Back in October, at the close of his Chanel spring/summer 2019 show, Karl Lagerfeld appeared for his traditional post-show bow, hand-in-hand with a tall brunette. Nowhere near as recognisable as the world-famous man standing beside her, nor even a frequently used name in fashion circles, the woman – dressed in an outfit of understated jeans and a denim jacket, with a Brigitte Bardot fringe – applauded adoringly as Lagerfeld took what would be his final applause from a rapturous audience.
To those in the know, Lagerfeld’s companion was the seldom seen Virginie Viard, his most trusted aide and protege – or, as Chanel put it, “his closest collaborator”. While her name may not ring the same bells as Lagerfeld or the house’s founder, Coco Chanel, those on the inside will attest that she has been integral to the house’s continued success. Lagerfeld once described their relationship as “essential, doubled by a very real friendship and affection” and said it was he, Viard and two others who ran the fashion chain.
Three months later, in January, at his final couture show, it would be Viard alone who took the bow, marking the first time in Lagerfeld’s three-decade history at the house that he failed to appear. While Chanel sought to avoid spreading alarm by saying that the designer was “feeling tired”, it confirmed that it was the Lagerfeld’s request that Viard “represent him and greet the guests”. Now, after the news that she has been “entrusted by [Chanel’s co-owner] Alain Wertheimer with the creative work for the collections, so that the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld can live on”, she will find herself in the spotlight left vacant by her mentor. The move to appoint behind-the-scenes talent to a top job is one that mirrors other influential fashion houses, such as the appointment of Alessandro Michele at Gucci, Daniel Lee at Bottega Veneta and Natacha Ramsay-Levi at Chloé. But in many ways for Viard, all roads have led to this place.
Coming from a family of silk manufacturers, Viard had a natural trajectory into fashion. When she was young, she was inspired by French New Wave cinema and idols such as Anna Karina and Gena Rowlands, and, after studying textiles, she embarked on a career in costume design for theatre and film. The story goes that it was after an introduction to Lagerfeld by Prince Rainier of Monaco’s chamberlain (a mutual friend) in 1987 that she was invited to work on embroidery at Chanel, marking the start of a 32-year-long relationship. Lagerfeld kept Viard at his side during his creative director stint at the French fashion house Chloé between 1992 and 1997. He then brought her back to Chanel, where she became the coordinator of haute couture and, in 2000, the ready-to-wear collections.
As the brand’s creative studio director, it has been Viard who brings Lagerfeld’s sketches to fruition, liaising with the seamstresses in the ateliers across the collections. “I visualise the show, get things ready for him, decide on materials, coordinate the teams and liaise with suppliers,” she said in 2017. She also once said: “I love to please him, but also surprise him,” and described him as “very sensitive, like all creative people, but very faithful, generous – which might not be what people would guess”.
While she has long been thought to be the natural successor to Lagerfeld, Viard has previously said that she hates the spotlight. Instead, she has described herself as “fairly curious” and someone who likes to “keep an eye on fashion, but it’s not what inspires me”. She has cited reading, music, art, the theatre and spending time with her partner and teenage son as her favourite things to do – a quiet and peaceful world away from the razzmatazz that comes with a Chanel fashion show.
Even when it comes to her methods of working, she has been reluctant to be seen centre stage. “Everything goes along smoothly because, above all, our studio is about teamwork,” she told the French magazine Crash. “I don’t feel like I’m a ‘director’. Our hierarchy isn’t felt throughout the studio, it’s seamless. In the end, it’s Karl who looks at the outfits with the workshop leaders; I don’t even need to be there. It’s always he who has the last word.”
There is no indication of how long Viard will be steering the ship for. Persistent rumours have linked Phoebe Philo with Chanel ever since she left Celine in 2017. But the swift succession announcement suggests that Chanel may follow the model of Alexander McQueen, where McQueen’s closest colleague, Sarah Burton, took the creative reigns when he died in 2010 and has kept his legacy alive in her own inimitable way. Viard’s task will be to put her stamp on the revered fashion house while honouring the legacy of Coco Chanel and Lagerfeld. As she said two years ago: “I like to think of myself as the one who helps his vision come alive.”