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END OF AN ERA: VIRGINIE VIARD DEPARTS CHANEL

Virginie Viard by Sophia Coppola, 2020, courtesy of Wikimedia 

It was announced late on Wednesday, June 5 that Virginie Viard will depart Chanel after five years as its artistic director, and thirty years overall with the company. Chanel did not give a reason for her departure, but the brand has recently been criticized for a sharp price increase, with a decrease in quality. Despite criticisms, however, since Viard took the helm, the brand has more than doubled in size, and sales were up 18% from 2022 to 2023. Karl Lagerfeld described Viard as his right and left arms while he was the artistic director, and in a press release the brand itself said that Viard “was able to renew the codes of the house while respecting the creative heritage of Chanel.”

Chanel shop in Monaco, image courtesy rawpixel

Virginie Viard’s influence on Chanel over the past five years led mostly to a subtle evolution of the brand’s historical aesthetics. She blended classic Chanel elements with more modern ones, emphasizing comfort and practicality as opposed to Lagerfeld’s more dramatic designs. Her collections featured relaxed yet feminine silhouettes, and often were comprised of mix-and-match separates, colorful takes on the Chanel tweed jacket, and versatile accessories. Perhaps this more laid-back vibe was influenced by her time in ready-to-wear, or grounded in her business-saviness and goal of wearable fashion. As the brand admitted, Viard paid homage to Coco Chanel’s original designs and Chanel’s heritage, while transforming them into modern versions.

Timeline of Virginie Viard at Chanel, 2024, The Untitled Magazine

Viard was the third artistic director, following only Karl Lagerfeld and Coco Chanel herself. Chanel can be divided into three eras characterized by the creative decisions of the directors.

Coco Chanel sitting at a desk during a visit to Los Angeles. Image of Coco Chanel sitting at a desk during a visit to Los Angeles for the Los Angeles Times.
Coco Chanel for the Los Angeles Times, 1931, courtesy of Wikimedia 

Coco Chanel created her eponymous brand in 1910 and was the creative force behind it until she died in 1971. She revolutionized fashion with her emphasis on simplicity and elegance, and her collections frequently featured elegant costume jewelry, the little black dress, and the tweed suits now synonymous with the brand. Her designs were emancipatory in that they focused on comfort and practicality, and freed women from the popular corseted silhouette like Christian Dior’s “new look.”

As era-defining as she was, Chanel’s personal life was flooded with controversial activities, and she has been heavily criticized for her harmful actions as a Nazi informant.

Karl Lagerfeld, German-born fashion designer and artist at Volkswagen People’s Night 2008. Karl Lagerfeld, German-born fashion designer and artist at Volkswagen People’s Night 2008 taken by Thore Siebrands.
Thore Siebrands, Karl Lagerfeld at Volkswagen People’s Night, 2008, courtesy of Wikimedia

Karl Lagerfeld was known for his bold reinventions of Chanel looks, and his collections’ general opulence and splendor. His runways were usually full of dramatic designs and staging that brought fashion to another level, with eclectic elements and an innovative use of materials. His interpretations of Chanel’s legacy were continuously changing, and he kept developing and working on his designs until his death in 2019.

Virginie Viard relaxed Chanel and created collections that were laid back and comfortable, for all their femininity. She channeled the brand’s elegance into more casual pieces that could be combined in different ways, like transforming the imposing and formal Chanel tweed into an approachable and modern set with bright colors that customers loved. By emphasizing comfort and wearability, and adding modern and practical touches to her designs, Viard honored the legacy Coco Chanel left behind while making it her own.

Viard’s official departure date is not known, but Chanel is still planning to stage a runway show at Paris Haute Couture Week at the end of June. This is presumably Viard’s last act as artistic director.

Who’s Next?

Although the fashion house has not released any information on who will take Viard’s position, there are many industry insiders who are discussing potential replacements.

Currently, many fashion designers are without houses, and insiders speculate that any of them could become the new artistic director at Chanel. Tom Ford, Pierpaolo Piccoli (formerly of Valentino), Hedi Slimane (formerly of Celine), and Marc Jacobs have all had their name tossed in the ring.

Notably, the amount of women heading major fashion houses has decreased in the past few years, with Viard’s dismissal only the most recent in a string of departures.

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