When Maureen Chiquet stepped down as CEO of the fashion brand Chanel in 2016, she suffered a crisis of wardrobe as well as identity. It was part of the unique challenge of being a high-powered businesswoman in a business that catered to women but in a male-dominated business culture.
Chiquet will be one of the speakers at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce’s New Jersey Conference for Women, on Friday, October 27, from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Westin Princeton. In addition to speeches, there will be workshops, giveaways, and more. For information, visit www.njconferenceforwomen.com.
The conference will also feature a speech by Melissa Stockwell, an Army officer who lost her left leg to a blast from an IED while on patrol in Baghdad in 2004. She was the first female soldier to lose a limb in combat and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. She went on to compete in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics and became a world champion paratriathlete.
Chiquet grew up in St. Louis, attended Yale, and abandoned her ambitions of going to law school to become a marketing intern at L’Oreal Paris. She rose through the ranks in the fashion world, joining Chanel in 2003 and becoming CEO in 2007.
Chiquet’s conference speech will be her first appearance in Princeton. A literature major, she wrote about her experience in her book, “Beyond the Label: Women, Leadership & Success on Our Own Terms,” published in April and excerpted below:
Shortly after I left my position as chief executive officer of Chanel, I had a panic attack. I had decided to clean out my closet and store my impressive assortment of Chanel jackets, bags, and shoes in the basement. It was a psychological and metaphorical purging of sorts, meant to make room for a new identity. Besides, I had worn the same uniform for nearly 13 years — any variety, shape, color, or texture of a Chanel jacket and skinny J Brand jeans.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. It’s any woman’s dream to slip her arms into the delicious silk-lined sleeves of a plush tweed jacket, and I fully appreciate my luck owning and wearing so many of these exquisite creations. But the same silhouettes that had once caused me to stand proudly in the mirror now felt like they belonged to someone else, to a different time in my life.
Even though I had brought my own twist to the classic Chanel look — pairing even the most delicate couture jacket with torn jeans and motorcycle boots — these days I yearned to reclaim my own true style, inside and out. So that explains the shock: my closet was nearly empty once I’d packed everything away. My jeans, ribbed American Apparel tanks, and Smattering of Hartford printed shirts would never be suitable for a job interview, let alone dinner in the city with friends.
That’s when I texted Jeffrey, an old friend and the owner of the eponymous Manhattan boutique, for help: I needed a new look. Stripped of my usual confidence, I entered the store under the icy scrutiny of a row of pristinely dressed mannequins. Their porcelain stances seemed to mock my comparatively disheveled appearance.
As if out of habit and in an attempt to reassert my style credibility, I reached out to touch the clothes and evaluate the fashions on the first set of T-stands and racks in the men’s section. See, I know what’s hot, I tried to claim. They stared back in silence. I worked my way back past the shoe department, haphazardly picking up a silhouette or two while desperately hoping help would soon be on the way.
Usually I longed to be left alone during store tours with colleagues, hoping to experience a boutique like a customer. Not this time. No one seemed to notice me so I pressed on, breathing a sigh of relief upon entering the more discreet and familiar women’s section. Hiding behind the racks, I rummaged through the newest fashions pondering what might work. Holding one after another of these lovely garments before me I tried to imagine myself wearing something so different from my daily uniform. As if by default I kept gravitating to the fitted tweed jackets and had to force myself to sort through blouses, blazers, and even fuller-cut pants.
Just as I was starting to feel like a fashion failure Terrance, one of the store’s personal shoppers, tapped my arm, warmly introduced himself, and offered to be my chaperone. He led and I followed in a dance from one designer to the next. “These pants are really cute but I don’t really wear wide-leg silhouettes. I’m too short and they’ll make me look stumpy. Besides, the waist is too high. I generally don’t wear Celine. The styles are too boxy.”
There I went with all of my biases. My first reaction to nearly everything was at best reluctance and at worst, outright rejection; but as I look back, I wasn’t really rejecting the clothes themselves. I was struggling to imagine myself taking on a new identity —and letting the old one, which had served me so well, go.
Terrance nudged me to consider new looks. “Just try this one, you’ll see. It looks completely different on. The real action started in the dressing room. Arms loaded down, Terrance beckoned two other associates to help solve my fashion dilemma. Style after style, including brands I had never wanted to consider and some I had never really heard of, floated into my dressing room until every wall was festooned with a gorgeous array of shimmer, shine, texture, and color.
As I tried on different outfits, the woman looking back at me in the mirror smiled broadly; I was giddy with a sense of newfound freedom to reinvent myself. It’s not that I didn’t love who I had been: after all, being CEO for the pinnacle of luxury, working with such talented teams, living part-time in my beloved city, Paris, and meeting wonderful artists, had added up to my dream job. But now it was time to shed that label and redefine myself.
I mean, let’s face it: it isn’t really about clothes. Leaving Chanel, I had to begin to reimagine myself entirely. I suddenly found myself the leader of nothing more than my own life. What would it feel like to wake up without a conference call to China or a hundred e-mails to answer? How would I fill up the now empty spaces on my habitually overstuffed calendar? With both of my daughters grown and away from home I didn’t even have any doctor’s appointments to organize or daily advice to give. Who was I now, and who did I want to be? It’s so easy to confuse our identities with our positions, titles, or roles. And maybe they do define us for a time along with a host of other monikers like mentor, CEO, wife, or mother.
We assume and take on all sorts of different labels all the time, and it can be scary when we begin to notice that those once-comfortable suits no longer seem to fit or represent who we truly are. But I have learned that these constructs are far more fluid than they seem, whether they are foisted upon us or self-imposed. It’s not simply a matter of shedding the expectations others set for us but, so often, shedding the narrow or rigid standards we’ve set for ourselves.
Getting comfortable with the ever-changing, less definable “you” underneath the roles we play in the world takes courage, time, and a willingness to keep pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone. For me, being curious, observing with my eyes, ears, and heart wide open, immersing myself in something new, testing what speaks to my soul, and continually asking myself what I care about, what I love, and why I am doing what I am doing — all of these things have helped me move beyond many labels over the course of my life.
And for you, too, there may be moments in your career or your life where you find yourself no longer the person you want to be, or in roles that no longer express enough of who you are. And like me, you will have to make a choice: accept the form you have taken on or make a change, even if it starts simply by changing into some new clothes of your own choosing.