All aboard for the Chanel Cruise fashion show on Friday in Paris. This was the first glimpse of the label minus Karl Lagerfeld and it had the fashion world agog. It didn’t hurt that Keira Knightley chose the occasion to break the news of her second pregnancy. Claudia Schiffer, Vanessa Paradis, her daughter Lily-Rose Depp and veteran Love Story actor Ali MacGraw also turned up for the ride.
This was a big moment for the French luxury juggernaut and for its new creative director, Virginie Viard, who stepped into the German designer’s shoes when he died in February this year.
Lagerfeld’s absence leaves a massive hole. No more powdered white hair and ponytail, no more of the impenetrable sunglasses and high white collars that, for 36 years, were synonymous with the brand.
How would Viard, a much less flamboyant figure, cope with the huge pressure? The last time the company released figures, for 2017, its annual revenues were around $9.62 billion and it employs roughly 20,000 people globally. Its fragrances, beauty products and accessories are the cash cows but the catwalk fashion is what defines the maison’s image and if that ran out of steam, there would be repercussions across the Chanel empire.
No one is more alert to this than Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s President of Fashion who runs the business side of things and concedes that Lagerfeld’s death ‘has been an immense loss for all of us’.
But Viard has been at the company for 22 years working hand in glove with Lagerfeld on every collection. So promoting her to fill his shoes was the obvious move. For the first time since Coco Chanel died in 1971, there's a woman in the driving seat. ‘She’ll be injecting a more feminine touch in the collections for sure,’ said Pavlovsky before the show at the Grand Palais.
More than any other brand, Chanel’s catwalk shows are events, with staging as elaborate as a West End spectacular. We’ve had real icebergs shipped over from the Arctic to be used as backdrops, rainforests complete with waterfalls, even a giant space rocket. This time it was an elegant recreation of a French Beaux Arts train station complete with sleepers and rails and wooden waiting-room benches for the 800 invited guests - an idea that Lagerfeld dreamed up six months ago and that Viard kept. Even the most obsessive Chanel-watchers (and there are many) can’t tell much from that.
When it comes to decoding what the models actually wore, though, there’s plenty to read in the runes. The Chanel codes were all in play: CC logos; co-respondent ballet pumps; severe monochrome tailoring; tweed jackets; chain belts; cuffs. And Lagerfeld’s playful touch was evident on the many and highly desirable accessories. Those backpacks, hot pink handbags and logo belts will fly off the shelves and straight onto Instagram.
But there was also a fresh breeze blowing through the collection. Coats and trousers were cut looser and with more swagger than we’re used to at Chanel. There was also a touch of Alice In Wonderland charm to the giant bows, white patent ankle boots, and clocks on necklaces, tops and handbags. The show’s last look with its severe black dress and high white collar was plainly a homage to Lagerfeld, Viard’s mentor, and the naturally shy designer was visibly moved when she took her bow at the end of the show. But this was a collection that looked forward not back. It feels as though the brand’s on the right track.