Musings on Karl & Chanel: The Chanel Mystique

Fashion is 24/7 particularly for those of us involved in the fashion business, and particularly during collection time. But on the heels of the recent passing of two 85 year old fashion icons Lee Radziwill and Karl Lagerfeld, smack dab in the middle of the 2019 fall winter runway shows, there has been even more of a focus and interest.

But of course, Karl was not just a fashion icon; he was the most prolific, revered, influential designer of his time and the creative director of the one of the most iconic and successful luxury brands in fashion which he completely transformed. We will never see another one like Karl and since hearing the news, we have all had a chance to reflect on his singular brilliance, enormous talent, uncanny ability to connect the dots between high fashion and popular culture, and his sphere of influence which knew no bounds.

It’s not surprising that there has been so much said and written about Karl and Chanel and what his passing means to fashion and the luxury business. Karl was Coco incarnate. They became one in the same. In fact, it’s almost easy to forget that there was an actual Coco Chanel because Karl was such an embodiment, down to the rigorously edited black and white uniform: the white shirts with the starched high collars, the black ties with the jeweled stick pins, the perfectly tailored black jackets, skinny black jeans, and black boots

As for the Chanel Mystique: is there any other fashion label whose house codes are as timeless and as instantly recognizable? The quilted bag, the gold chain belt, the piped cardigan, the tweed suit, the cap toe pump, ropes of pearls, the little black dress, and the camelia are such universal and identifiable symbols of chic, many fashion fans mourned the Chanel designer by taking pictures of themselves in their favorite pieces and posted them on Instagram.

And they continue  to be interpreted and re-interpreted not only at Chanel, but by such designers as Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe, Balmain, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, and Brock Collection who had an entire group of tweed suits and dresses for fall 2019. Then there is Marc Jacobs who has been continually and unabashedly influenced by Chanel and especially, Chanel in the 80’s, when Karl first took over. In fact, it’s been reported that Marc wanted the job that Karl eventually got and he has been known to wear Chanel jackets -women’s size 12 to be exact- to high profile outings. That’s about as good as an endorsement as one can get.

But it’s easy to robotically knock off Chanel’s signature house codes as exemplified by mass market chains like H&M, Forever 21, and Zara. What’s not so easy is to actually breathe new life into them, make them modern and relevant, give them a living and breathing soul, AND make them alluring objects of desire. There is no question that it was only Karl endorsed sneakers for his fall 2014 ready-to-wear collection (turning the runway into a chic super market), that women were seduced enough to wear them 24/7 (and spend a small fortune on them).

This was what Karl excelled at and there’s no question that much of it can be attributed to his charisma: his rock star, larger than life image and personality.  By comparison, his successor, Virginie Viard, who held the position of director of Chanel’s Fashion Creation Studio, has no social media following and is a relative unknown to all but those at Chanel and a handful of fashion insiders. She is a woman who apparently prefers to stay in the background (she admitted that a big part of her job was keeping Karl “happy”) and said that she shuns high heels because she is already tall and as she put it, “prefers not to be noticed.” Well, like it not Ms. Viard, you are being noticed now. You had better get used to it.

According to one of the many profiles written about her since Tuesday’s appointment, Virginie thought that Chanel was “old” when she was growing up. But when asked by a journalist for Madame Figaro in 2017 what makes a “Chanel girl” her reply was, “As I have always been a Chanel girl, I don’t know how to be anything else”. I thought that was a great response because you don’t become a “Chanel girl” simply by donning a Chanel jacket and cap toe pumps or wearing black and white. That would be far too easy. It’s all about having a certain attitude, and an inherent synergy which cannot be taught. The same way Karl Lagerfeld’s talent could not be taught. It just was.

Virginie, who is in her 50’s, has been Karl’s closest collaborator for more than 30 years. He referred to her as both his right and left hand and they have apparently worked very well together. Most importantly, she has the complete endorsement of Alain Wertheimer, the billionaire co-owner of the house of Chanel, who is banking on her to continue on with Coco and Karl’s vision of Chanel, so she is obviously off to a good start. Still, she is an unproven quantity, and a lot is riding on her appointment.

Fashion is big business and if revenues begin to drop, so will she. You know that famous phrase from The Godfather, “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business”? Well, that certainly comes to mind. Maybe the still unemployed Phoebe Philo, who people had been talking about as Karl’s replacement (especially after Chanel moved its global headquarters to her hometown of London) shouldn’t give up hope just yet. The creative director of Celine from 2008 to 2018 was known for her uncomplicated style and sense of freedom. She has a proven track record, knew how to create ‘IT’ bags, and constantly challenged existing notions and created a new prototype for what is feminine, beautiful, attractive much like Coco herself.

Another name that had been mentioned was Hedi Slimane, before he took the job at Celine. But I have to say that if there was ever a great time for Chanel, which was founded by a woman (a rule breaking one at that), to be passed to another woman it is now.

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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