Karl Lagerfeld's Successor is the Only One Who Can Carry On His Legacy
On Tuesday, French fashion house Chanel confirmed that designer Karl Lagerfeld passed away. He was 85. The brand immediately announced that its longtime studio director, Virginie Viard, would be his successor.
In recent years, the subject of Lagerfeld’s replacement has been oft discussed in the industry. Names like Hedi Slimane and Phoebe Philo came up, but it’s hard to imagine how different Chanel would look under their control. Just imagine Chanel through Slimane’s signature rock-and-roll aesthetic, or Philo’s preference for minimalism (there’d certainly be no rocket ships or double-C branded groceries in her presence). With Viard, however, Chanel enters a new era — one that will likely feel fresh, but ultimately carry on Lagerfeld’s legacy in an intentional way.
Under Viard, Chanel will still be Chanel.
Though Lagerfeld was the face and brains of the operation, Viard’s influence at Chanel has been profound. Known as “Karl’s right-hand woman,” Viard joined Chanel in 1987 as an intern, just a few years after Lagerfeld took the reins. Over the past 30 years, the two forged a professional bond that revived Chanel’s legacy as a leading international brand. Lagerfeld sketched the designs, and Viard brought them to life. She assigned his ideas to women in the atelier based on skill set, selected fabrics and embroideries, and pushed Lagerfeld out of his comfort zone.
"I coordinate the teams, liaise with suppliers and choose fabrics,” Viard told The Telegraph in November 2017 of their process. “Then, of course, I do fittings with Karl. As soon as I receive his sketches, the process begins. I try to please him, but I like to surprise him too."
Of course, Viard and Lagerfeld’s relationship went beyond clothes. Of Viard, Lagerfeld told Elle last year, “Our relationship is essential, doubled by a very real friendship and affection.”
It makes sense, then, that when Lagerfeld was noticeably absent from Chanel’s Spring 2019 couture show in January, Viard took a bow in his place. It makes even more sense that she’s been selected to continue his legacy. Having worked so closely with Lagerfeld for over three decades, it’s clear that Chanel has no interest in changing its vision. And why should they? Under Lagerfeld’s vision, the company saw enormous growth and profit; last year, Chanel revealed its profits for the first time in its 108-year history, reporting nearly $10 billion in sales. With Viard at the helm, Lagerfeld’s direction will live on.
"I often say that Mademoiselle Chanel is almost a living person," Viard told The Telegraph. "I’m really inspired by her history and the strong legacy she left us. And, of course, I’m inspired by Karl too."
That inspiration will likely take the form of new twists on the classic tweed; playing off the interlocking Cs, which Lagerfeld introduced in the ‘80s; and expanding on Chanel’s accessories business — after all, it was Viard who introduced the brand’s first-ever timepiece collection (to much success) in an effort to broaden its reach. If there’s anything Lagerfeld taught her, it’s that success can come from constantly reinventing your own classics — that there isn’t anything wrong with offering new takes on what you know and what your customer wants. And considering Viard is notoriously press shy, the focus of Chanel will be on the clothes — not on the name behind them, as so many other brands have discovered doesn’t work.
“She’s great, you know, because she coordinates everything,” Lagerfeld told Elle UK in 2014. “It’s unbelievable what she does.”