“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” That is one the tenets at the core of what a young woman named Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel was doing when she set out in the early 1900’s to make hats, and then ready-to-wear for women. At the time, much of the French fashion landscape was dominated by restrictive corsets, frilly, puffed blouses, and fluted skirts, i.e., largely impractical, often uncomfortable, and uniformly pocket-less, day wear and over-the-top evening wear for women. Mademoiselle Chanel envisioned something else, something that more carefully considered the needs and desires of its wearers, women.
The brand Chanel built was enshrined with an ethos that was “unquestionably part of the liberation of women,” as Ingrid Sischy wrote for Time magazine in 1998. She “was determined to break the old formulas” when it came to how women should dress and provided them with more freeing, more pragmatic alternatives – whether it came by way of the use of formerly under-utilized (for things other than undergarments) but comfortable jersey materials or the creation of uniform-inspired suits that were heralded as giving women the freedom to wear the same garments “for both afternoon and evening,” something that men had been capable of doing with their suiting for most occasions for many years.
She even began designing pants for women, primarily for function, such as for sporting activities, but the offerings ultimately led to trousers being viewed purely as a sartorial choice. “I make fashion women can live in, breath in, feel comfortable in,” she has been quoted as saying. In hindsight, it was a relatively boundary-pushing concept.
Ten years after death in 1971 and following something of a hiatus for the house save for operations tied to its famous No. 5 fragrance, a German designer named Karl Lagerfeld took the helm. Fifty-years old at the time and the head of womenswear at Fendi, Lagerfeld – who would go on to become an industry legend, an instantaneously-recognizable pop culture icon, and a widely revered creator – was tasked with carrying on the values of the house, while building it into a global powerhouse. In his nearly 40 year tenure, Lagerfeld did just that. He helped to transform the privately-held Chanel into one of the most sought-after and most valuable fashion brands in the world.
Not only was Lagerfeld a king of theatrical runway shows, and a master of publicity, he had an undeniable eye for design, for culture, and for art, enabling him to reinvent the Chanel brand in a wildly successful (and truly global) manner. Lagerfeld “identified [Chanel’s] sartorial semiology and then wrestled it into the present with a healthy dose of disrespect and a dollop of pop culture,” as the New York Times Vanessa Friedman so aptly worded it. And all the while, the brand sold a whole lot of quilted bags, double “C” adorned eyewear, and fragrances. It also maintained a healthy list of couture clients across the globe at the same time.
The news of Lagerfeld’s death at age 85 came Tuesday, bringing with it the revelation that fashion has been busying itself betting on for years, one very specific element of the succession plan of Chanel’s owners Alain and Gérard Wertheimer: the identity of Lagerfeld’s successor. Instead of opting for – as many industry insiders have speculated – a big-name, publicly-known creative director, like Alber Elbaz, Haider Ackerman, Hedi Slimane, or Marc Jacobs, Chanel appointed Virginie Viard to the helm. The former studio director of Chanel, Ms. Viard worked alongside Lagerfeld for more than three decades. She was his “right hand,” his second-in-command.
The appointment of Viard, who joined Chanel in 1987 as an intern in haute-couture embroidery, is – by most accounts – a surprising development, but it is a very welcome one, for at least one reason. The upper echelons of the fashion industry – a business that caters to and is largely dependent on female consumers – have, for years, been dominated by men, both in terms of the biggest creative director roles and also, its even more female-barren executive suites.
As McKinsey revealed this past fall, despite the fact that women spend three times more on clothing than men, “fewer than 50 percent of well-known womenswear brands are designed by women,” which is in all likelihood higher than it would have been just a few years prior thanks to a few relatively recent appointments, such as the installation of Maria Grazia Chiuri to the helm of Christian Dior, the first-ever female creative director in the Paris-based design house’s 71-year history, and Clare Waight Keller to Givenchy, another female first. On the business side, there is a stark lack of women. “Only 14 percent of major brands have a female executive in charge,” according to the consultancy’s findings.
Putting a woman at the head of one of – if not – the most established and respected fashion house in the world, a brand whose name is truly synonymous with fashion, even in the mind of a layman, is significant and meaningful. It is a marked step forward in the slow fight for gender equity in the unnervingly set-in-its-ways, and at times, very slow-to-adapt fashion industry.
The impact that was Lagerfeld’s career should certainly be not be overlooked, nor should the loss that is his death, as the industry has lost a true design great, one of the likes that are not necessarily being borne, nurtured, or even encouraged in the status quo that is overly corporatized, often cynical fashion today. He was, after all, “part of a generation of designers who have mostly passed away or retired,” per the Washgtinon Post’s Robin Givhan.
However, at the same time, the momentousness of Ms. Viard’s appointment at the tippy-top of the fashion totem pole, and what is stands to mean for the industry and its push for women (and diversity more generally) as a result, is not to be overlooked.