The fashion world went into mourning as the news broke in February that Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s revered creative director, had died. Editors, models and designers took to social media in a collective online outpouring of grief. Instagram turned into a giant wake. Hamburg-born Lagerfeld joined Chanel in 1983, turning the out-of-step and nearly bankrupt firm into today’s $10 billion-a-year super-brand. With his powdery white quiff, stiff collared shirts, fingerless leather gloves and sunglasses, he was as synonymous with the label as its signature interlocking C’s, the camellia flower and, arguably, Gabrielle Chanel herself. His vampire look became a popular Halloween costume, much to his delight. The master of reinvention, he turned Chanel’s prim tweed two-pieces into power suits in acid hues. He also became known for bombastic runway shows. His last, posthumous Paris Fashion Week extravaganza featured a Tyrolean village covered with snow. Over the years, he’d also installed icebergs, waterfalls, even a 35m space rocket on his catwalks.
Can Chanel survive without its iconic frontman? Undoubtedly, the firm benefited from his input and image; financial results from 2018 show an operating profit of $2.7 billion. Inevitably doubts have been raised as to whether his immediate successor, the comparatively demure Virginie Viard, can fill his designer shoes. It’s a hard act to follow, but I say she can. Catapulting a relative unknown into a top job often pays off: think of Alessandro Michele at Gucci, now owner Kering’s biggest brand in revenue terms. Besides, for three decades, Viard was Lagerfeld’s most trusted aide, responsible for working with the ateliers to translate his sketches into real-life clothes. Of course, the camera-shy and seldom-seen 57-year-old is as self-effacing as Lagerfeld was effervescent. So while it’s likely the brand, like the runway shows, will become more modest, Viard has a career’s worth of understudying Kaiser Karl. As a result, no doubt the couture – like his rocketship – will continue to take off. As the great man famously said, “I am very grounded – just not on this earth.”
Grace Cook writes about fashion for the Financial Times and The Business of Fashion