A Story of Home interview on International Women’s Day
Emilie Chabenes followed her instincts to rise through the ranks of the company she had always wanted to work for, and followed her dream to one day live in the city she had fallen in love with as a teenager. On International Women’s Day, she talks to us about her love of work, London and the women who mean the most to her.
A Woman with a Plan
As a young woman, Emilie Chabenes knew two things for sure, that she wanted to work for Sandro, the brand that redefined French fashion, and that she wanted to live in London.
Raised in Strasbourg, she applied for a Christmas temp job with Sandro in Paris. “It was only a two-month contract, but I decided I was going to go for it and see where it led me. My mum told me to pack a bag in case the interview went well. I didn’t want to tempt fate but was glad I listened to her, because they asked me to start the next day.”
It was another mother-daughter conversation, a few years earlier, that had led to the start of Emilie’s love affair with London. “My mum is a big influence in my life. She asked me, at a pivotal point in my youth, ‘What do you want to do? What drives you?’ I said without hesitation, ‘I want to speak English.’ She laughed and said, ‘Okay, fine. That’s very particular, but sure. Find something that is meaningful and where you can speak English.’ So, I became an au-pair and moved to Cambridge when I was 19. I lived with a British family and studied English.”
And most weekends, she went to London. “I could not believe the amount of culture on offer, all the museums and galleries. My favourites were the Saatchi Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum. I still go regularly, stroll around, take it in. I developed a taste for West End shows like Agatha Christie, because the plot lines really helped me develop my English. I loved the scale of London, the energy, the diversity, of its people, but also of things to do and the moods of the city. I liked that the different neighbourhoods have such distinct atmospheres.”
Very quickly she knew that she wanted to make her home here one day, to live and work in London.
Citizen of London
“I was 25 when I became a citizen of London,” she says, proudly. “Sandro made this happen for me. I left Paris and took up a job as assistant store manager in Westbourne Grove.”
Emilie enjoyed the elegance of Westbourne Grove and the hang outs of Notting Hill, and when she moved across to the company’s Selfridges concession, she fell for the village buzz of Marylebone, where she lived and worked, and for the first time, felt like a ‘regular’. She loved her time living in the West End but discovered that it was Dalston that felt like home. “The first time I went east, it was love at first sight. This is me, I realised, this is my London.”
“London is eclectic. People are interested in you.”
“I love early morning in Dalston. I take our dog for a walk in Hackney Downs, leaving my phone at home. In fact, I don’t look at my phone before I head out. I have an hour like this before I allow the world into my day. Often, I have the park to myself before people arrive with their dogs or walk their kids to school. London life is starting, and I love that feeling and that sense of belonging to the neighbourhood. This city is eclectic. No matter where you’re from, no matter how your English is, people are interested in you.”
Having been promoted to the role of sales director for Sandro in the UK & North of Europe, Emilie’s office is based on Regent Street. “Taking the overground and tube into central London is my reading time, my precious book bubble. It’s my moment of peace and serenity before going up the escalators and into the daylight, and then it’s ‘showtime’. With my job, you breathe in deep and throw yourself into the day. I can do that with genuine enthusiasm because I love my job and because I have had my quiet Dalston start to the day.”
“Sandro is the brand that gave me a chance to grow, in a company where women thrive. I’m called a Sandro-baby because I started at the bottom of the ladder and worked my way up. They trusted me and identified abilities in me I wasn’t aware of, and they made it possible for me to work in London. You cannot ask for more. Plus, I have always loved the design. I couldn’t work for a brand I do not identify with.”
“Evelyne Chétrite, the founder of Sandro, is a role model to me. She heads a massive brand yet keeps her four children and her husband at the heart of her life. She gives her employees the opportunity to be whoever they are, whatever their gender or background. What matters to her is what you can contribute to make the brand better.”
“I am fortunate to have had three very strong, opinionated French women influence me.”
Away from work, Emilie is very clear that her mum and both her grandmothers have been vitally important to her life and career so far.
“I am fortunate to have had three very strong, opinionated French women influence me. I have learned different things from each of them. My mother’s mum taught me to be whoever I wanted to be. With her I had total freedom, without any judgments, as long as I was respectful. I asked her once why she was so open and allowing with me. She said it was because she could remember what it was like to be a child, and that was important. She talked about her belief that as an adult you must remember who you were and not just who you are, keep the child in you alive, never stop learning and allow for the people around you to have learning to do. My other grandmother taught me a different approach: make a plan, buy a house, save your money, don’t interrupt, be a good girl. My mum is a combination of the two. She has always encouraged me to follow my choices and be myself, not pressuring me to do anything that I didn’t want to do. However, she always said it had to lead somewhere.”
Emilie’s advice for young women in business? “I think what helped me was doing more than I was asked, without counting. I think if you start counting, ‘Oh, I did this and that was not in my job title’ or ‘I worked an hour extra, I deserve something’ then that won’t get you far. Don’t get walked on by others. Don’t let your kindness get misused. But always do more than you’re expected to do. If you’re surrounded by great people, they’ll see it.”
She adds, “I feel lucky to live where I live and work where I work. And there’s a reason I do not look at my phone first thing in the morning and there’s a reason my early morning walks in Dalston, before I engage with the rest of the world, are sacred. To know myself. I check in with me first and then I let the rest of the world in. That way, I feel strong and can give without counting.”
Emilie Chabenes is Sales Director at Sandro.