Director of Studio Chanel for more than twenty years, Virginie Viard coordinates the work of Karl Lagerfeld and everyone at Rue Cambon with gusto and enthusiasm. Her efforts give life to Karl Lagerfeld’s sketches and direction to his teeming creativity. Virginie Viard here discusses her career, her passion for the business, and the different steps in creating a collection.
How did your career develop?
I took the Georges class in Lyon. My grandparents are silk manufacturers and my family always loved fashion. I was also attracted to the industry, but most of all I wanted to make theater costumes. I started in costume production as assistant to Dominique Borg, who notably produced costumes for Camille Claudel; then I was a costume designer for films and plays, until I met Karl, who suggested I work at Chanel and then Chloé. In the end, I decided to focus on fashion, despite several extraordinary encounters in film: Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Nuytten and also Krzysztof Kieslowski, for whom I did the costumes for Bleu, with Juliette Binoche, and Blanc.
What year did you begin working for Chanel?
I started working at Chanel in 1987, where I was soon in charge of embroidery. I loved going to Lesage, and I still find the same pleasure in going there. When Karl took over Chloé, I followed him and worked there for five years. I didn’t really notice a difference, since I was still just working with Karl. My mother and my aunts all wore Chloé dresses. I always liked it. Afterwards, when we left Chloé, I returned to Chanel as coordinator of haute couture. I didn’t start handling ready-to-wear until 2000. Then the team got much bigger…
How does the approach differ between haute couture and ready-to-wear?
I have no preference between ready-to-wear and haute couture… I like everything! Of course ready-to-wear is “lighter,” but completely different. Furthermore, I give different instructions to each team, and there are different workshop leaders in charge of haute couture and ready-to-wear. How you design an item, the approach, the spirit of a specific style in haute couture does not come at all in the same way as in ready-to-wear. They’re two different approaches with production processes specific to each one.
How do you manage time and stress while putting together a collection?
I don’t like to fall behind schedule. I prefer when everything happens calmly. That’s why I like to have Karl’s sketches immediately after we finish one collection, so that we can start to prepare the next one right away. I don’t like working under pressure, and developing a collection is already enough stress in itself. It’s important to keep pressing forward, but I don’t want any tension. I don’t really see myself saying to Karl: “the deadline’s coming up!” as you can imagine. Anyway, we have a wonderful team, so everything runs smoothly. Karl is full of humor and extremely easy to get along with. We’re also hyper conscientious, and we do everything we can so that he’ll be happy. I think it’s nice for him to work in this kind of atmosphere.
What are your imperatives as a Studio Director?
It’s mostly intuitive for me. I feel like I’m working the same way I did twenty years ago. And everything goes along smoothly because, above all, our studio is about teamwork. I don’t feel like I’m a “Director”. Our hierarchy isn’t felt throughout the studio, it’s seamless. Though the teams do count on me, of course.
There are never any conflicts.
In the end, it’s Karl who looks at the outfits with the workshop leaders; I don’t even need to be there. It’s always he who has the last word.
How have women and Chanel clients changed?
I think the Chanel client is more modern, younger, with a more developed sense of fashion. But it’s above all the boutiques that have changed a lot. There are always new things, and people are glad to walk into a store. Chanel is the fashion company with the most collections per year with eight in all, including six ready-to-wear collections. I like this frantic pace; when you take a break, it’s hard to get going again… our rhythm makes it possible to do a ton of different things; there are always new ideas lying dormant…
Do you find inspiration in anything outside of fashion?
I’m fairly curious. I keep an eye on fashion, but it’s not what inspires me. I have a sixteen-year-old son who truly inspires me; for example, I love watching him do his homework, it helps me take my mind off things. I also like reading; it’s what I like most along with music, which influences me a lot. It helps me recharge my batteries. My fiancé is in music so I’m immersed in it. When you devote a lot of time to work, every “other” moment is precious and rich. I now experience these moments in a completely different way. I went to the theater twice recently and it was really intense! When I went to see an exhibit at Versailles, for example, I was sensitive to everything, to every minute detail, and this is the kind of experience that I want to enjoy as much as possible.
Do you ever ask yourself if Coco Chanel would have liked a given collection?
I don’t even think about it. What puts pressure on me is putting together a good collection. The launch day comes around quickly, and every time we start a fitting phase it’s almost like a fashion show. Whenever I have the slightest doubt, I show everything to Karl. I tell him, “maybe something’s missing,” and he finds a solution right away.
Does the spirit of Coco Chanel still hover over the company?
Yes, it’s like someone we knew well. Her aura is still hanging about the company.
Interview conducted by Armelle Leturcq
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