Karl Lagerfeld and Virginie Viard acknowledge the audience at the end of the Chanel springsummer 2019 show in October 2018. Image Credit: AFP

If there was any constant to a Chanel runway show, where the set replicates a vast autumnal forest one season and a hulking cruise ship the next, it was the man behind the curtain: Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s designer and mastermind since 1983, who died this week at the age of 85 (although his age was disputed).

In January, Virginie Viard, the creative studio director at Chanel, took the bow at the end of the haute couture collection when Lagerfeld was, according to a statement from the house, “feeling tired” and did not appear himself. Viard was at Lagerfeld’s side for the finale of several previous shows, including the resort collection in Paris last May and the extravaganza at the Temple of Dendur in New York in December.

Naturally, speculation ensued: Was this a sign of the house’s imminent succession plan? It was.

French fashion studio director of Chanel Virginie Viard flanked by Italian model Vittoria Ceretti at the end of the Chanel spring-summer 2019 Haute Couture collection fashion show at the Grand Palais in Paris, in January 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Viard has been in place for years. “Karl is the locomotive, and Virginie is the rails of Chanel,” said Loic Prigent, the documentary filmmaker who shoots the atelier’s craftsmanship before each show.

In the announcement of Lagerfeld’s death, Chanel described Viard as his “closest collaborator for more than 30 years.” The announcement also said that Alain Wertheimer, the chief executive of Chanel, entrusted her with the “creative work for the collections, so that the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld can live on.”

Viard, who is in her 50s, grew up in Lyon, France, the eldest of five siblings. Her father is a ski champion turned surgeon; her maternal grandparents were silk manufacturers. In a profile in Grazia, Viard credited her notions of fashion to her mother and aunts; growing up, she thought Chanel was “old.”

She lives in Paris with her partner, Jean-Marc Fyot, a composer and music producer, and they have a son, Robinson Fyot, who is in his early 20s. (He walked the runway of the Chanel 2014 show in Singapore, wearing a lace blazer.)

Viard studied at Le Cours Georges, a fashion school in Lyon, where she specialised in film and theatrical costume. She spent a year in London at the peak of punk. Later, after a stint at a boutique in Lyon, she became the assistant to the costume designer Dominique Borg in Paris.

Viard was recommended to Lagerfeld for an internship by Prince Rainier of Monaco’s head of protocol, who was a family friend. She joined the designer at Chanel in 1987 and, not long after, was put in charge of embroidery. Next came a five-year entr’acte at Chloe, still under Lagerfeld’s wing. In 1997, she was named the studio director of Chanel.

Lagerfeld referred to Viard as both his right and left hand. As soon as he completed a sketch, her work began. She oversaw six collections a year and also served as a translator of Lagerfeld’s vision. She spent time with suppliers and the heads of seven ateliers and assessed what new or archival techniques best corresponded to Lagerfeld’s ideas. Her involvement extended to approving the model casting and inspecting each detail backstage.

“I always see her concentrated and smiling,” said Prigent, who added that she seemed “absolutely loyal to Karl.” And, he said, “I have never heard her complain about the crazy pace of the collections at Chanel.”

Viard has said Lagerfeld was the only person she addressed with the formal French “vous,” and that she enjoyed doing so. In the Grazia profile, she said: “My role with him consists of making sure he feels good. Over the years, there have been tiring moments, things unspoken; but overall, always, respect and kindness. We communicate each morning by text.”

But she was never his yes person. “When I have something to say, I tell him,” she told Madame Figaro in 2011.

Viard’s signature is her fringe: a shelf of 1960s-era bangs that graze her smoky eyes and balance her shoulder-length slept-on waves. She is often in a Lagerfeld-like uniform of rocker-chic black jackets, skinny black jeans and vintage T-shirts. Think Coco Chanel crossed with Patti Smith.

She favours jeans from Stella McCartney and sometimes uses a Dylon home kit to dye them blacker still. And she avoids heels. “I am tall, and I don’t like to be noticed,” she has said. In 2015, her non-Chanel preferences leant toward Balenciaga (circa Nicolas Ghesquiere), Maison Margiela and Comme des Garcons.

Among her closest friends is Caroline de Maigret, a longtime Chanel muse. In 2015, when Lagerfeld accepted the role of creative director of the Hyeres Festival, Viard presided over the fashion jury, which included de Maigret and another friend, architect and designer India Mahdavi. Michel Gaubert, fashion’s in-demand sound director, is also part of her inner circle.

Viard has no social media presence and a role that remains largely out of the public eye. Despite her tenure, responsibilities and proximity to Lagerfeld, her name has been conspicuously absent from the Business of Fashion’s 500 list. Nonetheless, the French fashion media appears to regard her with a degree of awe, praising her discretion and steady demeanour.

When asked by a journalist for Madame Figaroin 2017 what makes a “Chanel girl,” she replied, “As I have always been a Chanel girl, I don’t know how to be anything else.”