After years working alongside Karl Lagerfeld, Virginie Viard is quietly and confidently reimagining Chanel for the house’s next chapter.
Virginie Viard, the quiet, creative force behind a stealthy reimagining of Chanel, may be a woman of few words, but she doesn’t mince them. Her conversation, as her friend the model and music producer Caroline de Maigret says, “is the opposite of small talk. She doesn’t know how to fake it.” Viard vividly remembers her first Chanel show, a campy Karl Lagerfeld haute couture extravaganza staged in the late 1980s that she was taken to as a treat by the father of a family friend. The collection was all hats and gloves and models, including Inès de la Fressange and Marpessa Hennink, vamping for the runway photographers. What did Viard make of the collection? “Horrible!” she says now, matter-of-factly. “So old.”
Viard’s trajectory has taken her from Lagerfeld’s invaluable Chanel studio director – he famously described her as “my right arm… and my left arm” – to, following his death in February 2019, the creative director for the brand, in a transition of such seamless elegance that it might have been constructed in the house’s fabled haute couture workrooms. If fashion’s chattering classes were expecting the famously private Wertheimer family, who own Chanel, to install another boldface name to replace Lagerfeld, there were plenty of clues to indicate that they would opt for continuity and reward experience and expertise instead – not least that Lagerfeld himself brought Viard, who had worked for him since 1987, out to share the applause at the last two collections where he took a bow.
Standing in the long shadows cast by Lagerfeld and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel – two of the most formidable creative forces of the 20th and 21st centuries – Viard, 58, who might be the least famous designer in fashion at its most famous house, is shy and almost self-effacing in comparison. “She’s action versus talk,” says the actor and Chanel brand ambassador Kristen Stewart, who adds that Viard “embraces otherness – she herself is quite strange in a beautiful way.”
Born in Lyon, France’s storied textile center, to parents who were both doctors, Viard moved to the small regional city of Dijon when her father was appointed to the city’s hospital. As a child, Viard would sometimes dress up as a nurse or doctor and accompany him to the hospital to cheer up some of his patients, but she never intended to follow her parents into medicine. “I love meeting doctors; I love speaking with them,” she says now, but she long ago decided that “fashion is easier!”
At 20, Viard, who was taught to sew by her mother, established a label, Nirvana, with a friend, making clothing using fabrics produced in her grandfather’s textile factory. Like the young Gabrielle Chanel, Viard preferred working with jersey “because you don’t need a special cut – the body gives it the shape” but later honed her pattern-cutting game at a local fashion school. (She also worked as a Saturday assistant at a local costume-jewelry store, though “I was never actually selling anything,” Viard recalls. “I was afraid of the customers! But I was redoing the shop and the windows all the time – red one week, green the next.”)
Paris eventually beckoned, where – through her well-connected Lyonnais roommate – Viard found an internship with Jacqueline de Ribes, the city’s queen-bee socialite, who had recently decided to parlay her consummate taste and flair for fashion into a brand of her own. “We were working in her house,” Viard recalls. “All the fabrics were laid out on the bed, and the photocopy machine was in the bathroom. I was the assistant to three people – we were four in total.”
Soon she moved on to become an assistant to the costume designer Dominique Borg, acclaimed for her work on such movies as Bruno Nuytten’s Camille Claudel and Claude Lelouch’s Les Misérables, and discovered what she felt was her true calling. Her family, meanwhile, had long since moved to a country house in Burgundy, where their neighbor – the aide de camp of Monaco’s Prince Rainier – soon met Karl Lagerfeld, a Monegasque resident and intime of Princess Caroline, the prince’s daughter, and boldly asked him whether he needed an intern. Fatefully, he did. Viard duly went to rue Cambon to meet Lagerfeld’s aide de camp, the patrician Gilles Dufour, who hired her on the spot.
“Immediately Karl was asking me, ‘What do you think of this?’ ‘What do you think of that color?’ I was so embarrassed,” Viard recalls. Her internship soon morphed into a full-time job. “Karl clicked with Virginie immediately,” says Eric Wright, another pillar of Lagerfeld’s design team. “There’s always been this calmness to Virginie that’s very, very discreet, but her presence and her energy are very, very strong and very influential.”
At the time, the team was small: Besides Dufour and Wright, there was a ready-to-wear assistant, an accessories designer with an assistant, and Victoire de Castellane, Dufour’s high-spirited niece, then responsible for Chanel’s larger-than-life costume jewelry. Viard soon saw an opportunity that appealed to her training in costume design and her meticulous organizational skills.
“My chance was that nobody was in charge of the embroidery,” she says, and so she would be dispatched to work with the formidable François Lesage of the storied embroidery workshop. “He and Karl were two egos,” Viard recalls. “Ooh-la-la! I had to be diplomatic!”
Viard relished her interactions with the extraordinary characters who provided Chanel with a treasury of handcraft. The button-maker Monsieur Desrues, for instance, who would arrive every day at twelve, bringing his suitcase, which might be empty but for one jewellike example of his art, wrapped in a piece of paper, or Madame Pouzieux, who wove extraordinary braids for the Chanel suits in her atelier above her farmhouse stables in the depths of the French countryside. “I would receive her samples,” says Viard, “and they would smell of her horses… Luckily, I love horses.” (In recent years, Chanel has acquired 38 of these endangered Maisons d’Art, or craft workshops – including feather- and artificial-flower-makers, custom milliners, glovemakers, pleaters, and textile and footwear designers – and 11 of them will soon be consolidated in 19M, a vast dedicated hub in the north of Paris scheduled to be unveiled next year.)
In 1992, Karl Lagerfeld returned to Chloé, the house whose romantic and poetically retro style he had defined from 1964 until he left to join Chanel in 1982, and he brought Viard with him. “Whatever you do, just surround yourself with tons of women,” the pragmatic Lagerfeld advised Wright. “Different personalities of women: That way, you feed off one another.” In 1993, Vogue profiled Viard as an It girl who exemplified the spirit of Lagerfeld’s newborn Chloé. “I adore dopey things!” she told the writer Charla Carter, who noted the collection of snow domes, the green plastic frog telephone, and the papier-mâché cactus in her eclectic red and yellow-striped decor, which was painted by Stefan Lubrina (who is now responsible for the epic Chanel sets) to evoke the work of the Bloomsbury artists.
“I never wore Chanel, even when I worked there!” admitted Viard at the time: Sybilla, Helmut Lang, John Galliano, and Martin Margiela were her designers of choice. “I like the occasional funny wink,” she noted, “but nothing too artificial. I guess you could say I like things that are stylized but real.” Viard’s electric aesthetic, including what she calls “flea market hits,” was exemplified in such looks as the red panne velvet pajama pants she wore with a man’s white cotton undershirt – was soon reflected in Lagerfeld’s boho Chloé collections.
At Chloé, Viard kept nocturnal hours. “Karl was arriving really late,” she recalls, “sometimes eleven o’clock at night, because he had Chanel all day and [his brand] Lagerfeld.” His design sessions were set to a soundtrack of the Red Hot Chili Peppers or the grunge music that Viard loved. (“Music-wise, she’s very rock and roll,” says de Maigret, “and she always likes when people have that side to them, that little extra something.”) Afterward, she and Wright would head for late-night dinners chez Natacha, the fashion world’s eatery of choice at the time. Wright was impressed by Viard’s network of actor friends, who would often join them. “Vincent Lindon, Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Adjani – they all trusted her advice of what to wear, how to dress,” Wright says. “All of the young actors that are part of the French film establishment now trust Virginie enormously.”
By the late 90s, Lagerfeld decided to bring Viard back to Chanel. “The only thing I wanted was to stay with Karl,” she says, “because when I came back to Chanel, it was not the best time. I remember a show when Karl wanted just neoprene. I tried to make him love tweeds and all that because… neoprene at Chanel, the new molded bag? Horrible! We had to go back to the romance!”
“You can tell the moment Virginie arrived back,” says Wright, “because things became more pure, more fluid. She loves luxury in clothing – the craftsmanship, the beauty. But she’s always been incredibly practical.” Viard’s particular brand of French bohemian style soon quietly influenced Lagerfeld to reshape the Chanel aesthetic. “She loves things to fit easily, with this ease and nonchalance. Virginie was finding a freshness for Chanel.”
These qualities now define Viard’s approach as creative director. “I remember one time asking Karl, ‘Oh, can’t you make a classic little shirtdress like this [vintage] one?’” recalls Sofia Coppola, who interned at Chanel herself in the 1980s. “And he’s like, ‘No – we never look back. We always are going forward.’ Virginie’s into revisiting things, but she always makes them look fresh – it’s her version of it. It doesn’t ever look like a replica.”
Coppola art-directed Viard’s pre-fall 2020 Métiers d’Art collection, named Paris-31 rue Cambon, recreating the Chanel couture salon with its famous staircase and walls of faceted mirrors – installed so that Gabrielle Chanel could spy on the reflected reactions of her audience while remaining unseen – in the Grand Palais. (The distinguished decorator Jacques Grange is currently renovating the original – transformed for Lagerfeld into a modernist black-and-gray set by Christian Liaigre in the early noughties – to reflect Viard’s taste by evoking the salon’s original 1930s atmosphere.) Coppola suggested that they hold the dinner and after-party at the legendary 1920s restaurant La Coupole, an evening that provided a riotous glimpse into Viard’s rock-chick world when the young Belgian singer Angèle sang and the legendary French crooner Christophe surprised the crowds by performing an impromptu set of his own. (Christophe succumbed to Covid-19 earlier this year, and Viard opened her spring 2021 collection with one of his songs.)
As a prelude to the Paris-31 rue Cambon project, Viard arranged a rendezvous with Coppola at the Patrimoine, on the outskirts of Paris, where the astounding Chanel archives are preserved in museum-like conditions. “Virginie pulled up on a motorcycle messenger, hopped off, took off her helmet, and was like, ‘OK, let’s go,’” Coppola recalls. Viard took Coppola through the endless avenues of closets, pulling such wonders as Chanel’s silk pajamas, or a 1960s suit with an Op Art tie-dyed silk blouse and matching jacket lining. “She took so much delight in showing me all these treasures,” says Coppola. “It’s just fun – someone that loves Chanel so much and wanted to share that.” The 1960s suit lining led to a tie-dye section in the collection. When the archive’s director, Odile Prémel, has an important new acquisition, she will bring it to Viard and the premières of the Chanel ateliers so they can study the technique. “It’s like a private lesson,” says Viard. “J’adore, j’adore!” There is more opportunity to explore Coco’s legacy when Viard and I are taken around the exhibition “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto” at the Palais Galliera, Paris’s dedicated museum of fashion, emerging from a two-year renovation underwritten by Chanel. Viard is entranced by the miraculous 1920s dresses that evoke Lagerfeld’s Chloé aesthetic, and by such wonders as a 1934 pewter sequined evening jacket, worn over a pleated crepe skirt, and Chanel’s own ivory silk daytime pajamas. “It’s so modern,” says Viard. “This is what makes her really close to us.” (“Gabrielle wanted to be free – she wanted to be able to jump on a horse, and go dancing like crazy, and then go to work,” says de Maigret. “And so she invented comfortable clothes. Virginie is answering the same question of what we want now.”)
At the end of the tour, Viard, deeply moved, struggles to express her thoughts. “It’s two whole lives of creation,” she says. “I remember some sketches of Karl, some collections, that I now realize were inspired by one detail or another that I’ve seen here. It’s her life. It’s his life.”
Before she leaves to return to her fittings, Viard stops in the gift shop to buy postcards that she will include with the flowers she will select at Lachaume and send to each of the atelier heads after the collection is finished. Above her mask, Viard’s eyes twinkle with delight at the thought.
Just how has Viard’s promotion changed her life? “I work more,” Viard deadpans. “I work all the time. It’s as if my grandparents had given me their fabric house and I wanted it to be the best – I wanted them to be happy. I’m often asking myself, ‘Karl, what do you think? Is it OK?’”
On the eve of Viard’s spring 2021 ready-to-wear show, the fabled Chanel studio is humming with activity. Almost all the pan-generational assistants are women, and the deeply collaborative Viard is keen to have their input. Many have been with Chanel for decades. Photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin have come to show Viard the stills from a series of three short promotional movie teasers they have produced, riffing on an iconic image of Gabrielle Chanel with her arm thrown over the back of a chair. They are now ensconced in a comfortable high-back sofa that has been placed against the wall at the end of the studio where Lagerfeld once sat sketching furiously away at his desk. Viard, it seems, rarely sits: She is too busy engaging with and styling the models in the dressing room at the opposite end of the studio, pondering whether to add a veiled 1930s-style hair band or a baby-pink or pearlescent-pink quilted purse to an ensemble. “Not everything suits everybody,” Viard explains, “and if they don’t feel comfortable in the clothes, I change the clothes.” The models range from Amanda Sanchez, who has been the house model for 19 years, to Louise de Chevigny, who was discovered, as Viard notes, by Chanel alum Inès de la Fressange for her eponymous brand’s catalog. “I adore her,” says Viard of de Chevigny, noting that she resembles the powerfully chic women who stalked the 1980s fashion runways or Helmut Newton’s photographs of that period. “We have a lot of French this time,” says Viard proudly, delighting in the fact that international travel restrictions have meant that she has had to cast closer to home.
“She loves the models,” says Van Lamsweerde. “She gets obsessed, and she wants to make them more beautiful, to feel good, look good – there’s a real generosity there. Virginie’s vision is so much more about a life and what you wear in it, rather than trying to make statements about fashion or change. They’re not concerned in this company with, Are we relevant? They’re not torturing themselves. It’s much more about supporting the life of the woman who buys her clothes. It’s a very feminine approach.”
For the collection, Viard has tapped into her passion not only for movies but for actors. Van Lamsweerde did a deep dive into Romy Schneider in Visconti’s Boccaccio ’70 and Delphine Seyrig in Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, both of whom were memorably dressed by Gabrielle Chanel herself. As they soon discovered, however, Viard – whose movie tastes run from French Nouvelle Vague to the 2019 Les Misérables (directed by her friend Ladj Ly, whom she met through Pharrell) – was “drawing her inspiration from today: actors on the red carpet or going to the airport or for a Starbucks,” as Van Lamsweerde says. “It’s more like a wardrobe for different moments in a woman’s life or in a day. There’s a sense of freedom there – it’s just unapologetic Chanel.”
Although she is now the creative director for a multi-billion-dollar global brand and her workload has changed exponentially, Viard has resisted any effort to adapt her private life. While Lagerfeld famously surrounded himself by turns with world-class art deco treasures, then museum-quality 18th-century decorative arts, then state-of-the-art contemporary design, Viard lives in the same artist’s atelier in the unfashionable 14th arrondissement that she bought 20 years ago and sees no reason to upgrade. “I love it,” she explains. “Karl was always laughing because I never wanted to change anything: If I bought a new car, it was exactly like the old one!”
Viard spent lockdown with her partner, the composer and music producer Jean-Marc Fyot (whom she describes as “mon fiancé”), and their 25-year-old son, Robinson, in their modest village house in Drôme Provençale. When Viard bought it some two decades ago, Fyot described it as “a squat,” although Viard has since made some home improvements. Fortunately, Viard was between collections when France went into strict quarantine, having recently launched the Métiers d’Art collection and planned the spring 2021 ready-to-wear. In the country, she distracted herself with bicycle rides, swimming in her pool, and cooking and cleaning. “It de-stresses me to see the results,” she explains.
When she returned to Paris and a studio full of masked accomplices, Viard plunged into work on the eclectic spring 2021 collection, which she is now unveiling beneath the writhing art nouveau ironwork of the Grand Palais against a set that mimics the iconic Hollywood sign but spells Chanel.
“It’s a very different season,” said the show’s producer, Etienne Russo, “but we have to adapt.” Fyot is on hand for support, rock-star chic in skinny black leather jeans and a hoodie under his daytime tuxedo, while Viard, dressed to match in a lean black Chanel coat to the ankles, narrow pants, and patent Chelsea boots, is preternaturally calm: She has done this dozens of times before, of course, and the Chanel machine ensures that everything happens like clockwork even while the support teams are all masked and the models have been tested for Covid.
The collection begins cinematically with Christophe’s music, which appropriates some lines from an old movie – Viard thinks it is Max Ophüls’s 1955 Lola Montès – and she is thrilled that the final grouping of Jazz Age black and white ensembles that she sees on the monitor reminds her of the stylized blocking in Marienbad.
Viard, who disdains personal social media and would still rather stay in the shadows, winces before she steps front of stage for the necessary bow. “She wants her work to be in the light, rather than her,” says de Maigret. “I find it so modern.”
Backstage, Viard’s friends congratulate her. “It’s glamorous and luxurious,” says the musician Sébastien Tellier, “but it’s a caress – it’s light, it’s super sweet.” As Kristen Stewart, watching across the Atlantic, puts it: “She’s really finding herself and projecting her voice as an artist. I can hear it loud and clear.”
Originally published on Vogue.com