clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Chanel lost its iconic designer this year. Meet the woman who replaced him.

Karl Lagerfeld mentored Virginie Viard, who just showed her most important collection yet for the brand.

Virginie Viard at the fall 2019 Chanel couture show.
Stephane Cardinale-Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

The onetime king of fashion Karl Lagerfeld died in February at age 85. He was still working at Chanel, the French brand he sculpted into a luxury behemoth over the course of 36 years, and as the fashion world reckoned with the loss of one of its most famous, outspoken, and influential figures, it also faced the pressing question of who would succeed him.

Chanel didn’t wait long to make the announcement. Shortly after Lagerfeld’s death, the brand promoted Virginie Viard to the top job. Viard began working with Lagerfeld in 1987, and as his right-hand woman, she remained a behind-the-scenes figure to the general public. As she takes her position in the spotlight — a place she has said she dislikes — the question now is what her version of Chanel will look like, and how it will uphold or diverge from Lagerfeld’s work. Even the most informed followers of the fashion industry still know relatively little about her creative vision; in an interview with Vox in late May, the fashion historian Valerie Steele called Viard “the mystery woman.”

Chanel held its fall 2019 runway show less than a month after Lagerfeld’s death, but it’s safe to say it was more his last collection than Viard’s first. The brand’s resort presentation, shown in early May, gave some taste for her style. Hamish Bowles, reviewing the collection for Vogue, wrote that while the designer made no sudden movements, “In place of Lagerfeld’s hard-edged geometry... Viard brought a new softness and ease to the Chanel silhouette, reflecting her woman’s perspective and something of the insouciance that Chanel herself believed in.”

Models walks the runway during the Chanel Haute Couture fall 2019 show.
Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

With the brand’s haute couture show held in Paris this week, our sense of Viard’s Chanel is coming into clearer view: The same softness permeated the collection, which featured pajama-inspired eveningwear, belted silk gowns, and models wearing mostly flats. Though by virtue of it being a couture show rather than ready-to-wear, this isn’t what you’ll see the average shopper wearing on the street — instead, it offers a glimpse at what celebrities will look like come autumn, in carefully styled red-carpet appearances that will help set the tone for the brand’s new image.

Of course, the show itself was standard Chanel — Viard made ample use of tweed, and carried on Lagerfeld’s penchant for designing absolutely enormous runway sets by transforming the Grand Palais (the site of Chanel shows since 2005) into a circular library, as a nod to both Coco Chanel’s library at her 31 Rue Cambon apartment and Lagerfeld’s love of books. The usual fashion royalty attended; Anna Wintour was seated next to Chanel ambassador Margot Robbie, while It model Kaia Gerber walked.

At the moment, Chanel isn’t necessarily in need of an overhaul. When Lagerfeld took over in 1983, his job was to reinvigorate a flagging house that had developed rather stuffy, uncool connotations; he did so with irreverence and aplomb, all while centering his collections on Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s original designs. Under Lagerfeld, Chanel became a pop culture fixture and one of the most formidable players in the luxury space, with annual sales of more than $11 billion.

A model walks the runway during the Chanel Haute Couture fall 2019 show.
Stephane Cardinale-Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Viard hasn’t been called in to fix the brand, but complacency won’t fly either. She needs to draw in a new generation of customers while appeasing the faithful clients who buy head-to-toe looks every season. “Even a brand of Chanel’s stature still has to make a case for itself,” says Robin Givhan, the Washington Post’s fashion critic.

Privately held by the Wertheimer family, Chanel is the rare high-end European label that isn’t owned by one of luxury’s major conglomerates, namely LVMH (the parent company to Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Givenchy) or Kering (Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga). Chanel’s continued independence has been the subject of speculation in light of its decision to release sales figures for the first time ever last year, Lagerfeld’s passing, and the Wertheimer brothers, Alain and Gérard, reaching retirement age. When the brand shared its annual revenue numbers again this June, however, an executive told Business of Fashion: “Chanel is not for sale, Chanel is not preparing for an IPO, I just want to reconfirm that for the hundredth time this year.” Earlier that month, Bloomberg reported that LVMH had said that, at a valuation of $113 billion, Chanel is too large for an acquisition.

Chanel’s decision to hire from within is somewhat unusual for a brand of its ilk. When filling the role of creative director, many fashion houses poach designers who have led other major labels: Raf Simons went from Jil Sander to Dior and then Calvin Klein, Riccardo Tisci moved from Givenchy to Burberry, and Hedi Slimane led Saint Laurent before landing at Céline. These are big, splashy events, though the industry’s steady creative churn has often been compared to a game of musical chairs, one over which a creeping sense of sameness has settled. Promoting a nearly anonymous longtime employee almost seems like a surprise move by contrast.

Appointing a creative director who is steeped in the house’s heritage and recent history, as Viard is, doesn’t necessarily mean a continuation of the outgoing designer’s work. While every designer must grapple with the legacy of the brand they work for, Steele says, the extent to which they hew to past tropes certainly varies.

Karl Lagerfeld and models on the runway at the Chanel fall 2013 show.
Catwalking/Getty Images

Alessandro Michele is a prime example of a new creative director causing a tidal shift. After more than a decade in accessories design at Gucci, Michele was promoted to creative director in January 2015. A virtual unknown, he upended the brand’s glamorous yet wearable sensibility (silky jumpsuits, trim suede coatdresses) and replaced it with a vision of fashion that is ornate, maximalist, and weird (see: runway models carrying replicas of their own heads).

Michele was able to do this because Gucci had gone through a number of makeovers in recent years, including Tom Ford’s lucrative era of “louche sexuality” in the early ’90s, and its brand identity no longer felt clearly defined. Sarah Burton, who worked with Alexander McQueen for 14 years and was named creative director of his brand after his death in 2010, had space to evolve that label for a different reason: McQueen’s view on fashion was singular in its blend of beauty and terror, and his voice was the only one the brand had ever known. It would be almost unreasonable to expect Burton to mimic his aesthetic.

The situation is different for Viard precisely because of how Lagerfeld positioned Chanel. Rather than remaking the brand in his own image, he constantly referenced Coco Chanel’s work, imbuing his collections with a powerful sense of enduring style.

“Karl Lagerfeld certainly elevated Chanel to its current position as a pop culture force, but I think what’s really interesting is that despite his incredible influence over the brand, it’s still really associated with the founder,” says Givhan. “I think that was part of Karl Lagerfeld’s skill: For all of his own celebrity, Chanel always came first.”

Details at the Chanel 2019 couture show.
Estrop/Getty Images

As a designer, Lagerfeld’s achievement wasn’t in sparking widespread fashion trends but in reworking — seemingly inexhaustibly — the signature styles that Coco Chanel created. For more than three decades, he presented riff after riff on the tweed suit, the two-tone shoes, the pearls, the little black dress. Modernization through archival reference was his game.

“He was a compulsive worker and assimilated information all the time, and that let him stay up to date for decades,” Steele says. “Most designers can only make an impact for 15 years. Harold Koda [the former Costume Institute curator] thought it’s 30 years, but I think that’s being kind.”

Should she choose to do so, Viard can certainly guarantee aesthetic continuity to Chanel’s clients. But she’s a different person from Lagerfeld — not to mention a woman designing primarily for women — and her collections will therefore offer a new, and possibly softer, take on a 100-year-old brand.

Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.