Change is coming to Chanel. Who will replace creative director Virginie Viard?

Viard leaves the iconic fashion house in a state of robust financial standing and with a throng of new fans.

Looks like change is coming to Chanel. The 114-year-old luxury fashion house has sparked speculations after Virginie Viard announced she was leaving after five years as creative director and after a total of 36 years, having joined the brand in 1987. Viard took over the helm after Karl Lagerfeld’s passing in 2019.

Virgine Viard took replaced Karl Lagerfeld in 2019. Photo from Vanity Fair

Her departure is the latest in a series of rejigs in the fashion industry. Pierpaolo Piccioli, Valentino’s creative director, announced he was exiting the Italian fashion house less than three months ago. The designer is being replaced by Alessandro Michele, who left his position as creative director of Gucci in 2022. In March, Dries Van Noten confirmed that he would also be leaving his eponymous label after almost 40 years. Then there’s designer and creative director Sarah Burton who ended her longtime collaboration with British luxury fashion house Alexander McQueen in September 2023.

Now, the question in most people’s minds is this: Who will replace Viard in one of the fashion world’s most coveted positions?

Chanel leadership through the years

Despite being around for more than a century, Chanel has only had three creative directors with Viard being the third. Most people already know that it was the iconic Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel who started the company in 1910 and guided the brand until her death in 1971. 

Despite near-relentless criticism and social media scourging, Viard’s vision worked financially—and at times aesthetically. Just last month, Chanel announced its 2023 revenue hit US$19.7 billion, up over a staggering 75 percent since Lagerfeld’s passing in 2019.

The ownership of the company passed to the Wertheimer family, who provided financial backing in the early days, as per a report on Forbes. Growth was stagnant for nearly a decade until Lagerfeld joined the company in 1983 and breathed new life into the struggling brand. For almost four decades with Chanel, the designer pioneered an approach well-known today: forging famed partnerships with eminent muses

Lagerfeld undeniably brought the brand to new heights, but he was not without controversy. Last year’s Met Gala had as its theme “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty,” honoring the legacy of Lagerfeld, who led fashion houses such as Chanel, Fendi, and his own eponymous line.

The event was slammed by critics for choosing to honor a man who was “notoriously fatphobic, anti-immigrant, possibly homophobic and, many would say – despite his slew of famous muses – low-key misogynistic,” according to an article on The Guardian

Karl Lagerfeld and Virginie Viard walked the runway during the Chanel show as part of Paris Fashion Week on October 2, 2018 in Paris, France. Photo from Harper’s Bazaar

The article further argues that his list of accomplishments was almost as long as his list of controversies. Lagerfeld, for instance, said he was “fed up” with the #MeToo movement and questioned the claims of victims who came forward during that time. He famously said: “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent. They’re recruiting even!”

Viard joined Chanel in 1987, working closely with Lagerfeld as director of fashion collections. Photo from WWD

Despite his being a larger-than-life yet problematic figure, staunch supporters say Lagerfeld’s controversies are dwarfed by his achievements, artistically and intellectually.

After Lagerfeld’s death due to a short illness in 2019, Viard took the artistic director’s torch from her longtime mentor. He famously called her “my right arm…and my left arm,” and, indeed, it was Viard’s steady arms that carried the brand forward to a new era while safeguarding the legacy of Coco Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld.

Who will be next?

Viard’s departure has set the rumor mill rife with speculations. Among the names being surfaced as possible candidates are Celine’s Hedi Slimane, Pierpaolo Piccoli, and Sarah Burton, who was most recently with Alexander McQueen. Other names that have been rumored to take on the sought-after post include Phoebe Philo, Tom Ford, and Marc Jacobs.

Whoever will be replacing Viard, though, has enormous shoes to fill. In a statement the company says, “Chanel confirms the departure of Virginie Viard after a rich collaboration of five years as artistic director of fashion collections, during which she was able to renew the codes of the house while respecting the creative heritage of the brand.”

“A new chapter is opening for Chanel Mode. We are confident in the teams’ ability to ensure the continuity of the collections during this period of transition. A new creative organization for the House will be announced in due course,” it adds. 

“Since Virginie took over from Karl… the Chanel fashion business has multiplied by 2.2. The Chanel ready-to-wear business has been multiplied by 2.5, and the ready-to-wear business last year of Chanel grew by 23%,” Leena Nair, Chanel CEO, told The Business of Fashion after the latest earnings release.

A subtle yet impactful legacy

After a short stint early in her career at Chanel, Viard became Lagerfeld’s apprentice at Chloé where he did a creative-director side hustle from 1992 through 1997. She left Chloé with him to head Chanel’s design studio, overseeing the creation of the fashion house’s haute couture, ready-to-wear, and accessories collections.

But, as The Washington Post reports, bashing Viard “quickly became a pastime on social media’s highly active but loose commentary communities.” She was criticized—even made fun of—by some as having designs which were “too dowdy, too aging,” and ridiculed for lacking “the fantasy and extraordinary technique of her predecessor, Lagerfeld, with whom she worked for several decades.” 

Models walk the runway during the Chanel show as part of Paris Fashion Week in Paris, France on March 5, 2024. Photo from Getty Images

Detractors also thought that celebrities were not well served by her designs, and an Instagram account was even made to chronicle the house’s red carpet faux pas, called @Chanelflopsagain.

Despite near-relentless criticism and social media scourging, Viard’s vision worked financially—and at times aesthetically. Just last month, Chanel announced its 2023 revenue hit US$19.7 billion, up over a staggering 75 percent since Lagerfeld’s passing. The brand’s ranking in the Global RepTrak 100 study also climbed 15 slots in 2024, from number 39 to 24 among the world’s most respected brands on top of its robust growth last year.

Viard at the Spring 2019 couture show. Photo from Harper’s Bazaar

Viard’s tenure at Chanel will be remembered for being a subtle yet impactful evolution of the brand, quite in contrast with Lagerfeld’s grand and elaborate collections. She emphasized wearability and elegance, staying true to the brand’s core values while still pushing creative boundaries.

Chanel, after all, was never about innovation and freedom, except in its early years, but about “the strength of conservatism, the imperiousness of an upper-middle-class uniform and a crystallization of status symbols into a globally understood language.” Viard’s styling then can be read as a “portrait of the kooky inner life of an eccentric French woman,” deemed by some as a human alternative to Lagerfeld’s otherworldly productions.

Whoever will be replacing her would have the honor of inheriting her, Coco Chanel’s, and Karl Lagerfeld’s enduring legacies, while having to face the daunting task of steering the beloved and respected brand to a new era of fresh ideas while respecting its rich and celebrated heritage.

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