Chanel Is at a Crossroad. Where Does It Go From Here?

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Earlier this month Virginie Viard, the creative director of Chanel, the second-largest luxury brand in the world by sales, left the house. She had been in her job for approximately five years — ever since the 2019 death of Karl Lagerfeld, her mentor and the brand’s former designer, with whom she had worked closely for decades.

Though critics (including this one) had generally disliked her work, which was awkward and seemed to equate shorts with fresh ideas, brand management had always declared its loyalty to her, and the revenue kept going up: to almost $20 billion last year. The break seemed abrupt and unexplained. One week Ms. Viard was showing her cruise collection in Marseille, France; a few weeks later, she was gone.

According to Bruno Pavlovsky, the president of fashion at Chanel, Ms. Viard did not have anything to do with the couture show held this week. Instead, it was designed, a news release said, by the “Fashion Creation Studio.”

Whether that is true or not — three weeks is an awfully fast turnaround for a 46-look handmade collection, even with 150 people working in six ateliers, as the release stated — the result was even more mediocre than what Ms. Viard had produced. That’s saying something, given the most memorable feature of her last couture was that every look was paired with shiny white tights.

And it revealed, as much as anything, why a designer matters, what the real impact of Ms. Viard’s (brief-ish) tenure may be, and why the question of who gets the job next has become the single most popular subject of conversation alongside the runways — even more than complaining about the road closures for Olympic preparation or fretting about the coming elections in France and the United States.

For while the venue for the couture show was new — the ornate Opéra Garnier, home of the Paris Opera Ballet, rather than the usual glass-crowned Grand Palais — the clothes looked old.

Officially inspired by the experience of the 19th-century theater, which Chanel has long supported, the designs seemed more like a checklist of familiar Karl-isms, minus the Wharholian imagination that used to dress up his shows with airplanes and supermarkets, turning even his clunkers into Pop Art. So, yup, there were glinting bouclé suits with boxy knee-length skirts and decorative tassels; sweeping taffeta opera capes paired with tiny bodysuits; tutu-esque little black dresses; and some weird forays into what the brand called “lacquered jersey” and fancy sweatpants. There were a lot of puffed long sleeves, the kind with the whiff of historicism that Mr. Lagerfeld favored, a lot of taffeta bows and a meringue of a wedding dress. It was like Chanel by way of St. John.

Continuity is all fine and dandy, but when it turns into treading water, it can drag you down.

The problem with both this collection and, indeed, what Ms. Viard did before, is that they didn’t reflect a key part of the Lagerfeld legacy. One Mr. Lagerfeld himself summed up when he said, “Chanel is an institution, and you have to treat an institution like a whore — and then you get something out of her.”

That’s an egregious statement (he was given to them), but the point Mr. Lagerfeld was making was that he succeeded because he refused to genuflect to the history of the brand. He came in and kicked the double Cs off their pedestal, and the result was thrilling. (It was also what led to Tom Ford at Gucci, John Galliano at Dior and so on.) Someone needs to do it again, only this time around, do it to the Lagerfeld-shape sacred cow.

The opportunity is so enormous — the platform so big, resources so deep, brand recognition so connected with aspiration and chic, and design vocabulary so endlessly mutable — it was incredibly frustrating to watch Ms. Viard fail to seize it. Not to exploit all that possibility seemed almost irresponsible; a betrayal of the chance that had been handed her, and that, rumor had it, pretty much every other designer under the sun desired. It’s partly why the disappointment with her work was so sharp, the reactions often verging on the edge of angry.

After Ms. Viard left, there were some who thought the pile-on came from misogyny, but I don’t think that’s true; I think it was simply a response to the stalled nature of her clothes. She had five years to move forward, which is more than many designers get these days. But every time a collection showed signs of promise, such as her last ready-to-wear with its lithe Croisette silhouettes, the next one would go right back to souvenir shop, head-scratching norm.

(Though I also don’t think it’s true that it was the chorus of social media criticism that led to her departure. The echo chamber of fashion on Instagram and X and TikTok may be loud, but when you are talking about a multinational corporation, in the end it’s about moving product.)

Maybe that was what Chanel wanted. Maybe Ms. Viard didn’t have a choice. Chances are, no designer is ever going to have the same carte blanche and blank checks and lifetime employment deal that Mr. Lagerfeld had. Budgets have shrunk and control has gone back to management and when those changes happen they are very hard to reverse.

But the current situation would suggest that the powers-that-be at the brand have realized, at least, that Ms. Viard did more to render Chanel minor than most people could have imagined possible.

That may, in the end, be her greatest legacy: underscoring the need for a point of view. For someone to offer a new idea about women and their place in the world and who and how they want to be. That is, after all, how Chanel began.

There are not many brands with the power and influence to create seismic change in fashion. Chanel is one of them. Here’s hoping that is what happens next.

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