Can Chanel ever break from adhering to what’s expected of it?
There have been many firsts for Virginie Viard at Chanel: first resort, first couture, first spring, and, now, first Métier D’art. They should have all been her last. That might sound unkind or like an upbraiding, so let’s say, last of the safe, the dull, the predictable, the repetitive, the fussy, the mind-numbing, the tai-tai poise, the painfully precious, the simulated exuberance, the back-to-the-yore-for-more. But it won’t be.
We’ve come to the not premature conclusion (it’s been four collections) that Ms Viard will not put Chanel on a propulsive trajectory. When Karl Lagerfeld took the reigns in 1983, you could see—or guess—where he was going with the house. He did not only rejuvenate it, he imagined he was Coco, creating a better Chanel than even the originator could imagine possible.
Ms Viard does not need to breathe new life into Chanel. That part of the brand’s journey is done/covered. What for her now is to carry on what has been established. And much has. So she only needs to manage that. And that appears to be what she’s doing. Nothing more, nothing less. There is no Daniel-Lee-at-Bottega-Veneta moment. If you’re a Chanel devotee, such as Anna Wintour, you probably don’t mind the routine rifts on house codes, the reprisal of the Chanel jacket that most know well and brands on the lower end of the market are aping, and the requisite Chanel-ness.
Chanel is the only French house that continues to bear semblance to what its founder did. Dior is no longer recognisably Dior, nor Balenciaga, nor Saint Laurent, nor Givenchy, nor Valentino, but Chanel still clutches to the entities of the past. Sure, Ms Viard belatedly introduced oversized jackets to appeal to a generation for whom a certainly slouchiness is de rigeur, but much else of the collection stays so away from reinvention that even Gigi Hadid looks like a woman who has made her fortune and is ready to retire to Capri.
To please Chanel junkies, Ms Viard goes back to where it began or where Coco Chanel spent much of her professional and private life in Paris: her apartment on 31 Rue Cambon, home of her famed coromandel screens. The set (who does T-shaped runways anymore?) was co-designed with Soffia Coppola, Marc Jacobs’ BFF and biggest fan. The media calls it a “homecoming”. This could be more than that.
Ms Viard is possibly doing a woman-to-woman succession. And as a woman, she may see herself as a natural choice to continue the Chanel legacy. Going back to Coco Chanel’s most personal space (including the famed spiral staircase—at the top, we imagine, is where she was known to watch the show below) is establishing a direct connect to her. That is fine, but do we really need to celebrate Chanel’s heydays today when so much of what the founder had done already saturates fashion through subsequent decades? Or could this be Ms Viard’s way of turning her nose up at fashion’s incessant quest for newness and re-make.
Coco Chanel never played it safe. But Virginie Viard does. The former took risks, the latter does not. These are distinctions to be discerned. Whatever may be deemed contrary or sacrilegious to the house had been done by Mr Lagerfeld. Ms Viard is unable to squeeze out any surprises. No more biker jackets to shock, no more scuba wear either, nor denims, nor plastic rain coats, nor sneakers for haute couture. Audacity, to her is a ‘dip-dyed’ leather military-style jackets, charm is Chanel costume jewellery woven into sweater tops as a silhouetted motif, and youth is a jumper with oversized text of Chanel 31 Rue Cambon.
It is understandable that some designs are churned out to appeal to a certain customer, but surely those don’t have to be put on the runway? So many designs stood out for the wrong reasons: their why-again familiarity or how similar some styles are to what you might find in OG, or how they might be ideal costumes for a remake of Valley of the Dolls, with parties set in a particular Mar-A-Lago Estate. Fans defend the collection by pointing out the many hours it took to make some of the pieces. But after the time-consuming effort of the metiers and the collection still looks this way? That’s rather sad. And regrettable indeed.