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Are Luxury Consumers Ready For Chanel To Change Creative Direction?

Rumors have persisted for years that Chanel’s artistic director Virginie Viard was on her way out. However, in early May at the Marseille cruise collection show, Chanel president of fashion and accessories Bruno Pavlovsky disabused those rumors, emphatically stating to Fashion Network:

“Virginie is doing extremely well. You know, ever since she succeeded Karl Lagerfeld, certain people have chattered about other designers at Chanel. But I want to be clear. Chanel is not looking for a new artistic director. And you can print that!”

Nonetheless, the rumors proved true. Viard, who took the artistic director’s torch after the passing of Karl Lagerfeld in 2019 at the age of 85, has left the fashion house just weeks after Chanel released its annual earnings report when the company announced 16% comparable growth to $19.7 billion and 11% uptick in operating profit to $6.4 billion in 2023.

In a statement shared with me, the company said, “Chanel confirms the departure of Virginie Viard after a rich collaboration of five years as artistic director of fashion collections, during which she was able to renew the codes of the house while respecting the creative heritage of the brand.”

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

Viard’s contribution to Chanel can’t be underestimated after the flamboyant Lagerfeld years from 1983 through 2019, when the company first started reporting earnings.

“Since Virginie took over from Karl… the Chanel fashion business has multiplied by 2.2. The Chanel ready-to-wear business has been multiplied by 2.5, and the ready-to-wear business last year of Chanel grew by 23%,” the newly installed CEO Leena Nair told The Business of Fashion after the latest earnings release.

While fashion industry insiders broadly criticized Viard’s collections as uninspired and lacking Lagerfeld’s flair –  The Cut’s fashion critic Cathy Horyn wrote, “Chanel Needed a Change. Outgoing designer Virginie Viard didn’t, or couldn’t, give the house the modernity or innovation required.” –  Chanel customers disagree.

At the end of the day, the customers’ votes are all that matters and they couldn’t get enough of the fashion she created. Besides its dynamic growth last year, Chanel’s ranking in the Global RepTrak 100 study rose 15 slots in 2024, from number 39 to 24 among the world’s most respected brands.

Legendary Legacy

Over more than a century, Viard was only the third creative director for Chanel. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel started the company in 1910 and guided the brand until her death in 1971, when ownership of the company passed to the Wertheimer family, who provided financial backing in the early days. The brand sat idle for nearly a decade before the multi-dimensional Karl Lagerfeld joined the company in 1983.

After a brief stint early in her career at Chanel, Viard became Lagerfeld’s acolyte at Chloé where he did a creative-director side hustle from 1992 through 1997. She left Chloé with him to head up the Chanel design studio, overseeing the creation of the fashion house’s haute couture, ready-to-wear and accessories collections.

Lagerfeld famously called her “my right arm…and my left arm,” and her steady arms effectively carried forward the legacy of Coco Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld.

Disruptive Change

Sometimes change is needed, but Viard’s exit is a disruptive change that Chanel can ill afford, given the numbers Viard put behind her over the past five years.

Whether she was fired or timed her exit – she’s 62 years old and at that age, Lagerfeld still had more than two decades of creative vigor left – this presents a major challenge for a company that has recently faced significant change when Nair joined the company in January 2022 from chief human resources officer at Unilever.

Industry insider and editor of the SUN Deluxe newsletter on Substack, Susanna Nicoletti suggests Viard’s commitment to the legacy of the Chanel brand conflicted with Nair’s vision.

“The search of Chanel for novelties and to make money fast puts it at risk of disrupting its precious DNA and losing its way as a unique luxury treasure that was so well nurtured and protected by Karl Lagerfeld and Viard,” she shared.

“Change is sometimes due, but it’s the way that it is managed that can change the destiny of even the most distinctive and well-kept houses. It seems to be going toward a ‘nouveau riche’ style that is worrisome for such an established brand,” she continued.

Jacques Roizen, managing director of Digital Luxury Group with depth of experience in luxury and management consulting, including with McKinsey, believes the change of creative director won’t put Chanel at risk.

“Chanel, along with only very few other luxury houses, has steadfastly maintained its position at the pinnacle of the luxury industry,” he shared.

“In an era when many luxury brands struggle to maintain their allure, Chanel has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to exclusivity and excellence while consistently delivering outstanding financial performance, underscoring its enduring appeal and status in the luxury industry,” he continued.

Finding A Replacement

Now the rumor mill is aflutter about who will replace Viard with the shortlist including Celine’s Hedi Slimane, Pierpaolo Piccoli, who left Valentino, and Sarah Burton, most recently with Alexandar McQueen. Other names bandied about include Phoebe Philo, Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs.

Given CEO Nair’s human-resource experience and her commitment to corporate culture, she is well positioned to find a replacement for Viard. Yet filing the role of creative director at the level required for Chanel is very different from that needed for a consumer product goods company like Unilever.

Roizen expects finding the right person who can innovate while staying true to the brand’s heritage will be hard to find.

“The role of a creative director at the highest echelons of the luxury industry has become increasingly complex and demanding,” he said. “It requires not merely the ability to continuously design captivating collections, but also a deep understanding of a brand’s history, codes and DNA, as well as the skill to consistently evolve that brand’s image across every customer touchpoint.

“To succeed in this rarefied position, one must possess exceptional creative vision, coupled with the strategic acumen and foresight to steer a prestigious maison that only a select few creative talents are able to maintain over the long term.

“The enduring success of Chanel is a testament to the remarkable individuals who have helmed this role, managing weighty responsibilities with unparalleled expertise,” he concluded and Nicoletti added, “Bravo, Virginie, for your commitment, dedication and passion.”

See also: Hermès Is Close On Chanel’s Heels As Luxury’s Number Two Brand And Gaining Ground

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