she was educated in Kolhapur’s first school for girls and hers was the first batch to graduate. She was constantly told ‘girls can’t do this”, she said at Voices. “After a point, I had to stop listening. I remember my mother saying, ‘Oh, my God, you’re so ambitious. Who’s going to marry you?’ This is such a problem. And, you know, the sort of comments I would get is ‘You’re so talented, you should have been a boy.’”

Queen Camilla and French President’s wife Brigitte Macron with Leena Nair at Chanel’s 19M Campus.

Queen Camilla and French President’s wife Brigitte Macron with Leena Nair at Chanel’s 19M Campus.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

She did, in fact, get married, through an arranged marriage, to Kumar Nair, a financial services entrepreneur. The couple have two sons and live in Wimbledon. During the pandemic, Nair lost her mother to COVID; her father, who has dementia, lives with the couple.

‘I have the principles of running a business’

Despite the barbs growing up, Nair studied electronics and telecommunications engineering at Walchand College of Engineering in Sangli, Maharashtra, and received an MBA from XLRI, Jamshedpur, where she earned a gold medal. She joined Hindustan Unilever as an intern and in 1992, as a management trainee. Nair says she was often the only woman on the factory floor of HUL’s industrial estates around the country. “Every morning, as the buses came in with the workers, there would be a pause at the gates of our factory so everybody could look out, peep at me and then go through because I was such an alien,” she said. She was instrumental in putting in bathrooms for women on the factory floors — jokingly referred to as ‘Leena’s loos’ — and quickly rose through the ranks.

Although trained as an engineer, Nair worked in human resources, not the sexiest division in any organisation, yet she managed to shine, using her analytical skills to approach thorny personnel issues. Under her tenure Unilever went from 38% representation of women in managerial roles to 50%.

Leena Nair and Bruno Pavlovsky arrive at a state banquet at the Palace of Versailles.

Leena Nair and Bruno Pavlovsky arrive at a state banquet at the Palace of Versailles.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

Anil Chopra, the former head of Lakmé, which HUL acquired in 1998, worked closely with Nair for over a decade. He recalls meeting her initially when she was a junior manager helping oversee the cosmetics company’s integration into the consumer goods giant. “She was open, understanding and very frank to say ‘I don’t know too many things and I have to learn,’” Chopra says. He also notes that Nair had an innate curiosity and was able to soak in different aspects of the business rapidly. He remembers that she was made a mentor to her own boss, who had a prickly management style. Pradeep Banerjee, who headed supply chains at HUL and also worked closely with Nair, describes her as someone “driven by unwavering passion” — especially around inclusion and diversity.

These days, Nair is in head-to-toe Chanel, but when Lakmé Fashion Week first started, she used to joke with Chopra that she would attend but didn’t know how to dress! “She would be at every fashion show and I could see that slowly her dress sense at work underwent a change. Smarter but not over the top. Earlier, she would be in typical Indian wear like a sari or churidar kurta. It then moved to trendier, up to date Indian fashion.”

As for being viewed as the ultimate outsider in a notoriously insular industry, Nair has a befitting reply. She told Amed: “To be honest, I know global sales, scale, size, and how to manage 150,000 people. I have the principles of running a business, the principles of bringing home the bacon, of being a leader who can engender followership that is transferable across industries.” Perhaps the adept, subtle yet steely Nair is precisely what a 21st century fashion brand needs.

The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist and author.

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