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Chanel Cruise 2020 Virginie Viard first debut show Paris
Chanel Cruise 2020Photography by Olivier Saillant. Courtesy of Chanel

Susannah Frankel: Virginie Viard’s Debut Marks a New Start for Chanel

Taking over from Karl Lagerfeld, Virginie Viard presented her first collection as artistic director of fashion collections – in a Belle Epoque train station inside the Grand Palais

Lead ImageChanel Cruise 2020Photography by Olivier Saillant. Courtesy of Chanel

The huge interior of Paris’ Grand Palais was transformed into a Belle Epoque train station for Virginie Viard’s Cruise 2020 collection for Chanel, her first as artistic director of fashion collections for that great French house. She took over from Karl Lagerfeld who died in February this year. Of all the people to follow, he must surely be the most difficult. And of all the people to succeed him, Viard is the most well qualified. She met him as an intern at Chloé and joined him at Chanel in 1987. She then worked alongside him, devoting her energy to making his extraordinary dreams a reality, for more than 30 years.

Of course things are different now, necessarily so. This is a new start and there was nothing Karl Lagerfeld himself embraced more than that. In fact, in 2000, he was the first designer to deem Cruise worthy of its own catwalk presentation: après Lagerfeld, le déluge that this hugely lucrative season, annually travelling the globe with clients and press in tow, has become. In the past, Chanel Cruise alone has been shown in Grand Central Station, New York, the Venice Lido, Santa Monica airport, Los Angeles, the hotel Eden Roc on the Cap d’Antibes, the gardens of Versailles and Seoul. The list goes on.

The train station is nothing if not symbolic of that. “On August 28th in 1952, I arrived at the Gare du Nord in Paris,” M. Lagerfeld once said. “To me, the city seemed to be straight out of the films and the books I’d found so fascinating. I’d come to spend two years at high school, but my trip to Paris lasted much longer.”

Something of an understatement.

Still, for all the grandeur of the space and the loving memories of times gone by – guests were seated on platforms bearing the names of places where Chanel, under Lagerfeld, had shown – there was a relative sparsity here that moved gently away from his literary and filmic world. That translated to the lookbook. Shot by Karim Sadli – in his lifetime Lagerfeld was responsible for the imagery – it was a more minimal affair. And there was a sense of realism to the clothes also. They were clever: blurred prints referenced landscapes seen out of the window of a speeding train, workwear in shades of mocha and navy hinted at the stationmaster’s uniform. In Viard’s hands the Chanel suit was patch-pocketed with an above-the-knee A-line skirt – aimed squarely at a young generation. Trouser shapes were played with: cropped with a high waist and wide, curved leg, they looked good with two-tone patent sock-boots fitted to the ankle and with a small sturdy heel. The play between the masculine and feminine was in evidence, of course. This was as central to the handwriting of Gabrielle Chanel as it was to Lagerfeld: a trouser suit was worn over a smocked white shirt finished with a bow and that other instantly recognisable Chanel signature, a camellia flower.

There was a grounded feeling to this collection, a sense of comfort and ease – literally in the aforementioned heel height and in utilitarian trench coats, chunky-knit cardigans sometimes embroidered with sequins, in leather shorts, mini-skirts and drawstring-waist pants and more. It pointed to a different hand albeit one steeped in a time-honoured vocabulary. As day went to evening, dresses printed with a circular motif reminiscent of station clocks were lovely as were lace confections finished with more bows topped with camellias again.

The show closed with three immaculately executed silk gowns suspended from high, starched white collars of the sort Lagerfeld famously wore. They were a sensitive and tender homage to the man who set the pace for contemporary fashion for so long.

In a rare interview in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of AnOther Magazine, Viard said when she moved to Chanel at the end of the 80s: “Chanel was just in one building. It was very small. Now it’s bigger, with a bigger team, but somehow we work like a small house still.”

It was Viard who interpreted Lagerfeld’s legendary sketches, working alongside that team to realise his collections in just that intimate way. “He gives me the sketches,” she said. “He asks questions all the time, and I’m good with him if he does what he wants to do even if he’s not sure. After that I give him my favourites. I can change the colour, the fabric, maybe make it more real, but never the spirit. And then he gets the confidence and he sketches more, the sketches are really good. Every day there are new sketches.”

As she stepped out to take her bows, Viard was visibly moved. That is to be expected. If the world of fashion has changed immeasurably with Karl Lagerfeld’s passing, hers has more so. It says something of her quiet power – and indeed the power of the entire Chanel team – that this was such an assured and confident start, a start for which they should be applauded and supported.