To Malaysians well-versed in luxury, be it from an industry or consumer point of view, Cynthia Lim, the long-serving managing director of Chanel Malaysia, is instantly recognisable. After all, Chanel remains one of the most coveted brands in the world — and certainly one of the luxury industry’s best-performing. Even as economies and businesses struggled to find their footing in a pandemic-ravaged landscape, Chanel’s sales soared. Reports say its revenue for 2021 increased by 23% to a whopping US$15 billion. But for a brand that was founded by not just any woman but the legendary Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel who championed many firsts — including liberating women from restrictive corsets by way of looser silhouettes and even unorthodox trousers, which enabled more freedom of movement, and owning her own business in an era where women were still excluded from most forms of work — Lim’s role as its driving force in the country is surely a fitting reflection of the maison’s founder and her trailblazing spirit.
Lim, who was hired to establish Chanel Malaysia in 1997, recalls starting with around 60 employees and less than 10 points of sale. “It was fragrance and beauty to begin with,” she says. “Fashion only entered the Malaysian market in December 2000. But those early days were fun, having to find furniture and choose the colour of the carpet! From a shoplot space in Kampung Pandan, Kuala Lumpur, we then moved to Menara Chan and, now, UBN Tower.” Today, Chanel Malaysia has 300 employees managing the company, its retail operations and its own distribution centre.
Operations aside, what the general public is interested in most is, of course, the brand’s dazzling stores. Besides its KLCC flagship, Chanel Malaysia experienced great success when it opened its first ephemeral shoe boutique in Pavilion KL last November, so much so that more stores are currently being finalised to offer the latest from the Chanel universe, particularly fragrance, beauty and footwear. “Our points of sale are always being updated,” Lim shares. “We want to offer the latest concept and services. What the ephemeral store taught us is that Malaysia was ready for a full-fledged shoe boutique as it gave us time to learn the traffic patterns and customer preferences. So, we were pleasantly surprised when the response was better than what was forecasted.” At present, Chanel Malaysia operates 30 points of sale, including its fashion and shoe boutiques, 11 fragrance and beauty boutiques and 17 counters in major department stores and in airports nationwide.
Having started from the ground up, Lim recalls the early days, when travelling to Paris to do the fashion buys entailed selecting from books of sketches. “Everything was manual then ... I remember all of us having a pouch with a ruler, eraser and highlighter as well as notebooks and paper. Just like all other industries, methodology and efficiency have improved all work processes tremendously,” she says. “Even stepping into a Chanel boutique is such an experience now. It’s not just about a manager, assistant manager and salesperson. We have people in dedicated customer service roles — fine jewellery specialists, style experts, watch experts. In the KLCC store alone, as well as make-up experts and skincare specialists in our fragrance and beauty boutiques, we have 60 different staff to ensure that every visit to any of our Chanel boutiques is a special one.”
A TASTE FOR FINE THINGS
Lim was born in 1963 into a close-knit Melakan-Peranakan family; her mum was a homemaker while her dad worked for construction equipment giant, Caterpillar Inc. The eldest of three girls (her sisters are Carolyn, seven years her junior and head of HR for Fonterra, and Cesarine, 10 years younger and who coincidentally heads up another top-flight luxury brand in Malaysia, Tiffany & Co), Lim shares how two boys were also born — but, sadly, lost — after her. “Maybe that’s why we were all so loved by our parents,” she muses bitter-sweetly. “We were a simple family, in a simple household. We lived in a terrace house in Taman Jaya but always made the most of holidays and celebrations and had to have pretty things, even if it was just once a year, during the Lunar New Year. We are Baba-Nyonya, after all, so I guess this love for Chinoiserie, antiques and finery is deeply ingrained.”
It is no secret in Malaysian culture that the Baba-Nyonyas are famed for their love of jewellery and opulence, where even the tiny little glass beads used to fashion their famous beaded slippers called kasut manik had to be imported from Bohemia or how the kerongsang (brooch) needed to fasten the baju panjang (long dress) had to be crafted out of ornate gold and was often studded with berlian (diamonds). “I credit this appreciation of refinement and beauty to my mum,” Lim says lovingly. “It wasn’t like we were rich but she taught me how things needed to be done neatly, properly ... as halus (refined) as possible.”
It makes sense then that Lim remains enthralled with the story of Mademoiselle Chanel and all that she represents. “I never stop being amazed at how visionary and inspirational Coco Chanel was. She was way ahead of her time and I never tire of sharing with our customers her many firsts ... from using jersey, a man’s fabric in those days, to creating wearable, beautiful clothes, to cutting her hair short ... even creating bags with straps so women could free their arms. It might not sound important but it was a little step towards giving women more freedom and empowerment. Even after 25 years, I have not stopped learning more and more interesting facts and anecdotes about her.”
Lim also lets on how she is personally inspired by Chanel’s inner strength and resoluteness. “There was always purpose behind everything that happened to her, even the bad things,” she explains. “She always took learnings from her experiences or let it be reflected in her work. For example, her use of tweed was inspired by her love affair with the Duke of Westminster, while her brief dalliance with a cousin of the Tsar of Russia introduced her to the richness of Russo-Slavic design, later initiating the trend of Byzantine influence in modern fashion. This truly resonates with me ... I believe in fate. I believe something always happens for a reason. What matters is how you come out from it, taking the learnings and best practices and being all the wiser for it.”
EAST TO WEST
That her chic French flair and light Nyonya lilt can still be detected whenever she speaks animatedly might surprise many as Lim spent almost a decade studying and working in Canada. “I didn’t want to go abroad but my parents insisted.”
When pushed a little, she confesses: “Yes, it was because I had a boyfriend here then,” she laughs. “I was happy and didn’t want to leave home. But my parents, who were pleasantly surprised by my Form Five results, despite my playfulness, encouraged me.”
They said, “So many children want to study abroad. Some have the grades but no money. Some have the money but no grades. You have both, so what are you doing?”
Lim was duly packed off to the Great White North. “I remember crying every day. Luckily, I had a cousin, a year older than me, at the same university — in New Brunswick. And then three Singaporean girls arrived ... one of them became my roommate — and that made it bearable. How different it is today, where the parents follow their children, find apartments for them, settle them in ... In my time, you go on your own, find your own room, pay maybe 200 dollars a month and only meet your roommate for the first time when you move in. You somehow just had to make it work! But it’s all part of life’s lessons, teaching you to adapt and be more empathetic.”
Besides the super cold winters and numerous ferry rides to nearby picturesque Prince Edward Island, it was in Canada that Lim was forced to grow up — and fast. Midway through her degree, the recession hit Malaysia and her dad faced some unexpected financial difficulties. “I started working immediately to put myself through the last year of university,” she says soberly. “It is very humbling when you get a call from your mother, apologising for sending the bank draft late. They didn’t want to have to borrow money and I later found out mum sold her diamond bracelet to help out. How could you not cry upon hearing that? And although my university years were full of fun, the lesson I really learnt was that of parental sacrifice.”
It was perhaps this hard bite of reality that sowed the seed of Lim’s deep work ethic. Sometimes juggling two or three part-time jobs to ease her parents’ financial burden, she would often not even be able to sit down to a meal. “I’d finish at one place, grab a sandwich and walk while eating to the next,” she grins.
It was at one of these temporary gigs, though, that Lim got her first taste of the retail sector. “I was working part-time in a lingerie shop. Of all places, right? But I think this is what makes the difference.” As someone who always sees her cup as half-full, Lim looks back fondly and proudly at those challenging times and feels it helped shape her sense of determination and positive-mindedness. “People who achieve success are often never negative, you know? They never see the cup as half-empty but half-full. I never focused on the difficulties but was happy to free my parents from having to cover my expenses. Don’t forget, they still had two daughters to educate after me.”
Within half an hour of chatting with Lim, it is clear that family — and not her enviable career nor her equally enviable wardrobe chock-full of Chanel clothes and handbags — is what she holds most dear. The whole family — sisters, children and all — make it a point to gather every weekend.
Despite her punishing schedule and workload, Lim, a single mother, also unabashedly dotes on her only child, Bianca. Both have just returned from Japan where they celebrated Bianca’s milestone 30th birthday. Having travelled minimally despite the massive reopening of borders worldwide — “Just to Penang, Singapore and a sisters’ trip to Bangkok” — Lim made sure to pull out all the stops for her daughter, with sightseeing trips to Kyoto’s famed Arashiyama bamboo forest, and Tokyo Disneyland on her actual birthdate itself. “You get a sticker saying ‘My Happiest Birthday’ and all the characters who spot it will come up to you, wish you and clap excitedly for you,” she laughs. “It’s hilarious and Bianca loved it!”
It is at the mention of her daughter’s name that Lim’s expression immediately softens, turning wistful. “In a way, Bianca grew along with me and Chanel. I mean, she was just five years old when I started with the company and I remember how the staff used to hide their handphones whenever I brought her to work as she just loved to, literally, push all the buttons,” she laughs.
THE GRATITUDE ATTITUDE
Despite record sales overall, Lim shares how Covid-19 did severely impact one important arm of the business — travel retail. “We run our own points of sale at the airports and they are tremendous contributors to the business. Then, suddenly, it’s a case of ‘From hero to zero’. But that also showed me just how amazing the team is — truly in a league of their own. They never complained, despite the uncertainty or their erratic hours. Some had to get up at 4am in order to be at the airport by 7am, some even moved from the city to Nilai, just to be closer to their place of work,” says Lim admiringly. “It showed me how the people I work with also think like Chanel did ... of finding the opportunities within the challenges.”
Lim is also grateful for the many mentors she has had the opportunity to work with throughout her career. True to form, Lim singles out the person who gave her her first big break in the Malaysian retail scene. “I must thank Pauline [Liu, then of FJ Benjamin but who now runs the ever-popular House + Co in BSC, Bangsar] who gave me my first insights into fashion and luxury as a brand manager for Lanvin. It was she who took one look when I walked in and said, ‘Oh, you are tall. You have good presence’,” Lim recalls, “and somehow pronounced I would do well with the French brand. It’s funny how things turned out. Lanvin only sold men’s suits then but I did do well. So I’d like to think retail chose me. Also to be honest, I was very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.” Another guiding light was Fabrice Weber who took her under his wings at Lancôme and who then opened the door to join him at Chanel, leading its Malaysian operations. “I was only 34 and will forever be grateful for the invaluable lessons and opportunities.”
With things nearing normalcy and being well aware that her coterie of clients are criss-crossing the globe once more, Lim begins winding up the chat by generously sharing her tips for enjoying a few days in Paris. “If you are lucky enough to visit Mademoiselle’s famous Rue Cambon apartment, you must of course sit on the spiral staircase and take a picture. I personally just love to walk and walk, particularly around Place Vendôme in the evenings. The weekends should be spent in Montmartre and the Sacré-Cœur to watch the artists at work. You must also eat profiteroles — my favourite pastry — at the Brasserie Flottes.”
It is perhaps this ability to never allow herself to get jaded or forget the pleasure of the simple things that has helped Lim stay so grounded, so real, despite decades working in the rarefied atmosphere of high fashion and luxury. This is best demonstrated when asked what would be the one thing that pleases Lim most about the City of Light. “I have been to Paris so many times but I can tell you, I still love it. It’s special. But what’s even better is seeing the expressions on the faces of my colleagues who are visiting for the first time. I love looking at them when they catch their first sight of the Eiffel Tower. I love seeing their excitement which, in turn, excites me all over again. That always makes my day.”
Also ever-conscious that there are many young people out there who dream of a career in fashion and luxury, she dispenses some precious parting advice. “Be curious and stay driven. Always have passion for what you do. Be open to change. Value people and stay agile so you can be adaptable. And, most importantly, have a sense of purpose, relevance and courage in the things you do.” After all, if there is one thing that Lim’s life has proven, it is not just fortune, but also fashion, that favours the brave.
This article first appeared on Nov 28, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.