Why she matters: The CEO of Chanel, she has been the first woman in every job she’s had. Today, armed with the task of steering the luxury label still reeling from the death of Karl Lagerfeld, Leena Nair has the whole fashion industry watching her.
Keep your heels, head and standards high!” Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel had once proclaimed. And today, Leena Nair, the CEO of the legendary designer’s storied brand, certainly adheres to the advice.
Her appointment to the label’s top post in 2021 turned the fashion world on its head. Nair was one of the key international C-suite professionals to have a one-on- one meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his recent state visit to France, and her leadership of Chanel is nothing short of extraordinary.
An engineer by training, the 54-year-old came from a successful career at Unilever, which she joined in 1992. She sold tea in Haryana and Delhi, took on unions and negotiated with well-known trade unionist Datta Samant, and fought to work the night shift. In 2016, she became the “first female, first Asian and youngest” Chief Human Resources officer at the consumer goods giant.
“In every job I’ve done, I’ve been the first woman, whether it was the night shift or on the production line,” she’s been quoted as saying.
In the early 1990s, Hindustan Lever had barely any women on the payroll, but when Nair took over as head of HR of the global company, she ensured 50:50 gender parity within the organisation. A massive champion of diversity and inclusion, she’s considered a trailblazer and is known for her phenomenal energy. In fact, she was answering emails 6 hours after delivering her first baby, a fact she now regrets for setting impossibly high standards for other female employees.
Since taking over at Chanel from Alain Wertheimer, whose family owns the luxury label, Nair has kept a low profile. The brand has faced a number of challenges since losing its celebrated, long- time designer, Karl Lagerfeld, in 2019. While it may take a while to fill shoes of his repute, Nair is not one to shirk challenges. If anyone can pivot Chanel to new heights, it’s this statuesque and savvy Maharashtra- born Indian.
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