Post Virginie Viard, Chanel Has Time to Plot Its Next Move

PARIS — Chanel’s surprise news that it is parting ways with artistic director Virginie Viard signals a period of transition as the French house navigates a slowdown in global luxury demand, but the brand is powerful enough to weather a prolonged handover, experts said.

Chanel stunned fashion insiders when it announced shortly before midnight on Wednesday that Viard was leaving the house, in an apparent bid to pre-empt the rumors that spread like wildfire after the news was shared internally earlier in the day.

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“The urgency of the announcement was out of sync with the codes of the brand,” said Nacima Ourahmoune, professor of marketing at Kedge Business School in France.

It is understood that Viard left with immediate effect, and the design studio is finalizing preparations for the fall haute couture collection set to be unveiled at the Opéra Garnier on June 25.

“Chanel would like to thank Virginie Viard for her remarkable contribution to Chanel’s fashion, creativity and vitality. A new chapter is opening for Chanel Mode. We are confident in the teams’ ability to ensure the continuity of the collections during this period of transition,” the house said in a statement.

“A new creative organization for the house will be announced in due course,” it added.

Sources familiar with internal discussions at the house said no further announcement is imminent, in contrast with the carefully planned transition that was set in place when Viard’s predecessor Karl Lagerfeld passed away.

Though Lagerfeld never officially confirmed he was battling illness, Viard started taking a bow alongside her boss and mentor, who famously described her as “my right arm and my left arm.” Her appointment after his death in 2019 signaled continuity at the house, where she worked alongside Lagerfeld for more than 30 years.

Chanel now enters uncharted territory.

Models including Cara Delevingne walk the runway during Chanel's fall 2019 fashion show at the Grand Palais, sets, Karl Lagerfeld, snow, ski lodge, Swiss chalet
Models including Cara Delevingne walk the runway during Chanel’s fall 2019 fashion show at the Grand Palais.

Less than three weeks ago, its global chief executive officer Leena Nair and chief financial officer Philippe Blondiaux said the luxury behemoth was sticking with its strategy and creative direction, despite the cloudy economic outlook and mixed online reactions to its latest price increases and ready-to-wear collections.

Both praised Viard, with Blondiaux noting that under her watch, Chanel’s ready-to-wear business has been multiplied by 2.5 and grew 23 percent last year alone. “From a consumer perspective and a brand perspective, Virginie has been a massive contributor,” he told WWD.

Earlier in May, Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion and president of Chanel SAS, deflected a question about renewed speculation that Hedi Slimane would replace Viard as creative director of Chanel, amid his rumored exit from Celine. “Virginie seems in good shape, no?” he said as she prepared to show her cruise 2025 collection in Marseille.

While reviewers focused on Viard’s efforts to address a younger and more diverse customer with her athletic-inspired clothes, comments on social media skewed negative.

Chanel had faced similar pressure almost from the moment that Viard was appointed, as some commenters saw her merely as a caretaker designer. The recent reassurances from top brass were read as a signal that the privately owned company would not cave to outside pressure.

Mary Gallagher, a Paris-based senior consultant at executive search firm Find, said that in hindsight, those effusive comments read like damage control. “It’s basically, ‘The lady doth protest too much,’” she said, quoting a line from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

She believes that Nair and Blondiaux didn’t want criticism of Viard to detract from the news that Chanel again delivered record revenues in 2023, with sales up 16 percent at comparable rates to $19.7 billion, although price increases alone accounted for a 9 percent progression.

“It reminded me of the curse of ‘Hello’ magazine,” Gallagher continued. “If there’s a 10-page spread on a couple and how happy they are, you can be sure that two weeks later, they’re announcing their divorce.”

Virginie Viard on the runway during the Chanel Cruise 2024 Runway Show held at MAMO, Centre díart de la CitÈ radieuse on May 2, 2024 in Marseille, France.
Virginie Viard on the runway during the Chanel cruise 2024 show.

Although the creative transition coincides with a period of stalled demand in China and a drop in spending among aspirational customers in Western markets, Chanel is in a position to map out the next steps at its own pace, experts agreed.

“Chanel remains the world’s most powerful brand, so the Chanel name is enough,” said Benjamin Simmenauer, a professor at the Institut Français de la Mode in Paris and its director of research.

“That doesn’t mean you don’t need an artistic director, but it does mean you can continue to operate for the time it takes to find a successor, simply based on the notoriety and the strength of the brand image,” he added.

There is a notable precedent, Simmenauer pointed out. Following the death of Virgil Abloh in 2021, Louis Vuitton did not name a creative director of its menswear division until more than a year later, when Pharrell Williams came on board.

Gallagher noted that Dior similarly showed collections designed by a studio team following the departure of John Galliano as creative director, and again after Raf Simons abruptly left.

“It did zero damage to Dior. In fact, it underscored the fact the brand is much stronger than the individual designer, and I don’t think Chanel are at any risk of people abandoning them because they don’t have a creative director,” she said.

“Chanel is more than just the ready-to-wear. It’s the entire universe and it’s controlled by the legacy and the DNA of the brand, more than someone coming in and making a clean sweep,” Gallagher added.

End of an Era?

Whether the brand promotes someone from its own ranks, or brings on a prominent designer — names including Sarah Burton and Pierpaolo Piccioli have also been touted as potential candidates — the decision potentially signals the end of the Lagerfeld era.

“Virginie represented continuity in relation to Karl, albeit a slightly abstract continuity, in the sense that Karl was the world’s most famous fashion designer,” Simmenauer said. “A change in artistic direction can be read as a desire to reclaim the narrative and project yourself into the future.”

Ourahmoune at Kedge said that Viard had a “historical legitimacy” at the house founded by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who died in 1971.

“Even if some people questioned her qualifications and criticized her collections, Virginie Viard was untouchable in a sense, because she carried on the work of the master who managed to keep the house alive just after Coco Chanel. Whereas for the next creative director, there’s a real break,” she remarked.

The handover comes amid a rash of high-profile executive departures at Chanel in the last 12 months, including the exit of John Galantic, president and chief operating officer of Chanel Inc. since 2006, as well as regional leaders for Japan, Asia Pacific, and the U.K., Canada and Latin America.

Leena Nair
Leena Nair

Nair told WWD the changes were part of a long-term succession plan set in motion with her arrival in 2021. The former Unilever human resources chief assumed a title previously held by Chanel co-owner Alain Wertheimer, who became global executive chair of the company.

“Leadership changes and retirements are a part of the natural cycle of business,” she said. “All these changes have been prepared, planned and done thoughtfully, as we do everything at Chanel.”

Ourahmoune said that while Chanel is traditionally secretive about its inner workings, there are signs it is challenging deep-seated habits to keep up with market evolutions.

“By shaking up both its management and its creative direction, the house is signaling a new era,” she said. “If China is losing steam and Gen Z is stepping up as the next client cohort, could this be the start of a new strategy for the brand?”

She noted that while Chanel’s desirability remains strong, younger customers questioned its repeated price increases, which have driven the cost of its signature Medium Classic bag above $10,000, and its steadfast refusal to sell anything but beauty and eyewear online.

Gallagher argued that given this context, it was important to bring in new blood.

Chanel Cruise 2025
Chanel Cruise 2025

“Virginie was channeling Karl, who was channeling Coco, and I think that they shouldn’t have that anymore. Whoever it is should be channeling directly to Coco, perhaps, but then moving on, and bringing in a sense of real modernity and not just chasing after a younger customer,” she said.

“It would not be in their interest to have someone inside the studio or an understudy, so to speak, and I think that whoever they pick will be a strong name, because Karl Lagerfeld was a very known quantity when he went to Chanel, too,” she added.

Robert Burke, chairman and CEO of Robert Burke Associates, believes that Viard was the “perfect” choice at the time.

“No one worked with Karl Lagerfeld longer and [was someone] he trusted more,” he said. “It’s probably one of the most iconic brands in fashion globally and in multiple categories, and Karl was so tied to the brand on every possible level. To bring in a major name right after would have been challenging.”

He believes that Viard did what she was supposed to do to carry on the brand. “It was stable and it obviously grew enormously. I’m sure that Chanel is looking to bring in a new customer as well so there’s an enormous amount on the line,” said Burke.

“She did a great job in this transition period. I’m not sure if it was shaking things up necessarily, or bringing in that new customer, and now there’s going to be a new chapter,” said Burke. “One thing they’ve never had is menswear.”

Slimane has long been touted for the top job, given his long and close friendship with Lagerfeld, and Lagerfeld’s penchant for Slimane’s rock ‘n’ roll-tinged designs. In 2016, Chanel issued an official denial that it was plotting a move into menswear with Slimane.

Portrait of Hedi Slimane
Portrait of Hedi Slimane

“If you asked Karl today who he would want, I have a feeling Hedi Slimane’s name would come up. He’s one of the designers he was very devoted to and praised publicly. If you look at Hedi’s last collection, it certainly had some Chanel references. He’s done an excellent job at Celine and did a fantastic job at Saint Laurent,” said Burke.

Commenting on reports that Slimane is ready to move on, Gallagher said that Chanel was probably his white whale.

“For me, either it’s Chanel, which is for him probably the epitome of his career, or he checks out and does his art, or whatever else he does. I think that that would be the only thing that would turn his head in terms of a brand,” she speculated.

Neither the fact that Slimane does not engage with the media, nor the likelihood of a lengthy non-compete clause, would be a deterrent, according to the recruiter.

“He has the mystique, whereas Virginie had, let’s say, minimal communication, and I think that that is the difference,” she said. “If there is a long non-compete or a long period before they make the announcement of who’s coming next, I believe in the brand power and desirability of Chanel.”

Still, she could not help rooting for Burton, who has been a free agent since showing her final collection for Alexander McQueen last October.

“It was a house founded by a woman and personally I’d love to see a woman in there,” Gallagher said. “Sarah Burton would be an amazing choice because she is a couturier as well as a designer.”

With contributions from Lisa Lockwood

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