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Breaking Free from Chanel: an insider's perspective on the brand and sustainability

Working for Chanel, I have been privy to the company’s internal culture, operations, and strategy. Like many others, I was in awe of the grandeur the brand had cultivated since its inception in 1909 by its namesake founder. Starting as one of the flagship boutique managers in Avenue Montaigne, I was immersed in a world of dream and aspiration carefully designed to uphold an elite client experience. In luxury, branding is not only on the product or the marketing material that we see, but it trickles down all the way to the selling ceremony in the store and the after-sale service. 


I started as the very first BIPOC manager in France and thanks to the visionary director of Montaigne, she understood the importance of bringing someone on the managerial team from the same culture as one of our fastest growing customer segments: Chinese. Indeed, how can the company craft a genuine client experience without truly understanding the client? In the boutique, we act as a host inviting our most important guest to explore the world of Chanel. My purpose was to illuminate our guests' culture and expectation so our team could offer an authentic welcome and impart a truly luxurious moment.


During my time at Montaigne, we had numerous exceptional client events that magnified the brand’s story and marketing. The most published and visible ones are the fashion runways. Since the Montaigne boutique was literally 5 minutes walk from the Grand Palais where most of Chanel’s runways were held, we naturally joined the exciting events and hosted the runway after-party with all the VIPs. Celebrities and their stylists would flock to our boutique, days beforane, in preparation for the occasion. Outfits would be picked and fitted for the few elites. A whole lot of arrangements needed to be made for a mere 30 minutes fashion show, but the anticipation, excitement, and energy in the air seemed to magically amplify the affair. In a post-COVID world, questions about the sustainability of fashion shows rightfully emerged. Luckily, creativity has always been the source of these shows and finding creative means to lower our footprint as well as innovative ways to broadcast the designer’s creations are exciting challenges for future runways.

My main passion has always been in relishing in Chanel’s design and craftsmanship. Each collection starts with a story and then expands with every look and finally settles with every piece. The genius of Chanel lies in its curation and styling but the treasure is in the craft. I participated in the buying sessions and was able to savor the innovative materials and workmanship of each product. My biggest learning is, despite popular belief that quality equals durability, sometimes quality is fragility and subtlety. Imagine a very rare pearl adorning a Chanel tweed jacket; its quality is in the subtle shimmer under a flash of light. But I doubt it would be durable enough to withstand the tumbling of a home washing machine. Learning the spectrum of quality, it inspired me in thinking innovatively about materials. And when I discovered a young startup that was recycling leather with a mission of lowering waste in a leather show at Milan, my creative senses piqued.

My break with Chanel literally ripped when I learned about the practice of destroying unsold goods as a regional business strategy. An insurmountable frustration stemmed from my drive for a more positive impact. But truthfully, I was starting to question the sustainability of the below criteria:

  • Use of raw materials (specifically leather and exotic skin)
  • Transport of finished goods
  • Physical foot print versus digital expansion (retail & marketing material)
  • Waste management (packaging, manufacturing, & operations)

In 2016, I could not find adequate answers to my questions and the lack of transparency was disheartening. When I pitched for better practices, they were not the company’s priorities yet.

The extended lock down of COVID was a blessing in disguise. It forced the world to pause and notice the change in our climate. No longer do companies disregard the importance of sustainability and the hope is that Chanel will no longer brush aside eager young managers who wish to improve practices from within. I, on the other hand, am immensely grateful for all that I have learned and the trajectory of my post-Chanel path. After all, Chanel has learned to embrace change with their Mission 1.5º Climate Action Plan to 2030.



 Blog by Kathleen Kuo (@kathleenkuo_ )

Kathleen Kuo is Founder of Opus Mind and Community Chief. Coming from over a decade of experience in fashion and entrepreneurship, she started her career doing design, business strategy, and retail management for brands like CHANEL and Christian Dior.

 📸 photo credit @henri.lajarrige.lombard (cover) & @NajlaCam via Unsplash



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