Nair’s career at Unilever spanned 30 years, most recently as head of human resources and a member of the company’s executive committee.
A British national, born in India, Nair is a rare outsider at the helm of the tightly controlled family fashion house known for its tweed suits, quilted handbags and No 5 perfume.
The 52-year-old succeeds American businesswoman Maureen Chiquet, who had a fashion background and was CEO of Chanel for nine years until early 2016.
French billionaire Alain Wertheimer, 73, who owns Chanel with his brother Gerard Wertheimer and who initially temporarily assumed the role of CEO, will transition to global executive chairman.
Chanel was founded in 1910 by fashion legend Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel as a hat boutique on Rue Cambon in Paris and has become synonymous with French chic.
The group said Nair, who at Unilever supervised 150,000 people, would join at the end of January and would be based in London. He added that the new appointments would ensure its “long-term success as a private company”.
The recruitment of Nair, who rose through the ranks at Unilever after starting as a trainee in the factory, comes as the fashion industry is under pressure to adopt a more inclusive approach.
Under her leadership, Unilever achieved gender parity in global leadership, according to a Harper’s Bazaar profile published last month, which also highlighted its commitment to paying the living wage throughout the supply chain.
Nair is a non-executive member of BT’s board and was previously non-executive director of the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Chanel has fiercely defended its independence and only began reporting its financial results in 2018. It said in July that it expected to increase sales by double digits this year from their 2019 level, pre- pandemic, $12.3 billion.
Bernstein luxury goods analyst Luca Solca said Chanel is following a trend of attracting senior executives from the consumer packaged goods industry.
“Unilever and P&G stand as management reservoirs for the relatively young luxury industry,” he said, pointing to Antonio Belloni, chief executive of LVMH and former president of Procter & Gamble in Europe, and Fabrizio Freda, also manager of Estee Lauder. P&G veteran.