PARIS, France — Chanel has named Virginie Viard, Karl Lagerfeld’s closest collaborator for more than 30 years, as its new creative director, the French fashion house said in a statement following the death of the legendary designer, which was announced on Tuesday.
The move muffled speculation over whether Chanel might seek out another big name to replace Lagerfeld, who was 85 years old. Potential successors often cited by industry observers over the years included Hedi Slimane, now ensconced at Celine, as well as Phoebe Philo, the designer he replaced there, and Alber Elbaz, formerly of Lanvin.
Those designers would likely have sought to bring their own vision to one of the world's biggest luxury brands, with $9.6 billion in sales in 2017. Instead, Chanel's owners, the billionaire Wertheimer family, emphasised continuity in appointing Viard, who the brand said in a statement had been "entrusted by chief executive Alain Wertheimer with the creative work for the collections, so that the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld can live on." The decision is in character for the Wertheimers, who waited 12 years after Gabrielle Chanel died in 1971 before appointing Lagerfeld in 1983.
Viard, who has been called “Karl’s secret weapon,” joined Chanel as an intern in haute-couture embroidery in 1987, four years after Lagerfeld became creative director of the brand. (She was recommended for the job by a chamberlain of Prince Rainier of Monaco.) After working together at Chanel, Viard joined Lagerfeld at Chloé in 1992 — where he was also the head designer — and worked there for five years before returning to Chanel and working her way up to become director of the company's fashion design studio.
"Virginie is the most important person, not only for me but also for the atelier, for everything," Lagerfeld said in a Netflix documentary released in 2018. "She is my right arm and even if I don't see her, we are on the phone all the time."
Still, Viard remained largely in the shadow of her larger-than-life boss. "I hate being in the spotlight," she said last year.
In recent seasons, she began taking a bow with Lagerfeld at the end of each Chanel show, including the Chanel Métiers d'Art show in New York in December 2018, which marked the designer's final runway appearance. At the end of Chanel's haute couture show in January 2019, Viard stepped out solo to take a bow, raising concerns about Lagerfeld's health and prompting the brand to issue a press release.
Other fashion houses have tapped studio heads who have demonstrated their ability to channel a departed designer's vision after their deaths, most notably Sarah Burton, the late Alexander McQueen's right-hand, who was named creative director of the London-based fashion house after McQueen's suicide in 2010.
LVMH-owned Italian house Fendi, where Lagerfeld was the artistic director of women's ready-to-wear and couture collections, has yet to announce a succession plan, saying it intends to take its time to pay the designer the homage he deserves. Fendi is to present Lagerfeld's last collection on Thursday in Milan.