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who is karl lagerfeld's chanel successor?

While Virginie Viard is a name that for many will appear unfamiliar, within Karl’s inner circle she was long seen as the prodigious designer’s natural successor.

by Liam Hess
21 February 2019, 2:34pm

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This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

On Tuesday morning, the news broke across the world that Karl Lagerfeld had passed away in Paris, prompting an outpouring of grief from his legions of fans and followers. No sooner had the announcement been made, however, and the house of Chanel quietly provided the answer to the question Karl superfans have been asking for years: who would succeed one of the longest-running and most profitable creative directors across the industry, at arguably the world’s most famous fashion house?

While Virginie Viard is a name that for many will appear unfamiliar, within Karl’s inner circle she was long seen as the prodigious designer’s natural successor. Working as a costume stylist on films including Krzysztof Kieslowski’s critically acclaimed Three Colours trilogy, Viard’s career at Chanel began as a humble intern in the embroidery section of the haute couture ateliers (although admittedly a little less humble once you learn the introduction was initially made by Prince Rainier of Monaco). Later, Viard would accompany Lagerfeld when he moved to Chloé in 1992, then returned to Chanel with him five years later where she steadily moved up the ranks to become his undisputed right-hand woman, thanks in part to her emphasis on teamwork and ability to keep up with the relentless pace of 10 collections a year.

While Lagerfeld remained firmly in the public eye throughout the entirety of his six-decade career -- both due to his distinctive, shapeshifting personal style and the free-fire interviews that regularly landed him in hot water -- Viard has chosen to remain largely in the designer’s highly coiffed shadow. In a rare interview for Elle last December that described her as Chanel’s “secret weapon”, she said simply: “I hate being in the spotlight”. It’s visible even in their differing tastes. Where Lagerfeld had his imperious uniform of Hedi Slimane-designed black and white suits, fingerless gloves and a shock of white hair styled into a ponytailed pompadour, Viard’s personal style reflects her bohemian Gallic upbringing: black tailoring, leather jackets and the occasional chic twist on the Canadian tuxedo.

While the rumour mill has thrown up more than a handful of names over the years -- among them Hedi Slimane, Phoebe Philo and Alber Elbaz -- the promotion of Viard is a canny move from the billionaire Wertheimer family, who have been the business brains behind the house since their investment in Coco Chanel’s signature No. 5 perfume all the way back in 1924. With the relentless pace of designer reshuffles that have swept through the major fashion houses over the past decade, the decision to take the lead from Alexander McQueen’s appointment of Sarah Burton -- also a publicity-shy studio head whose understanding of the brand’s DNA gave her an inbuilt head start -- seems a sensible decision given the risks of a costly rebrand across Chanel’s sprawling $9 billion interests in the world of fashion, fragrance and cosmetics.

Perhaps they also took notes from some of the better judged internal hires of recent years: the runaway commercial success of Alessandro Michele’s promotion from head accessories designer to creative director at Gucci, for example, or more recently the buzzy choice of Daniel Lee, previously director of ready-to-wear at Phoebe Philo’s Céline, to take the helm at the storied northern Italian house of Bottega Veneta. There’s also the cheering side-effect of seeing another woman at the head of a big league fashion house, joining the ranks alongside Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior and Claire Waight Keller at Givenchy. The latter in particular offers an interesting template for Viard going forward. Waight Keller’s tenure has seen her grow into one of French fashion’s most compelling designers, thanks in part to her instinctive ability to craft a rounded portrait of how today’s multi-faceted women wants to dress: balancing the impeccably cut urbanite staples of her ready-to-wear with the full-blown fantasias of her exquisite couture collections, a juggling act that Viard will have to replicate across Chanel’s broad output from one-of-a-kind gowns to keyrings.

Viard’s presence (and her signature easy-breezy outfits) also feel like a seamless fit for Chanel’s heritage as a female-led fashion house that revolutionised the modern woman’s wardrobe. In the 1920s, with Paris as the epicentre of the avant-garde, Gabrielle Chanel’s tweed suits and little black dresses placed a new emphasis on luxury as comfort that still holds strong to this day; a spirit that was memorably revived by Lagerfeld with his regular forays into Chanel-branded luxe sportswear and trainers. Given the flexibility of the house’s codes (camellia flowers, quilting, pearls, monochrome) and the sheer breadth and imagination of Lagerfeld’s output, there’s plenty of room for Viard to carve out her own space. Will she be offering her own unique take on Chanel that will evolve season after season, or picking up Lagerfeld’s whimsical thread that weaves a different story every time? For that, we will have to wait until her first cruise show in May.

When asked about his legacy in a 2018 interview with Vogue’s Suzy Menkes, Lagerfeld responded with trademark self-deprecation: “I have no idea, I couldn’t care less. I don’t make foundations -- foundation for me is something people put on their face. I like the attitude of animals in the forest, they disappear.” The promotion of Viard, however, makes it clear that his bosses at Chanel are inclined to disagree, hoping his rich and endlessly imaginative creative vision and Midas touch will live on through his greatest protégée. It might be a moment of mourning for Lagerfeld’s many fans, but it’s also an exciting new chapter and, in many ways, a continuation of his extraordinary vision.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

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