The Hidden Message in Virginie Viard’s First Chanel Collection

chanel cruise 2020 man repeller

I have attended 20 Chanel shows since 2013 and have never seen a formal write-up to describe the designer’s intention, as are often found on or underneath seats at runway events. Maybe they were there and I just wasn’t paying attention, maybe they were not, but for the first collection that Virginie Viard would design on her own following Karl Lagerfeld’s death last February, a card with two parts greeted all guests when they checked in to their hotel rooms before the show, which would take place at a re-imagined station at the Grand Palais. The first card explained the history of Le Train Bleu, a luxury overnight express train that would chauffeur the French upper-class from the Calais to the Riviera, which inspired the set, and the second emphasized the relationship between the house of Chanel and travel.

There was something quite feminine about it — a soft but welcome and unapologetic, straightforward offering up of context.

Chanel Cruise ’20

Come to think of it, there is something quite feminine in the air of French fashion more generally. With Clare Waight-Keller at Givenchy, Natacha Ramsay-Levi at Chloe, Maria Grazia-Chiuri at Dior and now, Largerfeld’s longtime accomplice at Chanel, the kind of progress we’ve been starved for politically is quite possibly living the cliched axiom that life imitates art and producing an incipient manifestation in fashion.

And, ah, the fashion. The fashion! Maybe I so loved this collection because I am a giant fan of Chanel. Because I have grown to embody what I always admired in its contrast — the lightness of a ditzy floral print set on a bias-cut chiffon dress with the weight of a tweed jacket boasting enormous shoulders, or a pair of inimitably refined boots, constructed as if to be worn only by a ballet dancer, but in patent leather with thick, wax laces that climb up the shoe’s vamp. These disparities clearly exclaim that no woman is ever just one thing. That if we want our clothes to represent us, they must epitomize the parts of us that are reticent and slight with as much intention as those that are boisterous, never minding every degree of expression that falls in between.

Chanel Cruise ’20

And who better to evince these principles than one of our own, following in the way of a legend? Resort 2020 totaled about two thirds of the typical Chanel show with 79 looks, but all the notes were there. In the khaki anoraks with gold CC buttons on their pockets, and the striped cardigans styled under skinny, bow-adorned waist belts that created these natural peplums. There were bright colors on tweed jackets, a six-part set of white and ivory mini skirt suits and leggings printed with encrusted logo marks and several instances of cropped bow tops peeking out of blazers and sweaters and patched on to some dresses, which were sweet and archetypically effeminate, but shown only with get-yourself-dirty boots.

But more than the actual clothes, which were decidedly wearable, I was drawn to the bigger picture — the way there is actually more in the air than just female designers. There is a back-to-basics approach that I am beginning to believe they are shepherding. Viard’s collection for Chanel was a pared back look at a very rich history. It was not superfluous. It was not hollow. It was not rash. It was, I don’t know, womanly.

At Man Repeller, I’ve recently been hearing myself say “better not bigger,” but for a long time, I fought this ideology. Whereas a man might be taught that when he takes up the most space and shouts the loudest, he will win, I have been taught the opposite, to be as gentle as my person would allow, which has made me want to compete. But we are playing different games — they and I. And in my quest to achieve power, to stand on the same level ground, I can’t try to become something I’m not. I can’t yell and squat and be the biggest and do the most and never apologize, even when I fuck up. I can only be me. Better, not bigger. Today at Chanel, I remembered that.

Feature photo by Dominique Charriau/WireImage via Getty Images; Runway photos via Vogue Runway. 

Leandra M. Cohen

Leandra M. Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller.

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