“Mon Dieu!”: What Has Happened to Chanel?

Chanel Pre Fall 2023
Photo Courtesy of Chanel

Cristobal Balenciaga is not the only prominent creator who must be rolling over in their grave. Coco Chanel, a genius of modernism and a woman who redefined fashion, cannot possibly be happy with what she sees at Chanel. Sorry to say, but I just cannot warm up to Virginie Viard, who took over as creative director of Chanel following Karl Lagerfeld’s death in 2019.

This is a difficult time for the fashion business. Still, it should be a good time for an authentic, historic fashion label steeped in rich heritage and iconography, such as Chanel. This makes Virginie Viard’s continually unremarkable vision of the house mystifying and confounding.

What is needed now is a creative force that can draw on the spirit of Coco and, at the same time, bring excitement to the house.

Like many others in the media, I was rooting for Virginie Viard’s success. The 60-year-old designer indeed showed promise. After all, Virginie was Karl Lagerfeld’s closest collaborator for more than 30 years. Karl, the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the Met, Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, May 5 – July 15, 2023, referred to Viard as both his right and left hand, and they apparently worked very well together.

Virginie Viard, Karl Lagerfeld, Hudson Kroenig after the Metiers d’art 2018 Show
Photo: rollingstone.it

She had the complete endorsement of Karl and Alain Wertheimer, the billionaire co-owner of Chanel’s house. But, since taking over in 2019, Virginie has yet to hit her stride.

Chanel Spring 2021 Ready-to-Wear
Photo: vogue.com

A certain elegance and taste level need to be present, and too many consistently unflattering proportions, ditsy prints, fussy flounces, and puerile uses of the CC logo and the camelia. Only some designers will hit a home run each and every time (Karl certainly did not), but the clinkers should not outweigh the high moments.

Chanel Pre-Fall 2023
Photo Courtesy of Chanel

On December 8, Chanel took its Metiers d’Art Pre Fall 2023 show to Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Many key press members pointed out that the venture could have been a disaster. Seen as an attempt at cultural appropriation, it was a potentially perilous exercise for the French luxury brand. Instead, it was part of an ambitious three-day program immediately following Dakar Fashion Week.

Chanel Pre Fall 2023
Photo Courtesy of Chanel

Chanel partnered with local artists, dancers, musicians, and writers, highlighting them both at the presentation and throughout the week. In addition to collaborations with local creatives, a series of long-term initiatives to promote craftsmanship and sustainable farming was set into motion. This is all fine and dandy, but what about the clothes themselves?

Chanel Pre Fall 2023
Photo Courtesy of Chanel

Chanel show notes described the collection as inspired by “the pop-soul-fun-disco-punk decade” of the ’70s. But for me, there were many more misses than hits, as usual. In the end, most of it looked overly hippie, fussy, retro, and stuck in a time warp. More Zimmermann than Chanel. Where is the relevance? Where’s the chic modernity associated with the house?

Chanel is now the first European or American luxury brand to stage a fashion show in sub-Saharan Africa. That is commendable. High-minded concepts and social activism are essential for a fashion house, but they shouldn’t have to come at the expense of the brand’s DNA. Where does this leave the clothes?

Chanel Fall 2019 Couture
Photo: Alessandro Lucioni for Gorunway.com

It’s been a bumpy road for Viard, whose designs are the opposite of the uncomplicated modernity proposed by Coco. The few times Viard has had the most success thus far is with her Haute Couture Collections. Fall 2019 Couture, Viard’s first for the house, was set in a library inspired by the one in Gabrielle Chanel’s daytime apartment on the Rue Cambon. It was chic and rigorously pared down.

Viard undoubtedly found redemption for Fall 2020 Couture, hitting just the right note with a collection inspired by Lagerfeld’s eccentric “punk princesses.” Viard struck a balance between the “grand and casual.” The overall effect was luxurious yet youthful.

Chanel Fall 2020 Couture
Photo by Mikael Jansson Courtesy of Chanel

Virginie admitted that she purposely went the opposite of what she previously did. Perhaps Viard was listening to criticisms of her past work. Unfortunately, examples like this are few and far between.

Peter Do Fall 2022 Ready-to-Wear
Photo by Greg Kessler Courtesy of Peter Do

More than 50 years after Coco’s death and 110 years after opening her first shop at Rue Cambon, Chanel continues to inspire and amuse, and her label continues to endure when so many others have come and gone. The Chanel Mystique lives on.

Thom Browne Spring 2023 Menswear
Photo by Achielle forStyle Du Monde

Many fashion designers, including Peter Do, Ralph Rucci, Proenza Schouler, Jil Sander’s Lucie and Luke Meier, Thom Browne, and The Row, are far more successful at channeling the essence of Chanel than Viard. I believe if Coco were alive today, she might wear The Row herself

The Row Pre-Fall 2023
Photo: Courtesy of The Row

The Olsen twins’ androgynous and minimal approach to luxury for The Row is very much in keeping with Coco’s ultra-modern vision. The design duo would be a perfect fit for Chanel. They could conceivably design both The Row in New York and Chanel in Paris.

Celine Pre-Fall 2018
Photo by Juergen Teller Courtesy of Celine

I once said that Phoebe Philo would be the ideal candidate to take over at the design helm of Chanel. The former creative director of Celine gave new meaning to glamour and fostered a new mode of dressing built on minimalism, tailoring, and effortless chic principles. In September 2018, people talked about Philo as Karl’s possible replacement after Chanel moved its global headquarters to Philo’s hometown of London.

Celine Pre-Fall 2018
Photo by Juergen Teller Courtesy of Celine

Like Coco, Philo is known for her uncomplicated style, understated elegance, and sense of freedom. Moreover, Phoebe has a proven track record, knows how to create ‘IT’ bags, and constantly challenges existing notions of what is feminine, beautiful, and attractive.

Speaking of Philo, where is she? On July 12, 2021, Phoebe announced that she was returning to business with an independent clothing and accessories line partially backed by LVMH, her former employer. More information was promised at the beginning of 2022. Since then, we have been waiting to hear something. 2023 will finally be the year?

We can hope!

Latest Comments:

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.

  1. Marilyn, I totally agree with you. I have never seen such ugliness from this design house. It is sad, and I hope that reflection in sales might change this direction. I am sickened by the push in fashion to taking beauty and producing ” non binary” ugliness. I watched “7 days Before” again and cried for Karl.

  2. I agree with you on all counts 100%. The collection is way off the mark. I miss Karl’s brilliance, We will see what happens in the revolving door of designers!
    Happy Holidays, Marilyn!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.