Chanel haute couture has come to this: prêt à porter, n’est-ce pas?
Madame Virginie Viard, you are not serious, right?
Chanel haute couture has come to this: prêt à porter, n’est-ce pas?
Madame Virginie Viard, you are not serious, right?
Chanel has become more consistent than its ever been: the consistent quality of designing the same way, over time. In the case of Virginie Viard, slightly over a year (the house announced on 19 February 2019 that she will take the place of the late Karl Lagerfeld). Chanel, more and more, and more than the average luxury brand, second the increasing believe that fashion design need not be complicated. In fact, the less in the exercise of design the better, especially for the bottom line. Ms Viard is, of course, not alone in taking the consistent-is-best route. In her good company is Maria Grazia Chiuri and the most consistent of them all, Hedi Slimane.
With consistency comes a susceptibility to the lacklustre. Consistency has the tendency to breed the latter. Styling can mask the lacklustre, and the styling at Chanel does that remarkably well. Even if you watch the show with lacklustre eyes, you may be seduced into seeing lack masquerading as lustre. Fashion is, after all, smoke and mirrors. It helps, of course, that Chanel has loads of costume jewellery to disguise the lacklustre, like fairy light and tinsel livening up what would mostly be insipid trees. And bags—loads of them—to throw you off the scent-of-lacklustre trail.
Consistency and lacklustre are such dazzling partners that they make good runway. The Hadid sisters, regrettably, do pale. Consistency and lacklustre love an audience and the audience love them back. Chanel’s Conlack (in the convention of Brangelina, which Reuters noted back in 2006, “has more cultural equity than their two star parts”) we shall henceforth call consistency and lacklustre, plays to the pervasive social and all-important-front-row aspects well. In the past, fashion has no love for Conlack, but in the present, they have more cultural equity than any part Coco Chanel has ever imagined, beige and black too. And the celebrity-thick audience (presumably, and understandably, with less Conlack lovers from Asia) will lap up Conlack with as much enthusiasm as Marilyn Monroe—bless her soul—dousing herself in No 5, as she supposedly did.
Like news feeds, Conlack is with us more than it ever was. Ms Viard is aware of it too. She understands the power of Conlack and she draws on their immense potency to inflict delightful torture and tortured delight on the rapt audience. It does not matter that customers of Chanel, who could splurge without as much as fiddling with the camellia brooch before committing, are going to buy no matter how glaringly Conlack manifests this season, and they do appear with considerable clarity. Conlack likes no better than showing it can appeal to every woman, every wardrobe, every occasion, every trip to Daily Monop. It has mumsy jackets for madams of a certain age, hotpants for the twentysomethings with legs, and everything between that Conlack can squeeze into, and it can squeeze itself into many things. Conlack, in case you didn’t notice, is thin. On what, you decide.
Conlack has no voice; it is better at echoing. It echoes the voices of the dead; of the living; of the girls who wear their side-buttoned track pants unbuttoned, but no longer; of the KOLs who can’t get enough of hot pants because, well, of course, the weather demands it; of the executive who thinks a long-sleeved shift is work wear and wearing one will upstage co-users of the co-working space, of the crazy woman who slips her neckwear under her tube top because, frankly, crazies do. Conlack offers no surprise. Don’t expect strange bows behind the neck or shoulders that peak above the ears, or coats so roomy you can hide three of your children under them. Conlack loathes surprises. Ms Viard has moulded Conlack so perfectly and so ingeniously that it could reverse last year’s “fake news”, and entice LVMH to come a-calling with an acquisition offer. There is money to be made in Conlack. The world’s largest luxury group knows that.
Conlack is not only about the clothes. It can manifest itself in the hair and makeup too. Conlack hair is sad, no-effort hair. It is the cousin of hair that is synonymous with bad days. Or bridesmaids unwilling to outdo the bride. But Conlack hair is proud hair; it does not need to hide under a headscarf. Conlack makeup is no-colour makeup, the antithesis of what used to be Vamp and its entire dark ecosystem of irresistible products. It is also the opposite of Vamp’s life partner Camp. Conlack makeup is ready-to-rise and ready-to-bed. It is free of the palette, of shading, of highlights. Together with the clothes, Conlack is daily life and consumption that alters your propensity to discern and differ. Conlack, Chanel has shown once more, is top-to-toe—your total, all-loving, fashion-affirming dud(s).
Photos: Alessandro Lucioni/gorunway.com
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.
Frankly, we are very surprised—horribly so isn’t stretching it. This photo of Gigi Hadid isn’t real, we tell ourselves. That is possible. This can’t be a Chanel show, that’s possible too. Not with her looking like she might benefit from a serum from the company’s Sublimage line, not with her in a top that looks like the countless auntie blouses that OG continues to sell with considerable delight and regularity and the shocking shorts that could have come from some school girl’s indifferent PT kit, and not with the chain belt that, sadly, looks like an afterthought just as she was about to go out onto the the runway. Why does Ms Hadid not communicate an image consistent with what, up till now, is luxury fashion? An SOTD reader quipped, “it’s a bad-face day”.
Chanel; this is Chanel, we remind ourselves. As much as fashion is about change, we can’t say for certain that all change merit blandishments. In the current climate of inclusive fashion, this could be charged as “shaming”—bland platitude as this may be. We are no longer allowed to say that a collection is unattractive—even ‘ugly’ is not what it used to mean. Yet, the Chanel of today is, to us, not a beacon of the greatness it had been under the stewardship of two influential taste-makers. If Gigi Hadid can’t save an outfit, even from a house known to have kick started the modernisation of women’s fashion in the 20th century, what hope is there for the rest of us, especially we who want nothing to do with carrying a torch for carrying a torch’s sake?
With her first RTW outing, there is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with what Ms Viard has done. She’s merely playing the same tune, without the musicality of her predecessor, without his interpretive flair and I-don’t-care cheekiness. As Chanel is Chanel, a commercial line not obliged to sync with the rest of the trend-generating business of fashion, Ms Viard can continue to churn out unremarkable clothes without the brand suffering any aesthetical deficit. Obsequious designs may sell, but can a less forceful creative head push Chanel further ahead without suffering the fate that befell other houses that had lost their visionary designers?
To be sure, the house still has its fabrics: the tweeds that it is known for is characteristically gorgeous (its chromatic variations quite endless), but it is what Ms Viard does with them that leaves little to be desired. The thing is, without the tweeds, these garments are nothing special. Nothing. Broadening the lapels and lowering the cleavage of the classic suit, which are now mostly build around the abbreviated one-piece, do not enhance the wardrobe already packed with countless variations. As stated in the press release, Ms Viard’s approach is juvenescent (“A youthful breeze of liberty blows….”), we don’t consider adding shorter hemlines—in the form of blogshop fave, the romper—caters to the youth the way Coco Chanel did after World War I, with a silhouette that suggested ease, the unencumbered and the sportif.
There is a sense that Ms Viard urgently needed to, like some women who take over the creative director role from men at other houses, feminise the overall Chanel ideal although, ironically, the brand was known for its simple little black dress that, when once featured in Vogue in 1926, was captioned “garçonne” (little boy). In fact, Coco Chanel herself was known to style herself in a tomboyish, pants-wearing manner, drawing inspiration from sailors and fishermen. Conversely and, perhaps, deliberately, Ms Viard amplifies the feminine flourishes: the Pierrot collar, its Peter Pan cousin, petite bows, the tiered skirt, more ruffles that you’d ever need, the puffed sleeve, the pouf skirt (that even Kaia Gerber looks foolish in). In the mix, even the odd granny sweater!
It is possible that Ms Viard has to design pieces to cater to women of a certain age whose taste if described as fine would be excess. They have the financial means to buy and their money has made Chanel one of the most profitable, privately-owned, fashion businesses in the world. All understood, but must these separates appear on the catwalk? Could they not be discreetly introduced in the store? Perhaps even more curious: why do some of the evening and cocktail dresses share similar silhouettes with Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Dior? Is this indication that the aesthetics of women’s wear are heading in a direction that is escaping us? It seems that Ms Viard is happy to not have to better what her predecessor did. For as long as she won’t rock La Pausa (the ship once docked in the Grand Palais, not Coco’s villa on the French Riviera! By the way, we should add that, this season, the roof top is no pedestal!) and is able to make Chanel recognisable, with all the codes in tact and the wearability untouched, the brand would be able to live on and on. And on.
Photos: vogue.com/Alessandro Lucioni/gorunway.com
Change, as it’s often said, is the only constant in fashion. Some changes, we wait in anticipation, but when they arrive, we wonder why we bothered to cool our heels at all. At Chanel, change was something we’ve been waiting for, even before the passing of Karl Lagerfeld, but the change that eventually descended was no real shift, let alone a turnaround (no one is expecting a revolution). Virginia Viard played it safe—very safe—and while that might be acceptable for the cruise collection, which was the season she debuted in, it is not the high one reasonably expects from the couture.
It is telling when the media responses to Ms Viard’s first couture season vacillate between “simple” and “elegant” and, yes, “easy” too—ill-disguised circumlocution to say dull. To be sure, even Karl Lagerfeld’s collection in 1983, his first, which was the couture, now appears not the thrill it gave fashion editors and show attendees then. But at that time, Mr Lagerfeld did take a bygone suit (also unremembered because it had, until then, become a cliché, widely and cheaply copied too) and made it hit the high notes to the couture customers, with accessories that had no monosyllabic description to adequately reflect the sizzle until, a decade later, ‘bling’ came along. He was plugged into and reflecting the zeitgeist even before fashion consumers knew what that meant, and truly giving them suits and dresses they never knew they ever wanted. He famously justified his changes to the classics of the house by saying, “Even if she never did it this way, it’s very Chanel, no?”
We are not certain if what Ms Viard did is very Coco or very Karl, or very neither. Initial media reports suggested that Ms Viard was inspired by both (which sounds like what Maria Grazia Chiuri once, too, asserted when she said she was inspired by all who came before her at Dior). Sure, there were familiar elements: Coco’s sense of the androgynous and Mr Lagerfeld’s sense of the feminine. But in drawing from both, did Ms Viard proposed something that’s entirely her own, sums that can blow our minds?
To us, Chanel has exhausted the house’s so-called codes. Even Karl Lagerfeld, in his last five years, was not able to put exciting new spins on those elements that have afforded Chanel instant recognition and marketability. That’s not to say he has not made them more extraordinary, but perhaps Chanel, post-KL, is ready for a remake? We’re not suggesting that the house negates what have been closely associated with it, but would it be possible, Ms Viard, to be less precious about them.
We like to see those bouclé tweeds, for example, be less glamorous (the amped-up already explored by Mr Lagerfeld). This is not a textile issue—Chanel’s fabric director and one of Mr Lagerfeld’s key cohorts, Kim Young-Seong, we’re sure, is doing her part—but how the tweeds are used bother us. Could they be re-imagined, for example, the way Junya Watanabe did his, back in the fall of 2004 season? Surely something is amiss when the tweed suits are better at Ralph and Russo?!
But perhaps Ms Viard can’t see the way forward this way. So she plays it safe, so much so that her couture is looking dangerously close to pret-a-porter, even if high fashion generally seems to be sliding from its lofty perch. We chose not to comment on her first collection—the cruise of two months ago—because we thought it might have been a little premature to see her as directional. Cruise, as we know, is conceived to sell. In the case of Ms Viard, being her first outing, it could be a shaky start. We overlooked the ridiculous bows and hoped it was not a prelude to things to come.
Sure, she did not revisit floppy details, but she sure did make some ensemble look decidedly cruise. It is hard for us to justify the existence of a jumpsuit, which looked like it defected from Michael Kors’s catwalk, or pajamas that even Grace Coddington might walk away from, or flounced dresses that Quan Yifeng would wear to Sunday lunch with her daughter. There is, oddly, a coat that reminded us that France once colonised Vietnam, a robe that tells us it’s time to get out of bed, and a pair of bustier gowns that would thrill every homecoming queen. Odder still are those dresses that seem to be homage to Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Dior! Absent (what we’d really to witness) is a tug between simplicity and complexity, between hard and soft, between the old masters and the new designer. And still be able to articulate, “Even if she never did it this way, it’s very Chanel, no?”
Let’s try to see into the future: Anna Wintour will not be a Chanel couture wearer (we aren’t sure if ‘customer’ is the right word). Her red carpet appearance at the Met Gala would not be in Chanel. She continues to wear the Chanel of Karl Lagerfeld, and she would not call them vintage.
This has been applauded as Karl Lagerfeld’s last designs for Chanel, but the house announced that it is “a collection by Karl Lagerfeld and Virginie Viard”. This could be the first official acknowledgement of Ms Viard’s involvement in the design process, not merely to execute what Mr Lagerfeld had sketched. That Ms Viard ‘officially’ shares the honour could indicate that Mr Lagerfeld may have been too ill to finish the collection or that this is the time to get Chanel fans used to the name of the unknown designer taking the place of Mr Lagerfeld.
On the whole, the collection looks typically and joyfully Karl Lagerfeld. He had pushed the house codes to such an extent that even those who had bought Chanel suits before Mr Lagerfeld took over the reigns in 1983 won’t today immediately recognise them. And the old silhouette, too, had so dramatically changed that this really had become Karl Lagerfeld as Gabrielle Chanel than merely a re-imagining of what Coco had dreamed up. But upon closer look at the autumn winter 2019 collection, there is suspicion that Virginie Viard’s hand was at work.
Sure, Mr Lagerfeld’s sense of glamour and tres coordinated chic are all there, including his jacket shapes—frequently boxy and, just as often, sportif— and their renown lightness, as well as his fondness for a certain way with lapels—cut away and graphic, triangular fold-downs. There are the relaxed pantsuits, pulled together with a certain slouch. There are also the pairing of skirts over pants (now the capri), sheer tops over white shirts, and dresses for getting dolled up. And the details: the double-breasted, the frayed tweed to form a short fringe, and yet more ways to trim the Chanel jacket. Nothing is casual, nothing is effortless, nothing is not calculated.
Yet, despite what social media has called a “very Karl” collection, there are other touches that seem inconsistent with the man who ruled Chanel for 36 years. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are surprised to find a jacket with contrast sleeves and a coat with contrast yoke; outers that wrap like a blanket or, one—a twofer with slanted shoulders and a rather cocoon effect; even a boilersuit with a low waist. Could these be the touches or ideas of Virginie Viard? We many never know. But it is likely that the Wertheimer family, owner of Chanel, want an unbroken succession and her expressly stated involvement now will lessen potential disruptions moving forward.
The setting may be alpine, but these are not ski wear. Hard, in fact, to imagine them on a ski lift. For sure, they’d be worn up in the mountain, to a winter lodge, but dressing up is more likely for the apres-ski parties known to dominate the winter resorts that the show set—typically not modest— is based on (Chalet Gardenia! Mr Lagerfeld must have had immense fun thinking of such names). These are clothes the one percent (or wives of) will wear to St Moritz. For the rest, there is always the red jumper with the double Cs just below the neck—logo placements undoubtedly Mr Lagerfeld’s forte.
No one can say for sure what path, snow covered or not, Chanel will henceforth take. Karl Lagerfeld is so synonymous with Chanel that it is hard to imagine the latter without the former. But, for certain, those tweeds will live on, so will the countless bags already sold and shall be. The until-now-unknown name Virginie Viard will be very much watched. She has very large shoes to fill, even if they are two-tone pumps.