Karl Lagerfeld once called himself "a citizen of Europe." His Italian spirit is embodied at Fendi; his German descent is caricatured and immortalized at his namesake brand; and of course, his French ethos is exemplified at Chanel. But now that he has passed, these brands which he helped revitalize and helmed for so long—producing multiple collections per year—face the biggest test yet: Who can fill the shoes of a legendary icon?
At Chanel, the absence of Kaiser Karl can be felt. He was hard at work, collection after collection—not only designing all the looks but also directing and lensing the brand's campaigns and short films since 1987. CEO Alain Wertheimer granted Karl a contract that would have ended in 2045—a lifelong arrangement for the German designer. But now that this agreement had been rendered void due to his death, the question remains: Who will carry on the legacies of Gabrielle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld?
In an official statement by the French luxury house, Alain announced that Virginie Viard, Director of Chanel's Fashion Creation Studio, will take over Karl's role. But just how integral to the brand is Virginie?
While all Chanel pieces were birthed by the genius of Karl, his ateliers are responsible for turning his visions into reality. In Netflix's documentary series, 7 Days Out: World's Greatest Events, one episode zoomed in on the House of Chanel as they staged their Haute Couture show in Paris. This collection featured 64 handmade garments that were showcased at the historic Grand Palais. Karl himself likened their process to a well-oiled "Swiss clock that is perfectly organized."
Chanel has four couture ateliers headed by Jacqueline, Cécile, Olivia, and Josette, the headseamstresses called première—which is coincidentally the name of Chanel’s first timepiece. Each couture piece takes over 160 hours to make, starting from six weeks before the show. One day before the presentation, the models go into one last fitting with Karl. But not many know that Virginie is with Karl at this crucial final look at each collection. In fact, première Jacqueline says that Virginie "is in charge of choosing the outfits for the models." Karl adds, "Virginie is the most important person, not only for me, [but for] the atelier, for everything."
Ultimately, Virginie was Karl's closest collaborator in the last 30 years. "She is my right arm and even [when] I don’t see her, we are on the phone all the time."
At the Chanel Metiers D'Art 2018 and Spring 2019 shows, Karl surprised everyone when he took his bow together with Virginie. She also stepped in for him at the final bow for the Haute Couture 2019 show when Karl was too ill to attend. In retrospect, this small gesture signifies Karl's blessing, entrusting the brand to his right arm. As he said in the Netflix documentary, there are no second options. "I know exactly what I want and don’t want."
So who exactly is Virginie Viard? Below are the things you need to know about her:
She started as an intern at Chanel.
She joined the haute couture arm of the French fashion house in 1987, four years after Karl helmed the brand in 1983. She found a place in the atelier with a "recommendation of a neighbor of her parents," Telegraph reports. That neighbor happened to be Prince Rainier of Monaco’s chamberlain.
She has worked with Karl for over 30 years.
Virginie followed Karl when he took over Chloé. They worked together for the brand for five years until she returned to Chanel as coordinator of haute couture. In 2000, she also started handling the ready-to-wear arm of Chanel.
Virginie was a costume designer first.
She tells French site Crash, "I started in costume production as assistant to Dominique Borg, who notably produced costumes for Camille Claudel; then I was a costume designer for films and plays, until I met Karl, who suggested I work at Chanel and then Chloé."
They worked together every day.
In fact, it was Virginie who received Karl's sketches and "[she makes] the collections come to life with the ateliers and the Métiers d’Art houses, based on Karl’s sketches," she tells Telegraph. "I coordinate the teams, liaise with suppliers, and choose fabrics. Then, of course, I do fittings with Karl. As soon as I receive his sketches, the process begins. I try to please him, but I like to surprise him, too."
More than colleagues, they were friends.
In fact, she'd even text Karl's cat, Choupette. Virginie tells W magazine that when they text each other, Karl would sometimes pretend it's Choupette who would text her back. “He signs them, Your Choupette.”
Virginie is the only one who could decipher Karl's handwriting.
Karl's florist, Lachaume, also tells W that they would usually call Virginie when they needed help understanding Karl's notes when he would send people bouquets with handwritten notes. Plus, she is only one of the few women in Karl's life who could use the informal French term tu (you) with him.
Now, while we're at the cusp of a huge shift in the house of Chanel, it is still Karl's words that continue to assure us. In his interview with Vogue editor Suzy Menkes, he says, "Fashion is about change–and I like change." And we can't wait to see what Virginie has in store for Chanel.