Dear Virginie, I’ve a confession: I teared up rather inexplicably as you made your way down the runway at the end of the Chanel Cruise 2020 show in May. It was the reveal of your first solo collection since Karl Lagerfeld’s passing and the announcement that you would be his successor, the artistic director of the house, three months earlier. I’ve since attributed my emotions to how – even though we’ve never met – I’ve always assumed that taking on the role must be frightening for you. That in turn makes that bow (or in your case, a shy pause in your step accompanied by a small, radiant smile) moving, to say the least.
As Vanessa Paradis tells the French documentary maker Loic Prigent in his short film about the collection and its making of, available for viewing on Youtube, post-show: “I understand the billions of conflicting emotions she must have felt. Virginie is of great discretion and great humility.”
She should know you well, having been a Chanel ambassador since 1990 – just a couple of years after you had joined as an intern in 1987. (You’d progress onto coordinator of haute couture and then eventually studio director, working side by side Lagerfeld and his muses every step of the way. Even when he was at Chloe for five years in the ’90s, he made sure you went along with him).
This magazine also had the rare opportunity of speaking with you when Chanel staged its Cruise 2014 show in Singapore. In that conversation, you made it clear the close, almost father-daughter bond that you had with Lagerfeld. You shared that you saw him more than you did your own family and that everything you knew, you had learnt from him. You also said that you could not see yourself taking over in part because it was not what you wanted to do, and that you hated the spotlight. (Up till press time, there have been no official interviews with you following your appointment.)
Yet here you are, tasked to fill the shoes of your mentor – one of this century’s most famous and high-powered fashion designers – to lead one of this millennium’s most famous and high-powered fashion houses. That many point out that you’re also the first woman at the helm of Chanel since its spitfire founder is another pressure, I’d imagine, someone like you – unassuming and down-to-earth – would prefer to do without.
To face all of this calls for courage. To bring with you a refreshingly pared-back, girlish collection that underscores how you’re your own person and unafraid to introduce change calls for some quiet, steely nerves. Perhaps that’s why Lagerfeld had called you the “most important person” for him and the atelier in the 2018 Netflix documentary 7 Days Out.
The set for the show itself marked a departure from the grandiose mise en scene Chanel had come to be known for in the days of Lagerfeld. Instead, to go with the travel theme, you had erected within Paris’ Grand Palais a stripped-back, Beaux-Arts-inspired train station; platforms – providing seating – that bore the names of cities that Chanel had shown in. Yes, there were tracks, but there was no train. For guests seeking a first-hand look at one of the most significant collections in Chanel’s history, there was no need for one.
Like a bullet train, you wasted no time in delivering your vision of today’s liberated, globetrotting women. The show opened with a series of roomy hooded trenchcoats and jackets paired with cropped, wide-legged pants, all crafted from waxed cotton or gabardine instead of the more formal tweed. Next came striped cashmere knits as cute as they were practical, while a recurring motif – an oversized bow that showed up across poplin bandeau tops to flirty evening dresses – lent youthful irreverence.
Of course, a Chanel collection can’t do without tweed skirt suits and jackets, to which you injected the same breezy hipness. The former were shrunken and made more relaxed; while the latter boasted softer shoulders, Day-Glo shades and multiple pockets for a utilitarian edge, worn with metallic-print tights. If younger customers had previously not been compelled to own these signatures, your rendition would have likely changed their minds.
To give all that modern elegance a carefree ease, every look was grounded by low, two-toned pointed pumps, booties or ballet flats. You complemented them with overnight duffels and versatile mini bags, including a “wallets-on-belt” style, in playful pop and ice cream colours. Just like that – for the first time in a good while – the word “cool” became a part of the Chanel vocabulary again.
At the same time, it was hard to ignore all your sentimental nods to your predecessor. It came most obviously in the closing look, when you sent the silver-haired Polish model Ola Rudnicka trotting out in a black tailored halter dress with a white, high and stiff collar that called to mind Lagerfeld’s own trademark uniform.
Before the show, you invited guests to have breakfast in Le Rivieria, a makeshift cafe constructed on the second floor of the Grand Palais specially for the occasion and modelled after the historic Le Train Bleu restaurant at Paris’ Gare de Lyon railway station. Complete with gilded stucco carvings and paintings of faraway lands, it emanated a show factor better synonymous with Lagerfeld than yourself – according to Prigent, it was one of his last wishes to recreate the Belle Epoque-style dining hall.
Your travel-inspired Cruise 2020 debut outing for Chanel was meant to have taken guests on an “imaginary journey”, yet its most transformative aspect might just lie in the brave new track that you’re directing the house onto, all while honouring the one that you were on before. You closed the show to the sound of Whitney Houston’s How Will I Know remixed. For all its lyrics of doubt (“how will I know if he really loves me/I say a prayer with every heartbeat”), its infectious, upbeat melody brought an undeniable sense of triumph to the scene. Deep down, know that you’re doing things right.
This article first appeared in the December 2019 print issue of FEMALE.