It's hard not to feel for Virginie Viard: Being tapped to follow Karl Lagerfeld, arguably the last of fashion's mega-designers, at Chanel, one of luxury fashion's biggest and most venerated houses, is a tough act. But hopes were high for the designer, who had worked alongside Lagerfeld for the better part of three decades — especially since she would be the first woman to lead Chanel since Coco herself.
It's been just over a year since Viard made her official debut as creative director for Resort 2020. With six collections a year, Chanel moves fast, which means she now has several seasons under her chain belt. She's established her vision for the brand: more pared back than that of her predecessor, stripping Chanel back to its most commercial core. Clothes are simple and more relaxed in shape, shoes are more grounded, accessories are limited to a few pieces of jewelry and perhaps one bag.
In theory, that sounds great. In execution, it leaves much to be desired.
Viard's Spring 2021 outing for the French fashion house was set against a white backdrop, "CHANEL" spelled out in giant, Hollywood-sign style letters. She said she was inspired by celebrities, specifically those which serve as muses to the house.
"I was thinking about actresses at the photo call, on the red carpet, that moment when they're being called to by the photographers: their faces a little distracted, their attitude a little out of sync with the outfits they're wearing," Viard said, in a statement. "And then there are the fans waiting for them behind the barriers, this very lively side to cinema that happens beyond cinema, that's what I like."
However, the collection itself lacks any of the charm, let alone the glamour of red carpet dressing. And, frankly, there's not much very lively about it, either.
It's hard to make much sense of who this Chanel is for. Many of the silhouettes just look sloppy — there are oversized jackets and baggy pants that are meant to feel louche but instead just look ill-fitting; clam digger-cropped suit sets; a skintight unitard with a halter neckline and matching sleeves that feels like it's intended for an unannounced collaboration with Fashion Nova. The color palette is largely black and white (this is becoming a signature of Viard's designs) broken up by splashes of brights, including a neon-print that could have been dug straight up from an '80s archive. Will the customer want oversized tweed bermuda pants finished with a long chiffon leg or satin shorts that look rumpled instead of ruched?
There are certainly shoppers who snap up Chanel's ready-to-wear season after season, but it's not the brand's bread and butter. The real money is minted in the accessories, and Viard seems to have a strange aversion to them. (Admittedly, Lagerfeld lived by a "more is more" philosophy, piling on necklaces, brooches, cuffs and even handbags until it was hard to even suss out what was underneath sometimes.) In addition to being financial drivers, the accessories are the spices in the Chanel recipe, and Viard's spartan approach leaves everything tasting bland. It's fine if she doesn't feel like dotting her designs with bags shaped like beach balls or rocket ships, but the most interesting accessory on her runway is a micro mini bag attached to belts and necklaces — and even there, she's seasons behind brands like Jacquemus and Fendi.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record at this point, I also need to discuss the casting. It was very...boring. Across 70 looks, it was almost overwhelmingly white and thin, with only Jill Kortleve — technically plus size, according to modeling's standards, but hardly even noticeably so on the runway — breaking up the straight sizes. Perhaps it's not fair of me to expect more from a female designer than I do their male counterparts, but it always stings a little bit more to see such expected, outdated "standards" from a fashion house with such a global reach, influence and power to shape the way we perceive beauty.
One of the pluses of working at a powerhouse like Chanel is that, theoretically, you can have it all, combining the high fashion fantasy with the money-making commercial. Viard seems completely averse to the former, and can't quite seem to stick the landing on the latter. And while it's true that we're in the middle of a pandemic, when fantasy risks ridicule, the Spring 2021 collection has nothing to say about our times, either.
See the complete Chanel Spring 2021 collection in the gallery below: