Fashion houses hiring women CEOs

Luxury brands are putting women in top leadership positions

Balenciaga chief executive Isabelle Guichot says taking on the top position is largely dependent on personal circumstances.
Balenciaga chief executive Isabelle Guichot says taking on the top position is largely dependent on personal circumstances. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • For a multi-billiondollar industry propelled by female purchasing power, global fashion is a notably male-dominated industry, both creatively and commercially.

While the gender imbalance in designer hires often grabs headlines because their talents play out in the limelight, female chief executives historically have also been few and far between, despite a recent spate of high-profile appointments.

But there are signs that this is one industry-defining trend that may no longer be in vogue.

In the last 12 months, French luxury group Kering, which owns brands such as Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent, recruited as chief executives Sarah Crook for the Christopher Kane brand, Helene Poulit-Duquesne for Boucheron and Grita Loebsack for its couture and leather goods emerging brands division. The appointments doubled Kering's female chief executives to six, out of 22 brands.

In combination with the work of the Kering Foundation, which combats violence against women and promotes women's rights, gender equality appears to have rapidly become a priority, with boardroom recognition that it needs more universal resonance.

Ms Patricia Barbizet, vice-chairman of Kering's board of directors and chief executive of luxury auction house Christie's, both of which are controlled by the Pinault family, said: "Kering has been among the first to pay attention to gender equality at all levels of our organisation. It doesn't only walk the talk in putting into practice gender equality and women's rights. Talent has no gender and there are many qualified female candidates everywhere. Why would we deprive ourselves of this talent pool?"

Now that female university graduates outnumber male ones roughly two-to-one worldwide, simple maths dictate that there will be more female candidates for executive jobs.

But there is a subtler element that may be a catalyst for the change in attitude: a major cultural shift towards the empowerment of women with its effect on consumer value systems and the resulting new way of thinking about customer engagement in an era when average fashion shoppers are more educated and digitally savvy.

With women responsible for 85 per cent of luxury sales this year, luxury brands need to speak to female hearts, minds and wallets at every level of the business.

LVMH, the world's largest luxury conglomerate with a portfolio of more than 70 brands, appears to be focused on taking a bottom-up approach. Fourteen per cent of its chief executives are women, as are four of its 17 board members, although women make up 74 per cent of its workforce worldwide and 73 per cent of its annual graduate intake.

Ms Chantal Gaemperle, executive vice-president for human resources and synergies at LVMH, said: "We need to fuel the future of our brands and to do that, we need to fuel the success of our women.

"We can do better in terms of getting them into top jobs, but we've made a lot of progress already, much of which has to do with our goal of nurturing females, encouraging their ambitions and facilitating their career paths, to train them and eventually get them into CEO roles."

A continuing question, of course, is whether there is anything wrong with women's consciously choosing to be No. 2.

Dr Simon Nyeck, a professor at Essec Business School in France and the academic director of its MBA programme in international luxury brands management, noted that while about 80 per cent of his incoming students were women, and many had gone on to senior management roles, "proportionally this is still a business run by men".

He said: "Historically, most women we've taken on the course have wanted to focus on branding and marketing. They are brilliant at what they do, but haven't fully comprehended the unglamorous sides of luxury, such as supply chains, balance sheets and operational management.

Amid lingering sexism and the struggles of many women with families to find a work-life balance, another considerable challenge is how to offer a springboard to the women in middle and senior management roles who decide life as No. 1 is simply not for them.

Balenciaga chief executive Isabelle Guichot believes that taking that last leap remains a personal choice, often dependent on external personal circumstances that go beyond flexible work arrangements or maternity leave.

"I would never have got to where I was today without the support of my partner, if I'd had to make choices that were too painful," she said. "I was lucky."

Ms Crook, who was appointed chief executive of British brand Christopher Kane after working as a vice-president at Stella McCartney, said: "I think in luxury fashion, there was a time when women were perhaps more associated with creative and marketing roles, but I think that is very much historic now.

"It is no secret that women are typically strong multitaskers and as the industry today demands higher standards and greater pressures across multiple areas, we have the propensity to make good leaders and stronger emotional connection with our teams," she continued.

"It's easy to make gender stereotypes, but at the end of the day, it is about having the right skill set to fulfil multiple functions, regardless of gender. That should always be the deciding factor in appointing senior management."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2015, with the headline Fashion houses hiring women CEOs. Subscribe