Who is Virginie Viard? Chanel After Lagerfeld.
Last week, Virginie Viard debuted her first collection for Chanel as Artistic Director for Cruise 2020 at the Grand Palais in Paris. It was also the first collection without Karl Lagerfeld since Fall Couture 1983. While it may have been her first at the helm of creative, Viard has long been an integral part of Chanel. She began her thirty-year affair with the iconic French luxury house in 1987 as an haute couture embroidery intern, and would later be appointed to studio director just 10 years later. Having spent the larger part of her career as a relatively anonymous aid behind Lagerfeld’s creative vision, her contributions have gone mostly unknown. Loic Prigent, the filmmaker responsible for capturing the work of the atelier before each show, once called Lagerfeld the “locomotive” of the house and Viard the “rails;” translating his abstract sketches into a language of design that was affable and universally understood. She was, in many ways, his voice of reason. Lagerfeld himself considered her to be “both his right and left hand.”
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The appointment marks the first time a woman has lead Chanel in well over four decades. In order to understand Viard in relation to Lagerfeld, we have to acknowledge what is often forgotten in the timeline of Chanel: the decade between Coco Chanel’s death in 1971 and Karl Lagerfeld’s appointment in 1983. Fragmented by the loss of its pioneer, the house struggled to maintain relevance, lacking a strong leader to move Coco’s vision forward. The house passed through several hands. First through Yvonne Dudel, Jean Cazaubon, and Philippe Guibourge until 1974 when the house was acquired by Pierre Wetheimer. Following the change in ownership, Wetheimer’s grandson, Alain Wetheimer lead the house until appointing Lagerfeld in 1983. Ignoring the hackneyed pastel suits that Chanel had become known for in favor of the alluring masculinity of Coco’s earlier work from the twenties and thirties, his debut was a daring revival. While his initial work was regarded by some as flippant (Women’s Wear Daily wrote that he had “committed too many Chanel Don’ts and not enough Do”), it would ultimately go on to define what many women born after Coco’s death understand Chanel to be today: the interlocking “CC” monograph, the Classic Flap Bag (a reinterpretation of the 2.55 shoulder bag), the heavy pearl and gold chain accessorizing, and even Karl himself.
Similar to Lagerfeld’s appointment in 1983, Viard’s debut is tasteful in its nods to Coco Chanel’s legacy. While the collection may not have been as daring as her predecessor, its femininity was familiar, comfortable. While Lagerfeld had the grace of over a decade to push the boundaries of the house’s identity, Viard inherited a wake of potent uncertainty with his death in February. Despite this, the collection delivered the spirit of Coco and Lagerfeld with poise.
It was appropriately subtle, treading lightly before pulling up the anchor completely. Especially in light of the constant rotation of creative directors at esteemed houses, it is refreshing to see natural succession and honorable consistency. Inspired by travel, Viard transformed the Grand Palais into a train station; the runway as the platform lined with destinations—Saint Tropez, Venice, and Rome among others—and the guests sitting on wooden benches in the waiting area. The focus on departure perhaps signaling new beginnings for Chanel. It embodied Lagerfeld’s legacy—extravagant runway shows that created pockets of the Chanel world—in its purest form: blissful escape from the obligations of reality.
Viard revisited the fundamentals of Coco Chanel in her own way, forgoing incendiary change in favor of familiarity. The show opened with a black, wide-legged suit that bore a striking resemblance to something Coco would wear herself. The wide cut legs carried throughout the collection with contemporary finishings, side seam button-snaps and drawstring waistbands. Viard’s also made stops along some of the most memorable periods at the house—khaki colors pastels reminiscent of the tweed suits made famous in the fifties, the khaki colored coats from Coco’s early career, the signature bow adornments that arrived in the thirties, the vivid playfulness of Lagerfeld’s colorways in the eighties and, of course, his overlapping “CC” motif. The attention to detail and diligent craftsmanship were consistent throughout the collection, with the final look a distinct tribute to Lagerfeld—white collar and all.
While it may not have been the strongest Chanel collection, the subtlety of Viard’s work is admirable. There could not possibly be a task more daunting as filling the shoes of Lagerfeld during what many consider to be the end of an era. Her inoffensive approach, though ostensibly timid, is understandable; treading lightly as the house gauges new waters following the loss of its beacon. Aside from the efforts to uphold and preserve the core of Chanel, Viard’s debut still left something to be desired—a sentiment that has potential to flourish in the coming collections.