Viard’s Chanel comes into sharper focus with tribute to Coco

Jess Cartner-Morley in Paris

One year after she replaced Karl Lagerfeld at the helm of Chanel, the design studio has truly entered the age of Virginie Viard. The loss of the Kaiser inevitably overshadowed Viard’s first Chanel collections, so her outings have until now been defined by Lagerfeld’s absence: the first ready-to-wear, the first couture show, the first cruise and Métiers d’art shows without Karl were all measured against what had been before.

The ghost of Lagerfeld is receding, and Viard’s Chanel coming into sharper focus – with a few surprises. Having been Karl’s righthand woman for 36 years, Viard was Chanel’s continuity candidate. But she is pivoting the brand away from his legacy and back to its roots, reconnecting the house to the life and work of Coco Chanel.

French fashion designer Virginie Viard. Photograph: Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty

For this spring/summer haute couture catwalk show, Viard recreated the cloister garden of the abbey of Aubazine, the orphanage where Coco spent six childhood years after the death of her mother.

Before the show Viard said of a recent visit to Aubazine that “what I immediately liked was that the cloister garden was uncultivated”. An apparently throwaway comment but it flags a key difference between Viard’s aesthetic and Lagerfeld’s. Where Lagerfeld loved the grand gesture, Viard’s taste is simpler and more stripped back.

It was a sunny spot, she said, that made her “think of the summer, of a breeze fragranced with flowers”. This is the third time Viard has evoked Coco at home, following a recreation of the famous mirrored staircase in her atelier, and a three-story library styled to resemble the designer’s private rue Cambon apartments.

Model Kaia Gerber. The Grand Palais was turned into the garden of the abbey in Aubazine, central France, where Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel grew up. Photograph: Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty

But where those sets celebrated Coco’s glamour, this one was notable for its austerity. The planting which stretched over most of the Grand Palais’s vast floorspace was unmanicured. Flowers grown leggy flopped on to the brick paths, while tendrils found their way seemingly at random around simple stick trellises. The show space was open on all sides, its edges delineated only by embroidered tablecloths on laundry lines, a nod to the sewing skills which Coco learned from the nuns at Aubazine.

Viard’s version of Chanel is the Coco who advised taking one accessory off before leaving the house, the designer who made a simple striped T-shirt a byword for chic. By conjuring the years Coco spent as an impoverished boarder at Aubazine – rather than the era she spent living it up in dubious wartime circumstances at the Ritz – Viard brought that version of Coco into focus.

“I liked the idea of the boarder, of the schoolgirl, the outfits worn by children long ago,” Viard said of this collection. There was a distilled, ascetic grace in the simple tunic shapes, pintucked blouses, and sash-waisted dresses. Most outfits were monochrome, so that the models with their neat side-partings and starched Bertha collars looked almost to have walked out of a black-and-white film.

An organza-adorned dress. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Viard does not go in for visual jokes in the way Lagerfeld did but there was playfulness in the riffs on that Chanel classic, a two-tone shoe – white booties were laced with black ribbon, or black velvet slippers were worn with chunky white socks.

The ornament and embellishment that a haute couture client expects came in the detail. Gingham organza ribbons were woven into herringbone, for a new take on evening tweed, multicoloured pansies were brought to life on to a strapless blue chiffon gown, and jewelled buttons set with stars took their design from the stained glass windows of the abbey.