This story was first seen in Female’s August 2013 issue.
As the studio director of Chanel, Virginie Viard’s role is to make Karl Lagerfeld’s dreams become reality. “She is my left and my right hand,” he says when asked about her. “For me, she is Chanel. She makes it real, she gives my ideas life, and sometimes provokes them.” But she doesn’t just bring Lagerfeld’s sketches to life — her job is also to choose which of his drawings are actually worth pursuing. Constantly in contact with him, she knows what he is thinking, how he is thinking it and even how to get him to think in a different way. As the conduit between Lagerfeld’s mind and the atelier’s seamstresses, suppliers and specialist artisans, she translates his flood of ideas into understandable work tasks, consistently making sure that Chanel stays modern, relevant and desirable.
When we meet at the mythical Parisian Chanel headquarters on a sunny Friday morning in May, everyone seems to want a part of her: Do you want these? Can you make it to the meeting? How do you want those? Every now and then her phone rings, several people announce that “he’s on his way!” — yet Viard just keeps her cool. Seated behind a large glass table in her studio, she responds to my questions in an utmost calm and concentrated manner. She looks at the screen of her phone every so often, sometimes choosing to answer it or proclaiming: “I’m sorry, but I’m in an interview right now. Can you check with someone else?”
Wearing a delicate linden green top with grey jeans and a pair of simple leather-strap sandals in wine-red, she exudes Parisian je-ne-sais-quoi chic. Maybe it’s the blonde tips of her otherwise dark brown hair; she’s barely wearing any makeup and she speaks to me with cordial familiarity. She’s the kind of woman who doesn’t try too hard; most certainly, she’s not trying to make me like her. Yet that is exactly what makes her so likeable. She’s just there doing her thing in a very natural, straightforward, down-to-earth way.
The Chanel headquarters are spread out over several floors in three adjacent 18th-century buildings, and people are scurrying through long and labyrinthine corridors. However, the storied studio — a large room overlooking Rue Cambon below — is bright and airy, and I’m surprised at how new it looks with its shiny glass surfaces and white furnishing. So, this is the studio. This is Virginie Viard’s office. And this is where she brings Lagerfeld’s stylistic desires to life, decoding his many messages into wearable dreams for one of the most profitable luxury brands in the world.
“Karl sends me text messages, images, sketches, photos all day, and then I try to translate them for the seamstresses in the atelier so that they can get to work.”
Your picture in The Little Black Jacket book has you posing in a jacket plastered with studs and punk patches. Is the secret to being a Chanel woman being a bit of a punk?
“Maybe you’re right. I hate being dressed the same as others. And I think being elegant is all about an attitude. Just because you’re wearing a Chanel jacket doesn’t mean you become elegant. That would be great (laughs)! But that’s not how it works.”
Today, you look effortlessly Parisian. What are your personal wardrobe staples?
“Oh really? My basics are a pair of jeans, a little black Chanel jacket, a men’s jacket, a sequinned jacket, a sweatshirt, a T-shirt, heels, flats, wedges, oh, and I love strong, conceptual pieces by Martin Margiela. But I don’t really want people to see what brand I’m wearing. I prefer to feel it myself.”
Which collection has been the most memorable for you since starting out at the maison 26 years ago?
“Our first Metiers d’Art collection in 2002. At the time, it was called Satellite collection; it was so simple. The tiny show was held in the Salon: the apartment, those mirrored stairs — I love all that. Karl sometimes doesn’t. It’s funny. We actually don’t like the same things about Coco Chanel at all. He likes diving into the archives. He knows every little thing about her. He is a real encyclopedia. Butsometimes with Karl, there is just too much going on. And in that first satellite collection, there was really just an embroidered sweater, a skirt and one pair of cigarette pants — it was amazing. For me, that was really the essence of Coco Chanel.”
You are the studio director at Chanel. What exactly does that role encompass?
“Hmmm, yes (pauses for a few seconds). What is my role at Chanel? Let’s say I construct a collection. Karl sends me text messages, images, sketches, photos all day, and then I try to translate them for the seamstresses in the atelier so that they can get to work. I have everything made, we try things out, decide on materials, and basically, I try and figure out what he might have had in mind and where we’re heading with the new collection. You see, oftentimes, he can be a little vague and he doesn’t really tell you what he means. He never says he has a theme, so I just kind of make assumptions. I sharpen, I modernise and I make things rounder or more timeless. And if Karl hasn’t started at all, then I just get working on something so that he will get into it too. I make up a story, and then I start looking for little embroideries, documents or little bits that could encourage him to start.”
Is it like you’re holding hands to carry each other along?
“Voila, exactly — because if I don’t do anything, neither will he (laughs). We’re constantly in contact. We send each other text messages and pictures (flicks through phone). See, he sends me this kind of stuff: sketches, drawings, photos. Oh (laughs)! And he sends me pictures of Choupette, his cat, all day long. Actually, when he doesn’t feel like working, he even sends me text messages in the name of his cat. He will be like, ‘Karl is not working!’ or ‘I’m sorry, but Karl is not doing anything. Best regards, Choupette.’ So then I’ll be like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to do something!’ But he cracks me up. Sometimes, he’s really like a child.”
Doesn’t that stress you out a little?
“No. Nothing stresses me. Karl knows very well how to get everything done. It just makes me laugh. Once the first pieces are done, we meet at the atelier to see what works, what he likes, what his further ideas are. Of course, in the beginning, he doesn’t know which pieces will turn out well either and sometimes, he gives me a tonne of new sketches a week before the show, so, yes, that can be a little stressful. And he knows very well that we will never be able to realise it all.”
Does he sometimes change the whole theme?
“It happens, but not too often. Since he is often here at the studio, things evolve. But sometimes, he gives me a stash of new ideas and he’ll be like, ‘Here, make yourself useful!’ Sometimes he’s like, ‘tak tak tak tak’, even with me, and I’ll only ever be able to realise a third of all of his ideas. But he doesn’t want to know. I have to make choices in no time depending on the rest of the looks, on the atelier’s know-how, on what he wanted me to understand by giving me all of these new ideas and on what actually suits Chanel. And then when I show him what I’ve done, he’ll be like, ‘That’s it? That’s all you’ve got (laughs)?’ But you know, you can’t move quicker than the music. So I just say, ‘Yep, that’s all I have!’ And then other times, he’ll be surprised and be like, ‘Oh, you managed to do all that?’ So of course, that makes me happy.”
So he does give you a feeling of recognition and appreciation?
“Yeah, but Karl needs to be free. He likes you to do what he wants, but he doesn’t want to know all the details. He wants to control everything, but not get into the little stuff. Often, he doesn’t tell you what he means. He can be really tiring sometimes, but he’s so funny and warm-hearted, and just really original — and all that refinement on a daily basis. His presence, his way of being and his energy are just exceptional. I’ve always had a really natural relationship with him. I just instantly liked him.
We got along well from the very start; I see him more than anyone in my own family.”
Does Lagerfeld come to the office every day?
“He loves coming to Chanel. Even when I tell him, there’s nothing to do here, which happens like once a year, he’ll be like, ‘Well I get it, I can see you don’t want me to come, but I’m coming anyway!’ (laughs).”
Lagerfeld often says you are like his right and left hand. Is that feeling mutual? Would you be lost without him? Would that be like losing your hands?
“Yes, for me that’s the same thing because I’ve only ever worked with him. I basically grew up here. Everything I know, I know from him. I couldn’t do this alone and I don’t think this is a job I could ever do again somewhere else.”
And if you were asked to take over at Chanel after him?
“Oh no, never. I don’t see myself doing that at all. I wouldn’t be capable of that and it’s not at all what I would want to do. I hate being in the spotlight. What I like about my job is being a duo with Karl, working with someone I love. If I weren’t doing this, I would rather do something completely different. I would never want to stay where I ended with him. I mean, maybe I would find another job at Chanel, but not doing what I am doing — not in creation.”
“His presence, his way of being and his energy are just exceptional. I’ve always had a really natural relationship with him. I just instantly liked him. We got along well from the very start; I see him more than anyone in my own family.”
Do the two of you ever disagree on things?
“The starting point for our Cruise show (held in Singapore in May) was the 100th anniversary of the first Chanel boutique in Deauville, so Karl wanted to organise an event there to commemorate it. He’s great at revisiting things, celebrating anniversaries. But honestly, I would rather kill myself than do a show in Deauville — that is so not inspiring. But I would never just say no to him like that! First I say, yeah, and then he’ll be like, ‘You don’t sound convinced,’ and then I’ll be like, ‘Well you know, what if we did this, or how about that?’ But I always try to put myself in his shoes and wonder why he may have thought of something. And then I usually think it’s a great idea. His way of seeing things is key. And the cool thing about the collections is always how you twist them. If the girls all looked like Coco Chanel — no way!”
Do you feel more confident stylistically than when you started out at Chanel?
“Honestly, at Chanel, we don’t really have the time to get used to things. With eight collections a year, as soon as a show is over, a new one begins. So, in that way, no, I don’t feel confident. But sure, I know how to deal with Karl, I know that I can understand what he wants, and I like doing my job. It’s like constantly beginning all over again, but that’s also what’s really great about working at Chanel. Making so many collections allows us to be really free and to do whatever we want. We don’t have a plan. There’s not a single person who gives us constraints — never, imagine that! Everything is very fluid here and we all know that next month is a new month. If we don’t do a certain thing now, we’ll just do it next time.”
Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self, standing at the beginning of her career?
“None. Just to follow my instincts. I actually never thought about having a career. I came into this house as an intern who just happened to get along well with Karl. I basically grew up at his side. He taught me how to work. I saw this maison grow and become what it is today. We’re almost like a family; I was just lucky to be at the right place at the right time and become a part of this whole thing.”
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