PARIS, France — In the end, the only ones who could follow him were those who stood with him.
The death of Karl Lagerfeld, one year ago today, marked the end of a cycle in fashion history. The styliste, backed by the Wertheimer family, owners of Chanel and experts in selling beauty products, managed to sketch out the playbook for luxury brands that would remain in place for some 30 years, and continues to inform how these brands are built and grown today. Lagerfeld’s talent was not in innovating silhouette or defining a trend, it was in world building: his ability to sell the dream through his elaborate fashion shows, which would then sell a bit of couture, a decent amount of ready-to-wear, a lot of handbags and sunglasses, and many, many bottles of perfume and tubes of lipstick. The strategy made him, and Chanel, untouchable.
And yet, by the time Lagerfeld passed on February 19, 2019, the book — while still sharp in theory — had begun to smell just a teeny bit fusty when it came to execution.
Today, selling the dream still sells the lipstick, but the consumer’s experience throughout that process has changed. It’s not just about the show and the advertisement, but everything in between that happens via social media. Clients do research, they know things. The story they buy needs to check out.
The Chanel customer is more attuned than ever to the runway, and while they expect to be wowed, they also want to see clothes that they can fantasise about wearing themselves, even if it’s couture. It helps to explain the success of Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Dior, where princess gowns rule the runway, the sets often more imaginative than the fashion. Lagerfeld’s wares, also amplified by the worlds he created within the walls of the Grand Palais, didn’t have an air of real life to them, even when Cara Delevingne was shopping for groceries in the Chanel supermarket.
So, where does that leave Chanel, led by Lagerfeld’s longtime second-in-command, Virginie Viard, and LVMH-owned Fendi, where family heir Silvia Venturini Fendi, who designed menswear and accessories for many years, is now the master of ceremonies?
One year ago, analysts and sentimentalists alike agreed that continuity — both aesthetic and strategic — was an important short-term goal for both brands. Especially at the independently owned Chanel, which is much larger than Fendi and continues to enjoy robust growth despite severely limiting its e-commerce sales. (In its 2018 fiscal year, Chanel posted $11.1 billion in global sales, up 10.5 percent on a comparable basis year over year, with operating profit hitting nearly $3 billion, up 8 percent from 2017.) But while Viard and Venturini Fendi have maintained the status quo, they’ve also shown the strength to make some necessary changes.
At Chanel, What Women Want
Lagerfeld was the king of concept, and used Chanel’s house codes to tell just about any story. But there were rarely moments in his later years when the looks on the runway would help determine the look of the season. Viard, on the other hand, designs trendy clothes.
“She’s very loyal to what she has done with Karl, and at the same time she's bringing her vision which is about femininity,” Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel SAS and of fashion activities at Chanel, told BoF in a recent interview. “Something much cooler, much easier if I may say, and I think it’s the right timing for that.”
In her first outing, Viard showed culottes and floral dresses. At her most recent couture show, her doily collars — and a bride in white tights and a short dress — had an air of reality to them that can’t help but surprise.
Fashion obsessives — and not just the highfalutin ones — are taking note. “The preponderance of white socks layered over white tights at Virginie Viard’s Chanel couture show reminded me of Wednesday Adams if she had a baby with Cher Horowitz — a combination I can easily get behind, not to mention far easier to approximate than the average couture masterpiece,” Brie Welch wrote on Manrepeller.com, a site that celebrates personal style, in a piece about “couture-style hacks you can do at home.”
Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that the updated uniform emerging among the well-heeled includes a pair of Chanel heels — or flats, or boots — with jeans and an Hermès bag.
And yet, despite her progress, Viard will never be a brand unto herself in the way Lagerfeld was: there will never be couture clients clamouring to be dressed by her and her specifically.
So, like Christian Dior and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, Lagerfeld’s ghost will continue to loom large. (His coif is as iconic as her string of pearls.) What needs to be addressed more urgently is the house’s overall approach to marketing, from its red carpet strategy to its store design, which is run by Viard’s creative partner and another Lagerfeld protégé, Eric Pfrunder.
Billie Eilish wearing an oversized Chanel suit at the Oscars made sense, but there have been plenty more misses than hits on the red carpet since the new regime took over. The shopping experience — which remains stubbornly offline — and advertising, which is static both in terms of design and imagery, must be updated. Chanel is one of the few well-protected luxury players: it owns its supply chain from the top to bottom, and is a private company, which means it can afford to experiment a little.
Fendi’s Next Big Step
Venturini Fendi has a bit more freedom. “I ask myself very often what Karl would say, but Fendi is a combination of excessiveness and limits, of rigour and freedom, Mitteleuropa and Rome,” she told BoF’s editor-at-large Tim Blanks in 2019. “And even if he is not around, my way of thinking is informed by those juxtapositions.”
But Venturini Fendi must reckon with an issue that goes far beyond the purview of Lagerfeld: the (potential) end of fur. While the $30 billion global fur industry was relatively stable in 2019, according to the International Fur Federation, an increasing number of major retailers (including Net-a-Porter, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s) have pledged to stop selling fur or have already done so, while several prominent luxury brands, including Armani, Gucci, Prada and Chanel, have stopped using it in their new designs.
Social media has permanently changed the conversation around the material, so while anti-fur sentiment has gone in and out of fashion over the decades, it’s now a constant. Venturini Fendi has spent many years building Fendi’s impressive accessories business; she now may have to evolve her brand's story beyond the original narrative.
Lagerfeld was calculated in his way of working. His creativity was grounded in common sense. The trick, now, for Viard and Chanel, is to be sensible without discarding the sensibility of the current consumer. They know what women want — perhaps, being women themselves, better than Lagerfeld ever could — and they need to use that knowledge to their advantage.
Additional reporting by Sarah Kent.