Karl Lagerfeld and Virginie Viard

PARIS — Paying tribute to “a prolific creative mind with endless imagination,” the house of Chanel on Tuesday confirmed “with deep sadness” the passing of its longtime creative director Karl Lagerfeld and said his longtime right-hand woman Virginie Viard would succeed him.

Meanwhile, Fendi was preparing to present Lagerfeld’s last collection for the brand in Milan on Thursday, as planned.

“Fendi is mourning the passing of Karl Lagerfeld, who has marked the history of the brand with his genius for more than 50 years. In this spirit, Fendi intends to take its time to pay him the homage he deserves and will communicate on the succession later,” the brand said.

The designer’s signature label was also taking the time to mourn. “Since its inception, the Karl Lagerfeld brand has strived to convey Karl Lagerfeld’s vision and share his design aesthetic through aspirational, accessible collections. This ethos will continue to remain at the core of the brand,” it said.

The label recently invited Carine Roitfeld to become a collaborator, beginning in September with The Edit by Carine Roitfeld, her selection of “essential pieces” from Lagerfeld’s fall 2019 collection.

Though Chanel had steadfastly refused to address questions about Lagerfeld’s succession, the house had quietly paved the way for a handover by having Viard take a bow with Lagerfeld for the last few seasons, beginning with the cruise 2019 show last May.

In January, Viard appeared solo at the end of the house’s two haute couture shows, with the brand explaining that Lagerfeld was “tired.” With sales of $9.6 billion in 2017, Chanel is one of the world’s largest luxury brands, making the question of succession a pressing one, even as the house mourns its charismatic designer.

“Virginie Viard, director of Chanel’s fashion creation studio and Karl Lagerfeld’s closest collaborator for more than 30 years, has been entrusted by [Chanel chief executive officer] Alain Wertheimer with the creative work for the collections, so that the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld can live on,” the house said.

Lagerfeld boasted that his contract with Chanel was one page long, emblematic of his close ties to the owners of the privately held firm. Lagerfeld claimed to never schedule meetings with the Wertheimers, or even talk that much about business, although the brothers Alain and Gerard were often at his elbow in his studio at the Rue Cambon, or chatting with him backstage before a fashion show.

He also forged close ties with Paris-based managers Francoise Montenay, who retired from an operational role in 2007, and Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion. Lagerfeld said four people ran Chanel’s giant fashion franchise: himself, Pavlovsky, Viard and image director Eric Pfrunder.

“We don’t talk to marketing people,” he said in 2009. “We do what our inner voices tell us. We’re kind of the Joan-of-Arcs of the fashion business.”

To be sure, Lagerfeld relished that Chanel was a private company. “At a public company, are you going to call the shareholders? Who are the shareholders? For me, shareholders are a little too abstract,” Lagerfeld said in 1999. “Fashion is not abstract.”

Lagerfeld’s strong suit was his ability to continually reinterpret the Chanel style, while keeping the brand’s image at the highest level. “Chanel is a style and a standard,” he would say. Lagerfeld was able to bend the look to the style of Goths, surfers, hippies, robots — you name it — and to continue to attract young women to a label that once had a bourgeois, slightly older, image.

The house paid tribute to his talent.

“An extraordinary creative individual, Karl Lagerfeld reinvented the brand’s codes created by Gabrielle Chanel: the Chanel jacket and suit, the little black dress, the precious tweeds, the two-tone shoes, the quilted handbags, the pearls and costume jewelry. Regarding Gabrielle Chanel, he said, ‘My job is not to do what she did, but what she would have done. The good thing about Chanel is it is an idea you can adapt to many things,’” it said in a statement.

The announcement of Viard’s appointment lays to rest years of speculation over Lagerfeld’s legacy at the house, with Hedi Slimane and Phoebe Philo often cited as potential successors. In 2017, Chanel took the extraordinary step of squelching ongoing speculation that it was plotting a move into men’s wear with Slimane.

“The house of Chanel has no projects with Hedi Slimane,” the company said in a statement issued exclusively to WWD at the time.

Throughout Slimane’s career, rumors have persisted that the designer could wind up at Chanel, given his long and close friendship with Lagerfeld and Lagerfeld’s penchant for Slimane’s rock ’n’ roll-tinged designs.

In 2000 and 2001, Lagerfeld famously shed nearly 90 pounds after a low-fat regime that he followed primarily to be able to shimmy into the pencil-thin suits Slimane was designing for Dior Homme. “It’s all about the clothes,” Lagerfeld told WWD at the time.

Chanel’s longtime couturier maintained a close rapport with Slimane, also an accomplished photographer like him.

Lagerfeld commissioned Slimane to shoot his portrait for the cover of the holiday issue of French Vogue that he guest-edited. And while he remained loyal to Dior Homme, Lagerfeld continued to wear jackets Slimane created expressly for him with his name on the label.

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