How Will Chanel Pick a New Designer?

Late Wednesday, BoF broke the news that Virginie Viard had exited Chanel.

A force for continuity who carried on Karl Lagerfeld’s legacy after his 2019 death, while bringing a lighter, more youthful touch to Chanel’s runway collections, Viard sat atop a storied fashion empire. The second-biggest luxury brand with revenues of nearly $20 billion last year, Chanel stages six fashion shows per year across ready-to-wear, haute couture and its annual “Métiers d’Art” craftsmanship showcase, not to mention its near-unparalleled brand prestige.

While some fashion fans bristled at Viard’s increased focus on ultra-wearable silhouettes, her more approachable, contemporary take on flagship products like tweed jackets helped to fuel surging sales as the Covid-19 pandemic pushed luxury consumers toward blue-chip brands. During her tenure, sales of ready-to-wear increased by a factor of 2.5, Chanel recently reported. That’s to say, her successor will have big shoes to fill.

At the same time, Chanel is currently in such a strong position that the house won’t need to rush Viard’s succession. The brand grew by 16 percent in 2023, outpacing key rivals, and has such clear codes and sufficient clout with consumers to weather a season or two without a creative director. (Chanel will rely on its studio team to designer its June couture outing).

Yet even if Chanel can afford to take its time, the fashion world is breathlessly awaiting news on who will take up the industry’s most coveted position. Speculation as to who will succeed Viard went into overdrive as soon as her exit was reported, with names circulating on social media ranging from more long-rumoured contenders like Hedi Slimane to outliers like ex-Moschino creative director Jeremy Scott.

Much will depend on how Chanel and its owners, the Wertheimer brothers, see the creative director role going forward. Do they want a transformational figure like Lagerfeld, who could revamp the brand’s image and serve as the face of the house for decades? Or another deft merchandiser like Viard who will get the most commercial mileage out of its craftspeople and codes? New configurations are also possible, with Chanel eventually choosing to employ multiple creative directors like Hermès or Louis Vuitton.

The Big One

Rumours have swirled that Hedi Slimane was being lined up to join Chanel, and launch menswear, since his 2016 departure from Saint Laurent. Now, after a 5-year turn at Celine that saw the house grow into a €2.5 billion per year megabrand, sources say the designer has been engaged in a lengthy, difficult negotiation with parent company LVMH that could lead to his departure. And Chanel speculation has gone into overdrive again.

In some ways, Slimane seems like the perfect fit for Chanel. A branding genius and impeccable stylist, his penchants for black-and-white, bold-face branding and practice of shooting campaigns himself are heavily inspired by Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel. And while Lagerfeld rarely shied away from doling out brutal criticism, he habitually made glowing remarks about Slimane, as well as adopting the designer’s ultra-slim menswear silhouette.

But bringing on the exacting (and reclusive) Slimane would come with challenges: The designer is known for demanding total control over branding, campaigns, store concepts and more. While that approach helps to curate an ultra-coherent universe for devotees of his vision, giving that much power to one individual would be risky for a company at Chanel’s scale. It also feels out of step with new CEO Leena Nair’s mission to evolve Chanel’s internal culture, professionalise processes and reinforce teams and structures in a bid to future-proof the luxury giant.

Then there’s Slimane’s approach to design: composing the latest versions of his trademark slim silhouette by reinterpreting vintage references, or demanding that teams bring him myriad fully-realised samples to “shop” from (and cancelling the rest). This would be out of step with Chanel’s couture culture, where designers work closely with the atelier and suppliers to bring collections to life.

Slimane also doesn’t engage with the press or do public appearances. Neither did Viard, for that matter. But predecessor Lagerfeld’s charismatic public persona was an asset as he built up Chanel’s aura of high-flying fabulosity over more than 30 years.

Free Agents

Then, there’s the handful of major design talents who currently don’t have a brand.

Sarah Burton exited Alexander McQueen last fall 13 years after taking the reins following founder Lee McQueen’s death. She managed to synthesise McQueen’s founding notions like Britishness, naturalia and punk in collections that were more romantic and approachable and less dark (albeit also less exciting). She’s known to be a collaborative, inclusive designer who has made perpetuating savoir-faire a priority at McQueen — in terms of culture, she’s a fit for the company Chanel says it wants to be. Lagerfeld was a fan, too: “She is fantastic and what she’s doing at McQueen is truly haute couture,” he said in 2016.

Pierpaolo Piccioli is another free agent, having left Valentino in March. The bombastic romance of Piccioli’s haute couture for Valentino wasn’t every fashion critic’s cup of tea, but his shows featured authority, confidence and calculated risk in a way that’s been missing from Chanel’s runway under Viard. In ready-to-wear, shoes and bags, however, Piccioli’s ideas were less easily translated to hit products.

Wild Cards

A collision of Phoebe Philo’s intellectual, design-forward aesthetic with Chanel’s codes is a long-shot possibility some fashion fans are clamouring to see. But there’s an enormous gap between the scale and complexity of her previous roles and Chanel (Celine topped out at around €1 billion during her tenure, and did not yet include menswear or beauty).

Chanel may be a $20 billion per-year powerhouse, but it starts every year at zero like as everyone else. In order to keep powering a business at this scale, a designer with a proven commercial track record like Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri would be a serious contender.

Chiuri’s approach to fashion — which involves animating digestible design ideas with varied collaborations and storytelling focused on craftsmanship — has fuelled rapid growth at Dior, and her way of working would certainly be applicable at principal rival Chanel.

New Configurations

Chanel could also opt for a new configuration that makes room for multiple designers, like at Louis Vuitton, Hermès and Dior. Bringing on Slimane wouldn’t be the only option if the company decided to push into menswear: the brand might seek out an adaptable menswear star, like Dior’s Kim Jones to head up the expansion, while hiring another designer to handle women’s.

As the brand increasingly seeks to position itself as a house of “absolute luxury” — a purveyor of timeless investment pieces à la Hermès — it could also look to bring on a womenswear designer (or designers) who have managed to thrive under a more collaborative structure with multiple voices. Hermès’ creative director for women’s ready-to-wear Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski is one name the internet hasn’t yet thought up.

Such a setup would allow for additional perspectives and storytelling opportunities, while also ensuring that no one person is ever bigger than the brand.



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Virginie Viard is leaving Chanel.
(Getty Images)

Chanel designer Virginie Viard to exit the brand. Viard presided over Chanel during a historic surge in sales as demand for luxury goods exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic. Viard’s exit is sure to intensify speculation on who might replace her.

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Compiled by Yola Mzizi.

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