Maureen Chiquet’s Move From Chanel to Self-Empowerment

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Maureen Chiquet’s Move From Chanel to Self-Empowerment

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PURCHASE, N.Y. — On the first floor of Maureen Chiquet’s sprawling home here — past the Kiki Smith bronze nude of a man jutting from a wall and the Dustin Yellin sculpture in the foyer; past the dining room with its “casual” crystal chandelier from a Paris antique market — is a sunroom-turned-meditation room bathed in natural light with a few large pillows scattered around the floor and a Buddha’s head on a low table.

On the second floor, up the curving stair and off to the side of the serene master bedroom suite, tucked away in a dressing room hung with portraits by the painter Alice Neal and some small sketches of Coco Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld, is a walk-in closet filled with multiple pairs of pressed jeans in varying states of fade hung neatly on hangers below a rack of crisp shirts and jackets, which for over a decade almost entirely bore Chanel labels.

But in January 2016, in the middle of the haute couture shows in Paris, Ms. Chiquet, then the long-term global chief executive of Chanel, was abruptly fired. As one of the few women at the top of any fashion brand, let alone the most mysterious and hallowed French one, it was a particularly public fall, and her closet, and life, underwent something of a dramatic makeover.

“In the last three years, I left my husband of 26 years, began a new relationship with Tess and left my job,” she said, curled up with stocking feet in a deep pile couch in her “art room,” an earth-toned living room with a large stone fireplace that features two paintings, a Yayoi Kusama on one wall and a George Condo on another. (“Tess” is Tess Beasley, a leadership consultant.)

Ms. Chiquet, 54, was wearing a Nina Ricci peacock-feather print shirt, and jeans, with her hair in her signature gamin style. “It’s like having your stripes torn off,” she said. “You feel very exposed. There’s no way to avoid the question, ‘Who am I?’”

Ms. Chiquet’s new book, “Beyond the Label,” is a memoir meets professional self-help tome.

She is about to emerge with the answer. This week her book, “Beyond the Label,” is published, a private memoir meets professional self-help tome (the subtitle is “Women, Leadership and Success on Our Own Terms”). The speaking tour comes next. If all goes well, they will serve as a gateway to another life — one that involves not just a new partner and new clothes but also a new exercise regime, potentially a new house and a new career plan.

This could position Ms. Chiquet as something of a cross between Sheryl Sandberg and Elizabeth Gilbert: a life coach/empowerment guru focused on the virtues of defining your own value system professionally, emotionally — whatever.

Since “Lean In” catapulted Ms. Sandberg to fame and rumors of public office, such reinvention has become a trope of the moment; see “Dare” by Becky Blalock, the former chief information officer of the utilities firm Southern Company, or “#GirlBoss” by Sophia Amoruso, the former chief executive of the website NastyGirl.com.

But even in an increasingly crowded field, Ms. Chiquet sticks out — because of her years atop a globally known brand with thousands of employees and, according to Forbes, $5.2 billion in sales, as well as her willingness to use her own experience as a teachable moment.

“I read Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking,’ and it really resonated with me,” Ms. Chiquet said. “I had been through my own, obviously very different, period of grief, both splitting from the husband and then splitting with Chanel, but it made me realize there was a huge need for stories that are real.” Like the time early in her career when she was told a presentation didn’t matter because, “the focus wouldn’t be on my speech anyway,” she said. Or when she sobbed in a restaurant bathroom after her elder daughter yelled that Ms. Chiquet was never there for her, “ever.”

“I never would have guessed that she would have put herself out there like this,” said Millard Drexler, the chief executive of J. Crew Group, who hired Ms. Chiquet as an assistant merchandiser in the accessories division of the Gap in 1988. “I worked with her for years and knew her very well professionally but didn’t know her well personally,” said Mr. Drexler, known as Mickey. “She was always very private.”

Ms. Chiquet, who grew up in St. Louis, was “painfully shy” as a child and eventually escaped to Yale and then Paris. She spent 15 years at the Gap, ultimately becoming president of Banana Republic, after starting her career as a product manager trainee at L’Oreal. “She was very intense, and very smart,” Mr. Drexler said.

She was married at 25 to a L’Oreal colleague, Antoine Chiquet, and had two daughters, Pauline and Mimi, now 24 and soon to be 21. As his wife’s career took off, Antoine took a step back and became the main caregiver at home. Ms. Chiquet was headhunted for Chanel in 2002. Though there were many rumors of friction between her and the designer Karl Lagerfeld, she remained largely behind the scenes of the notoriously private company, where the face of the brand was the designer.

“I spent so long in my career operating in a masculine frame, pushing so hard to be as good as the guy next to me,” Ms. Chiquet said. “We are trained in one direction, and your job becomes such a big part of your life, it spills over into your private life.”

It was, in fact, a corporate exercise in “active and conscious leadership” Ms. Chiquet introduced at Chanel that first got her reassessing her own choices and value system (and how she met Ms. Beasley, a consultant on the project). “I didn’t cry a lot for many years, because you can’t cry on the job,” Ms. Chiquet said. “It’s a sign of weakness. But when Antoine and I separated, I think I cried for three months straight. Now I cry much more. It’s like the floodgates of emotion are open.”

After she was fired from Chanel for what was publicly called “strategic difference,” she retreated to Purchase, in Westchester County north of New York City, turning down offers from new headhunters and private equity firms. “I hadn’t been in one place for more than three months at a time since I was about 25,” she said. “It was therapeutic to just land.” From 10 electronic devices, she went down to two.

These days, when Ms. Chiquet talks, her primary pronoun is “we,” meaning herself and Ms. Beasley; she rarely uses the word “I.” Asked about her typical day, she said, “We usually work out”; “We go into the office”; “We’ve been busy organizing.”

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It was Ms. Beasley who got her into meditation and to stop her “crazy cardio” routine in favor of hiking and yoga. “Before, I would not have considered that real exercise,” Ms. Chiquet said. “My past yoga experience was about keeping fit; now it’s about allowing my body to let go. It’s a big change.” Ms. Beasley has introduced her to Zen koans. Ms. Chiquet made one up: “You’re in the box and the box is in you; what do you do?”

At night, on days they don’t go into Manhattan, they watch a lot of television. “I didn’t get to watch too much TV when I was working; I was exhausted or spending time with Antoine,” Ms. Chiquet said. They binge-watched “Transparent,” “The OA,” “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.”

Ms. Beasley was a protective presence during this interview, and the two have desks cater-corner to each other in their home office (though they are planning to trade down to a smaller house). She helped with Ms. Chiquet’s book, works on her speeches and gets along well with her daughters.

“I feel both liberated and terrified,” Ms. Chiquet said about relinquishing of corporate identity and title. “I was putting together my LinkedIn profile and I thought: ‘What do I call myself? Author? Speaker? Consultant?’” She chose the first two. Still, she was worried. “Do I have a sell-by date? What if this doesn’t work?”

She paused, then said: “I don’t want to hold myself back. I don’t want to do ‘The 10 Secrets for Success.’ I’m much more interested in the raw stories.”

“A lot of what women have been presented as a model is about perfection,” she added. “But then at home it all falls apart. It’s not easy. You have to make compromises. I can’t tell you the amount of time I spent crying on an airplane or alone in a hotel room. But you need to say: This happens. It’s O.K.”

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