The Nouvelle Vague — the New Wave. Could Virginie Viard have chosen a more pointed, or more poignant, theme for her first solo ready-to-wear collection for Chanel following the death of Karl Lagerfeld?
Guests arriving at the Grand Palais came across another major set, the concept a Karl-created signature that the brand seems intent on continuing. This one depicted the rooftops of Paris, their distinctive zinc surfaces linked by walkways that proved perfect for fashion strolling.
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In her show notes, Viard said the rooftops remind her of the Nouvelle Vague. “I thought about Kristen Stewart playing Jean Seberg and all the actresses Gabrielle Chanel dressed at that time,” she said. Clearly, she also thought of shifting Chanel out from Lagerfeld’s powerful aura and starting to put her own creative mark on the brand. (To that end, continuing with the grand sets may be counterproductive, at least until she clearly defines the essence of her Chanel.)
For couture, Viard hedged. The clothes were fine but opinion-free. Not so here, as she went in a decidedly younger direction, with mostly leggy silhouettes and a focus on shorts. Her newsiest proposal: The Chanel tweed suit reimagined as a romper. The notion charmed with a wacky classicism that should appeal to the house’s younger customers.
The rompers introduced Viard’s focus on shorts. They came in silvery and pink metallics and what looked like black Lycra, big enough to just cover the essentials and saved (barely) from vulgarity by a sensible shoe. While the shorts put a youthful spin on the jackets with which Viard showed them, you can bet your camellias there are matching skirts back in the showrooms at Rue Cambon.
Which is not to say Viard ignored skirts. She kept them short and often full, worn as suits or with embroidered, puff-sleeve blouses. Alternately, she went long with gusto, spelling out Chanel in giant letters in a blue, white and pink print. She also added an overtly casual element in jeans worn with stripes or ruffles on top. While a good idea, jeans were of an Eighties-retro ilk that read as awkward.
That the show ended on an unexpected note when a tweed-suited, YouTube comedian crashed the finale was more unfortunate than amusing. (Kudos to the intrepid Gigi Hadid for escorting her offstage.) OK, this woman is a creative type who was doing her thing. So is Viard — at a critical moment in her own career and for the house of Chanel. Neither deserved the intrusive disrespect from an opportunistic stranger.
It’s not overstatement to classify Chanel’s position as unique. Yes, it is a legendary luxury behemoth whose founding codes remain its core design strengths, and those codes long preceded Lagerfeld’s arrival 36 years ago. But by then, Chanel had fallen into a deep dormancy and was virtually ignored by the fashion cognoscenti. He re-created the house on the joint powers of smarts, talent and personality. And for all of his witty runway machinations, he kept the underlying classicism of its fashion.
There’s no question that today, brand trumps designer. But designers continue in their brands’ “face of” capacity. Does Chanel — whose fashion is, at its core, deeply traditional and always has been — need at its creative helm an outward-facing personality? Not to retain its thriving bottom line; the shoes, bags, beauty, jewelry, etc. will do that. But to keep it in the forefront of fashion?
Viard certainly deserves some breathing room in what must continue to be a very emotional work reality for her. But ultimately, she may have to either go more public with her creative vision — to sell the currency of classic to the Chanel customer — or take greater creative license with the Chanel oeuvre.
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