It’s Nice to Meet You, New Chanel

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Who is Virginie Viard? The woman who finds herself suddenly at the center of the Chanel universe remains something of a mystery, unlike her larger-than-life predecessor, Karl Lagerfeld. Her Wikipedia page is about six sentences long. Just the facts, madam. What we do know is that she is 57 years old, she’s classically Parisian in a way that suggests style as innate and inborn as DNA, and she has been working next to Lagerfeld since she was 25 years old – the better part of half her life.

Regarded by the late designer as his “right and left hand”, Viard was already an indispensable and indivisible part of the Chanel equation before Lagerfeld’s death, which is why she was so swiftly named his immediate successor, no hesitation or lingering doubts left as to who was right for the job. In effect, it doesn’t matter one whit that you didn’t know her name before she landed the loftiest position in fashion. In fact, that’s part of her charm and ongoing intrigue. The internal hire – the woman who spent decades anticipating the needs, desires, and vision of the most powerful man in the industry – is a more natural fit than you’d find anywhere else.

The Chanel Cruise 2020 season marks Viard’s first official collection for the maison, and curiosity reigned supreme in the lead up to the show. Unlike the rabidity and speculation that typically follows the appointment of a new designer at a long-established house, Viard’s appointment was accepted with reverent ease. There is little doubt that her methods and vision are in line with what came before, but we quickly warmed to the idea that she might also inject something new and fresh into the line-up.

After all, she is a woman at the helm of the largest and most influential fashion house in the known galaxy, part of an overall pattern of women finally landing in positions that give them power over the conversation at a time when the conversation has become crucial – critical even. What is fashion now, if it does not service this time in society when women are simultaneously being elevated and demolished? Where they are finding seats at the table in seats of power long dominated by the patriarchy, but also find themselves more scrutinized, criticized, and doubted than ever? What a time to be alive.

Photo: Courtesy of Chanel

Fashion’s prism reflects a dozen meanings at once: the zeitgeist, a fantasy escape, armor, costume, the tyranny of the majority, the counter points of the minority. It is capitulation and challenge at the same time. Chanel is poised on the fantasy ledge, but the women who wear its creations are cultured and crafty – and they live all over the world. Furthermore, aware of their buying power and their intrinsic value more than ever, they are demanding more from the brands they are loyal to and they are paying attention to the way each house responds. 

For Cruise 2020, Viard takes us on a journey, literally and figuratively. After all, Chanel loves to travel. It has taken its collections everywhere from Dallas and Salzburg to Jaipur. This particular presentation stayed in one place, installed inside its usual salon at the Grand Palais. But it allowed imaginations to visit a less complicated time, a time when travel by train was the typical means of crossing borders into new lands, containing a subtle acknowledgement of the globally connected world we now live in. It looks like Viard has also been paying attention.

The female gaze looks good at Chanel.

That being said, the question of her succession and its integrity really comes down to the clothes. How did the collection fare? Sublimely. While containing all of the Chanel codes established by the house’s dual legacy – quilting, camellia blossoms, gold logo buttons, nubby tweeds, fingerless gloves – it is evident to a trained eye that someone else was working the controls. It felt more youthful, measured to lean lines that were cut along the bias, while flirting with protective utilitarian fabrics like waxed cotton that were juxtaposed against feminine accents like ruffled organdie collars and dandy jabots.

The female gaze looks good at Chanel.

There were pastel gauchos, soft robes covered in pink logos, giant bows worn as bandeau tops, lithe jumpsuits, and a variety of shorts (some leather) in the mix. Dresses were much lighter and more diaphanous than usual, less about their dazzling accoutrements than their elegantly simple silhouettes. This is not your grandmother’s – or even mother’s – Chanel. Done in a radically pared-back 79 looks instead of the usual 120, it turns out that Viard’s version of “less is more” holds as much weight as the opposite point of view. As for the travel theme? Well, these are clothes you actually could stash in a trunk and head off to see the world in – no matter where you come from. 

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