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Meet the New Female CEOs Shaking up the Luxury Fashion Industry

Fashion has long been made for women – and run by men. But a new cadre of female CEOs at luxury brands are shaking up the industry at the upper echelons, helping shape a more inclusive future.

Alison Loehnis, president, luxury and fashion – NET-A-PORTER, MR PORTER, and THE OUTNET. Vogue Arabia, May 2022. Illustration: Maria West

At first glance, fashion is a female space. Women make up the majority of the front-facing retail workforce, they are the editors we see front row at fashion weeks and it’s female spend that accounts for more than two-thirds of clothing sales worldwide. Yet women seldom get a seat in the boardroom, as men continue to occupy the greater share of the global fashion industry’s top positions.

Gender disparity at executive levels has long been a universal stumbling block. For context, in finance, there’s just seven female chief executive officers leading companies in the Nasdaq-100 index. In tech, only 18% of chief information officer positions in 2019 were held by women, and among large non-profits, a 2018 report could find only 10 women in CEO roles.

Yet the number of women in senior management is increasing, growing to more than 30% globally. From 2020 to 2021, the proportion of women in leadership roles such as chief executive officer, chief financial officer, and chief information officer has increased, with Fortune Global 500 reporting a record high of 23 women CEOs in 2021, with the inclusion of six women of color. In politics, 2022 began with an increasing number of female heads of state, for example, with eight countries swearing in their first female head of government or head of state.

In fashion, however, results are varied. Among fashion companies in the Fortune Global 500, female representation – while not as inferior as in some sectors – amounted to about 24%. With a powerful array of female artistic directors, including Virginie Viard at Chanel, Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior, and Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, more than half of major womenswear brands are still helmed, creatively, by men. In 2020, growth in female presence among CEOs in the apparel industry was promising, increasing by 95%, with more than 100 women stepping into the role of CEO, according to a report by data analytics firm Nextail. However, in its latest report, gender parity in CEO positions dropped by 39.3% in 2021, with fewer female CEOs joining fashion companies than the two years prior. This upended predictions during a year when luxury brands and retailers stood out for bringing in more than 80% new leaders than the previous. Though regrettable, Nextail suggests the backwards momentum is temporary, as businesses aim to “move out of their conservative phase and look for innovation and a new dynamism.”

Miuccia Prada, co-CEO of Prada

In luxury fashion and jewelry, several houses have long-standing appointments of women in top positions, including Michèle Huiban at Lanvin; Alison Loehnis, president, luxury and fashion – NET-A-PORTER, MR PORTER, and THE OUTNET; Benedetta Petruzzo, general manager of Miu Miu; and, of course, Miuccia Prada, co-CEO of her family’s eponymous brand with Patrizio Bertelli. Currently, of LVMH’s 14-member executive committee, only two are women – Delphine Arnault, head of Louis Vuitton products, and Chantal Gaemperle, head of human resources and synergies. Of its eight watch and jewelry houses, only Repossi has a female CEO in Anne de Vergeron, and of its 14 fashion and leather goods houses, four have female CEOs at the helm: Pascale Lepoivre at Loewe, Lisa Attia at Moynat, Sophie Brocart at Patou, and Séverine Merle at Celine. “Empathy, goodwill, and an ability
to listen are the traits we always associate with female leadership,” considers de Vergeron. “I think a women leader is someone smart enough to eradicate those standards. Sharing, educating, and learning always are, for me, the keys to access positions with leading roles while keeping an entrepreneurial mindset. Like the Repossi women, I keep looking forward to staying assertive and progressive.”

Repossi CEO Anne de Vergeron. Illustration: Maria West

At Kering, a long-term endeavor to appoint more women in executive roles has seen one of its six couture and leather goods houses with a female CEO – Francesca Bellettini at Saint Laurent – alongside a more promising high jewelry portfolio. Here, three of four houses have appointed female CEOs, including Boucheron’s Hélène Poulit-Duquesne, formerly international business and client development director and executive member for Cartier and the Richemont Group, who joined in 2015. “I never felt that being a woman was something that could hinder my career, and it turns out that I have always been mentored and promoted by men along the way,” explains Poulit- Duquesne. “What I truly believe is that men and women do not behave the same way in business, but that they contribute differently to the business and that we need both to work well. There are more women than men within my executive committee, and it is super important for me to have both sides, because that’s what gives the best.”

Francesca Bellettini, CEO at Saint Laurent

Research shows that companies with female leaders outperform those dominated by men. Evidence suggests that female leaders tend to be more collaborative than their male counterparts and more likely to engage the power of teams; often driven by a sense of purpose and more empathic. It has found that when women exhibit “typically male” leadership character traits – decisiveness, authority, assertion – they may be viewed as bossy, pushy, or aggressive. Yet when women exhibit “typically female” traits – kindness, nurturing, warmth – they may be perceived as pushovers or too soft.

Boucheron CEO Hélène Poulit-Duquesne. Illustration: Maria West

“We need to fuel the future of our brands and in order to do that, we need to fuel the success of our women,” Gaemperle told the New York Times, adding, “We can do better in terms of getting them into top jobs, but we’ve made a lot of progress already, much of which is to do with our goal of nurturing females, encouraging their ambitions, and facilitating their career paths across both product sectors and brands in order to train them, retain them, and eventually get them into CEO roles further down the line.”

In practice, what does a female leader look like? “First, it is crucial to have a vision. Then, energy and passion to inspire and engage the teams. Finally, kindness is important: being respectful, humble, empathetic, and friendly to everyone, no matter who they are. Kindness is not synonymous with weakness,” underlines Poulit-Duquesne. “What I also believe is that great leaders create a safety circle around their team members. A person who feels safe can express and be sure to be accepted as she or he will be happy at work, be engaged, and will deliver.”

For cognitive scientist Dr Therese Huston, founding director of what is now the Center for Faculty Development at Seattle University, the goal is having women occupy multiple leadership roles, where evidence shows smarter decisions are made. “In February, the Peterson Institute for International Economics analyzed the profits of 21 980 firms worldwide and found that companies where women held 30% of the top leadership roles earned 15% more, on average, than companies with no women on their boards or in their C-suites. With more female senior leaders, they found superior firm performance,” Huston explained in conversation with Forbes. “To be clear, the Peterson Institute didn’t find that having a female CEO led to greater profits. What predicted success was having multiple female leaders, not just one, in the top decision-making roles.”

Nadia Dhouib, general manager of Paco Rabanne. Illustration: Maria West

With regards to luxury fashion, it’s important to note that there is progress, too. This year alone, Tunisian-French Nadia Dhouib was appointed general manager of Paco Rabanne in March, following a long tenure as managing director of Galeries Lafayette Champs-Elysées. And with the announcement of Leena Nair as Global CEO of Chanel in January – making the British-Indian executive first-ever female and youngest CEO of the French brand – could fashion be taking strides to catch up yet? “What I hope to leave for future generations is my definition of personal success, which is about progressing, finding sense, and ultimately serenity. It goes through giving back to others, inspiring them in both personal and professional life, helping and supporting them to grow,” says Poulit-Duquesne. “For me, the fact that I ended up being CEO of Boucheron is only a means for self-fulfilment and for giving back. It is not about the status but more about the impact I can have on changing things while remaining true to myself. This is success to me.”

Chanel Global CEO Leena Nair

Read Next: UN Women’s Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia on Gender Equality: “It’s the Small Things That Add Up to the Big Things”

Originally published in the May 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia

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