You have to applaud Virginie Viard – the first woman to take on the mighty Chanel brand since its iconic founder Coco Chanel, and the first designer to succeed the equally iconic Karl Lagerfeld – undoubtedly the fashion world’s hardest acts to follow. And of all the designers who could follow them, she is surely the best qualified.
As head of the Chanel studio, Virginie oversaw every cut, stitch, button and piece of embroidery. She absorbed Karl’s every vision and helped transform them into reality, acting as a conduit between him and the ateliers, which she ran with military precision.
Following his death in February, she was handed the creative reins of Chanel, the world’s most desired megabrand that last year revealed sales of $9.6bn (Dhs35.3bn). This, the 2020 Cruise collection, was her first solo outing, our first glimpse of what she might do with the brand and her first steps towards filling Karl’s impossibly gigantic shoes.
The scene, as ever, was the Grand Palais, its vaulted domed glass ceiling dwarfing the set that had been decked out like a train station, lined with wooden benches under signs bearing the names ‘Venice’, ‘Saint Tropez’, ‘Rome’, ‘Edinburgh’ – cities that have all played a part in the house’s heritage. But where Karl might have insisted on real-life steam trains chugging into the Grand Palais station, with an “If you can’t afford to do it, then you can’t afford me” flourish and a witty pun – all aboard the Chanel Express! – along with the invitation to preen in front of the set and take endless selfies, the scene here was entirely different. The set was less extravagant, the atmosphere strangely subdued, which was only to be expected in a post-Lagerfeld Chanel world.
Out poured the clothes, of the type we have long associated with the iconography of Chanel – the boxy tweed jackets, skirt suits, frothy blouses, sequinned sweaters, tiered gowns, quilted bags, camellias, double Cs and pearls. The spirit of Coco Chanel was there from the opening look – a black gabardine jacket and wide pants with a soft white blouse adorned with a single camellia that conjured Coco’s love for masculine-feminine tailoring. And there were plenty of Karlisms, including his fixation with haute-athleisure (here, body stockings and leggings were sprinkled with the CC logo) and witty homage was paid to him in the last look – a black column suspended from a stiff white Edwardian collar worn by a model with silvered hair. And yet, between all the respectful reverence came dazzling pieces that suggested something new – a sliver of a red tweed coat, a long chestnut stationmaster mac, blurred prints like landscapes seen from the window of a speeding train, Bermudas and striped sweaters that looked très cool Parisienne with two-tone patent sock boots (the sort of look you could picture on brand ambassador Lily-Rose Depp) and delicious white lace gowns that had the lightest of decorative touches in the form of simple black bows.
“She knows everything about Chanel. She was the right hand and the left hand, and she’s ready to write a new part of the Chanel history,” insisted Bruno Pavlovsky, President of Fashion at Chanel, dismissing the inevitable rumour, prior to this show, that Virginie had been installed as caretaker of the brand before a big-name designer could be drafted in. That she is the most deserving of this appointment is without question, but the fashion world is accustomed to high drama – drastic designer substitutions on the ever-changing fashion merry-go-round.
But does Chanel even need a famous name to impose his or her style upon it? Both Coco and Karl leave legacies – and bountiful archives – to riff on for years. To blast the brand with a whole new vision when it is so instantly recognisable around the world, and Chanel itself a byword for fashion, would seem unnecessary at best and hazardous at worst. On the other hand, some question whether even Chanel can afford to remain constant in such a high-speed market where thirst for the new – be it a heritage brand or a nascent designer – is at an all-time high.
As Virginie stepped out to take her bow, she was visibly moved – many, including Chanel faces Ali MacGraw, Vanessa Paradis and Claudia Schiffer, were on their feet in support. And rightly so. If the industry is still coming to terms with a world without Karl, we can only imagine the impact on his successor and the Chanel team. It may be too soon to say if Virginie Viard can bridge the past while making her own impactful future at the house, but right now her quiet power feels like the perfect ticket for Chanel. She just needs to bring us all along for the ride.
Photos: Supplied and Laurent Vu/SIPA/Shutterstock