There’s a certain level of myth-making that goes hand-in-hand with the luxury fashion produced by heritage brands. To make collections in the image of a maison’s enigmatic founder—well, that person must be painted as iconoclastic, intriguing, and innovative at the least. At Chanel, there is plenty to rhapsodize about from Coco Chanel’s own life of drama and decay, as well as from the near-40 year work of Karl Lagerfeld. The brand’s current artistic director Virginie Viard, longtime right hand to Lagerfeld, has kept a relatively low profile in terms of press, limiting her exposure out of respect for her famous forebears.
But today, Viard’s world is being revealed ever so poetically with a new documentary by Sofia Coppola chronicling the Métiers d’Art show from December.
Coppola herself is no stranger to mythmaking, hailing from one of film’s most famous families, building her own cinematic oeuvre, and functioning as the patient zero of ’90s personal style. So when Coppola says of Viard, “I love her style,” you know it comes as the highest praise. Here, the director discusses peeling back the curtain on Viard’s modern take on Chanel.
How did the idea for you to collaborate with Virginie on the atmosphere of the show and also a film about the process come about?
Virginie knows what a fan I am of Chanel. And the focus of the Métiers d’Art collection is really all the classic Chanel codes that we all love and are always looking for in the collections. That was at the center of it. She asked if I wanted to participate and work on the sets and the atmosphere of the show with her. We talked about sharing what we loved about Chanel, and I got to visit the archive with her.
It was like a dream. It was a Chanel fantasy dream for me. Then just to be in the studio, where Virginie was putting the looks together and I was working with the set team. The shows, the sets are incredible, what they can build in the Grand Palais, so it was really exciting to work with their team. I had always loved those images of the stairs, the old days at Rue Cambon with Coco standing on the staircase, watching, and women in the audience on little ballroom chairs, the models coming so close. It really had an intimate feeling of how they used to show them, so we wanted to bring that spirit back. We built Coco’s stairs in the Grand Palais and tried to keep the audience close to the models, so you had that feeling of the clothes being close by you.
We also recreated Coco’s apartment because Virginie was looking at all the details in her apartment, which I know Karl took from over the years, all the symbols of the lions and the gold, you can see them all in her apartment. Have you ever visited her apartment?
No, never. I wish.
It’s amazing. I feel so lucky; it seems so far away that we got to be in Paris. So yeah, it was really a dream for me. And to get to go visit Coco’s apartment and look for all the symbols, and on the bags is a little bird cage that comes from a charm that she had in her little trinket box in her apartment. A lot of little details in the collection come from Coco’s apartment and her objects that she collected. She was very superstitious and had many good luck charms, and the chandeliers over the show are reproductions of the chandeliers in her apartment that have little number fives in them if you look closely. So it was about incorporating all of that into the set so the audience could get a sense of that.
For the atmosphere, we talked about doing the show at night, so that it had that kind of feeling of dressing up to go to a party, as opposed to a work show at 10:00 in the morning, because Métiers d’Art could be a little bit special and different than the regular collections, I think.
And capturing that environment is so embedded in the history of the Métiers d’Art shows as well.
Yeah, it’s true because in the past they’ve always done it in an interesting location.
I know that you interned at Chanel when you were younger, but this really seems like an opportunity where you are really embedded in the process of this collection. Did it illuminate any things about fashion design or just the workings of Chanel that you didn’t know?
For me, to be back in the studio that I’d been in as a kid was so special. To walk up the stairs, and as an adult, get to be there and really participate was really a thrill. And to see there’s so many traces of Karl from that era. I remember his collages on the walls that are still there.
I definitely got more of a look into seeing how they make things. It’s always incredible to me how they make them so fast, and they’re so intricate. And seeing all the embroidery up close, and the studios actually in-house that they make things in was really exciting. Some of the samples would come in of these fabric camellias and embroidery, and to see that really up close was special.
I’m quite jealous that you got to go to the archive. That must have been incredible.
Yes. Yes, I’ll never forget that. It was really a dream. I remember Virginie pulled up on a motorcycle, she was dropped off, and she took her helmet off and her hair blew in the breeze. She’s just like the best. A woman, Odile, takes care of the archives and knows every detail of the history, and she showed us. She was excited because they had just gotten some suits from the ’60s where Coco had tie-dyed the lining.
They hadn’t seen them before. And it was so cool to imagine that Chanel tie-dyed the lining herself. Then Virginie incorporates tie-dye into the collection. You’ll see there’s a tie-dye T-shirt—everything has its roots in the history that Virginie re-does in a cool way. And just for fun, Virginie showed me the drawers with the little tiny first No. 5 bottles and little travel kits. And it’s just magic to see that it all exists in this archive.
It’s such a blessing for them to have kept all of that and that she can go and reference and see. I mean, of course they really treasure their heritage and take care of it. I got to try on one of Coco Chanel’s jackets. It was really her jacket. It was completely surreal. Not to brag, but it was very thrilling.
What is it like to collaborate with Virginie and bring your perspective coming from the world of cinema to a fashion brand?
It was very natural because I feel that I have a long connection and knowledge and love of Chanel, so it’s ingrained in me. I’m a fan. So it felt more like, “What if you got to put in your two cents and actually get it incorporated into the show?” That was really exciting. Virginie was open to what I love about Chanel and open to having a conversation.
My main role was really the atmosphere. It was working on the music, and the lighting, and the set, so that was natural and what I do in a film. She created the girls and the looks. But when I do a film, the sets have to relate to what the people are wearing—it all has to come together. So it was fun to listen to what she was doing, and then incorporate the atmosphere and sets to complement what she was designing.
As someone who has such a lifelong connection with Chanel, what do you enjoy the most about what Virginie has done with her artistic direction of the brand?
I love that she incorporates so much of the history and codes that we love, and then makes it in a cool, modern, very wearable way. I feel like Coco Chanel wanted women to feel comfortable and confident, and that just felt like where she was coming from. I feel like Virginie does that too. I love her style, and I think she brings the way she dresses to the clothes, and it has a kind of ease about it, and it never feels fancy or stuffy, but they’re so beautifully made, but you can wear them in a casual way.
Have you been keeping up with the digital fashion weeks that are happening online?
You know, I looked at the Chanel Couture because I was curious; there was a long navy dress, which was really beautiful. I haven’t looked around otherwise. Has anyone actually done a runway show?
I think there are going to be some shows in Paris and Milan next week, a couple of shows.
I feel like we’re all … I’m just so happy to see beautiful clothes because we’re all tired of being in our lounge wear.