Chanel Picks Luxury Industry Outsider Leena Nair as Its Next CEO

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Leena Nair, as human resources chief at Unilever, participated in The Wall Street Journal’s Women In Series last month.



Photo:

The Wall Street Journal

LONDON—French luxury group Chanel SA poached consumer-goods executive

Leena Nair

to become its chief executive, reaching outside the fashion market for leadership as it strives to recover from the industry’s pandemic slump.

Ms. Nair has been head of human resources at consumer-goods and packaged-food giant

Unilever

PLC. Alain Wertheimer, who owns privately held Chanel with his brother Gerard, will move from the CEO role to executive chairman early next year, Chanel said in a statement.

It’s relatively rare for luxury companies to hire top executives from outside the industry, which has traditionally favored insiders or—in the case of the many family-run fashion houses—scions of the business founders. One notable exception with parallels to Ms. Nair’s move:

Estee Lauder

Cos. tapped

Fabrizio Freda,

a snack-food executive at

Procter & Gamble Co.

, to become its chief executive in 2009.

In swapping fast-moving consumer goods for luxury, Ms. Nair joins a sector that analysts say is poised for rapid post-pandemic growth. Bain & Co. forecasts that global luxury revenues will rise from an estimated €283 billion, equivalent to $320 billion, this year to around €370 billion, or $418 billion, in 2025.

Chanel, whose lines include fashion, fragrances, jewelry and skin care, was the world’s sixth largest luxury group by revenue in 2020, according to Deloitte, with sales of $10.1 billion. Like other big luxury groups, Chanel’s sales took a hit from the pandemic, declining 17.6% in 2020 relative to the year before. That compared with an 11% decline for

LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton

and a 17.5% decline at

Kering SA

.

A newcomer to the luxury business, Ms. Nair will be based in London, where Chanel has had its global headquarters since 2018. She has spent three decades at Unilever, most recently as the Anglo-Dutch company’s chief human resources officer, and is also a nonexecutive board member of British telecoms giant

BT Group

PLC.

The trend of traditional consumer goods companies buying newer cosmetic brands is only increasing, and skin care specifically is experiencing an exceptionally lucrative boom. But analysts suggest that some of the more recent acquisitions in the beauty industry are the first signs a skin-care bubble may pop.

Write to Trefor Moss at [email protected]

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Appeared in the December 15, 2021, print edition as ‘Chanel Finds Its CEO Outside of Fashion Industry, at Unilever.’