Twenty years ago, Chanel President and Chief Operating Officer Maureen Chiquet ’85 walked out in the middle of her LSATs to pursue a career in cosmetics in France.

“I took that test because I wasn’t sure what to do with my life,” she said. “But I turned it in halfway through because I realized that I belonged in Paris, and everything started there.”

At a packed Calhoun College Master’s Tea yesterday, Chiquet described her journey to the top of the luxury fashion world and spoke on the challenge facing Chanel to be an innovative brand that simultaneously preserves its renowned sense of tradition.

Chiquet assumed leadership of Chanel in October 2004 after working for several years with L’Oreal hair color in France and then with Gap Inc. for 15 years. During the tea, she spoke on her recent transition from working with mass-market industries to leading one of the world’s most prominent luxury brands.

“I’ve always wanted to know what made big brands like Chanel so attractive and recognizable,” she said. “I was intrigued by how someone across the room can pull a Chanel lipstick out of a handbag and everyone will know where it’s from.”

Chiquet said she disagrees with Chanel’s reluctance to expand its online store. The company, she said, fears that selling any Chanel products other than cosmetics online will spark a “gray market” backlash that will tarnish the company’s reputation.

“I personally see no problem with expanding to sell handbags and other stuff online in the future,” she said.

She said that Chanel has always been a cautious company, which is why it has been more hesitant than its competitors to enter the booming Chinese market.

“We’re going to let our competitors make the first mistakes in China before we move in,” she said. “We already have an incredible following there, so it’s definitely on our radar.”

Chiquet also discussed the latest efforts to keep Chanel young and fresh. She cited the recent Nicole Kidman perfume campaign as an example of the company’s desire to be innovative while retaining traditional elegance.

“We have to stay modern if we want people to keep on aspiring to own our products,” she said. “You have to break apart convention and then put it back together to get something new and interesting.”

Responding to a question about how Chanel markets its haute couture, she said Chanel never markets its exclusive high fashions, but rather works on the long-term goal of preserving its image. Couture is a means of keeping the brand visible and letting designers use their creativity, she said.

“There’s no reason to make the couture less exclusive,” she said. “We want Chanel to be a house of luxury forever.”

Still, Chanel is looking at ways to make the brand more accessible to customers, Chiquet said.

“I know our stores and boutiques can be intimidating,” she said. “I always wear blue jeans, and I feel intimidated when I walk into one of our stores — and I’m the president.”

Chiquet advised students who hope to work in the fashion industry to accept that their careers will not initially be exciting.

“It’s not going to be really sexy in your first few years,” she said. “Make sure you love the industry, because you will be cleaning closets and filing.”

During the tea, Chiquet dispelled recent rumors that Lindsay Lohan will become the new Chanel spokesperson.

“No, I don’t think so,” she said with a laugh.

Students said they thought Chiquet was interesting and informative.

Mona Elsayed ’08 said she was intrigued by Chiquet’s insight into the sustainability of the haute couture industry.

“I think Ms. Chiquet has vision and is in this industry for the love of it, not to make a buck,” she said. “Her passion for couture despite how unprofitable it can be really speaks to her business personality.”

Henri Benaim ’06 said he felt some parts of the talk were more enjoyable than useful.

“Her message of following one’s passion, though maybe cliched, really seemed to come through in a genuine way since she credited that to her incredible career history,” he said.

Chiquet is currently working with art directors in Paris on an advertising campaign to publicize one of Chanel’s new perfumes.