That Karl Lagerfeld’s longtime right-hand woman should feel nervous about stepping into the spotlight is understandable: Over his 36 years at the helm of Chanel, Lagerfeld practically wrote the book on how to revive a dormant luxury house.
Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion and president of Chanel SAS, spoke admiringly of the heritage left by the German designer, who died in February at the age of 85. Yet he also underlined the need for Viard to fly with her own wings and bring her touch to the label founded by another woman, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.
In an interview the day before the Chanel 2020 cruise show, to be held at the Grand Palais in Paris, Pavlovsky sat down with WWD to talk about life after Karl, the June 20 celebration of his life, digital innovation and how Chanel is coping with the ongoing yellow vests protests in France.
WWD: How are you and the team feeling on the eve of Virginie Viard’s first solo collection for Chanel?
Bruno Pavlovsky: Excited, stressed — but stressed in a good way.
We are both in the continuity of all the work that was done with Karl over more than 30 years, and at the same time, Virginie is aware that she must write a new chapter for the house, and who better to do it than her, as she is coming from a place of continuity to perhaps add a little something to Karl’s work over these last few years. Karl has left us both a challenge and a real gift, to continue writing a strong story — the brand is strong, the house codes are strong. Whether consciously or unconsciously, he perfectly prepared Virginie, the house and the team to take on this new phase, so we are ready.
Karl is there, he will always be there, and if we are where we are today, it is thanks to the work he accomplished with the brand over the last three decades. I would say it’s a fairly natural succession, with people who are ready to do what is necessary to continue to develop and keep alive this exceptional heritage, all the while projecting it into modernity. That’s the most important thing, and it’s really an aspect that Virginie is particularly committed to.
WWD: She has to navigate a fine line between respecting the past and responding to the constant evolution of women’s needs today. How do you think she is stepping up to the challenge?
B.P.: Karl always made the brand and Virginie very comfortable with that notion. I think he was the first to say after each collection that it was on to the next. He taught us to question ourselves after each collection, to think about what it meant for the brand, and so it’s quite instinctive for Virginie not to rely on past experience but to try something different. I think she is really going to bring her own touch — certainly a slightly more feminine touch, something that will be Virginie — to this unique Chanel style established by Karl. So we are in this continuity, and I think the greatest gift that Karl gave us was leaving us this freedom. We don’t feel at all confined in a succession or heritage. On the contrary, he has left us free to imagine the Chanel of tomorrow.
WWD: Everyone is keen to hear from Viard on how she sees Chanel going forward. When can we expect her to start speaking to the press?
B.P.: There is no set time frame. It will happen when Virginie feels sufficiently confident and when she decides she has something to say. We have given ourselves until the summer, but honestly, it’s up to her to decide. I think she needs a little time. She has to gain confidence. It’s not easy to design a collection after Karl. You need to recognize that, so she will set the pace, knowing that I will do everything to protect her so that she can concentrate on the collections.
WWD: Although the fall collection was very Karl, some observers detected touches of Viard’s more feminine approach. In what way do you see her developing this at Chanel?
B.P.: I will let her answer that question, but indeed, there were little touches — almost imperceptible, but for those who are familiar with Karl’s work, you could feel it in that collection. It was really designed by them both, because — without going into details — Karl was less present and therefore Virginie stepped up, under Karl’s close supervision. The collection was really codesigned by the two, but with a lot of respect, simplicity and mutual goodwill.
I think we need to keep in mind his collections, with all the respect and consideration that Karl brought to the house. Having said that, now is the time for freedom. For Virginie, now is the time when she will continue to build on this, and I think she is full of energy. She is really up for the challenge.
There is a huge amount of respect for Karl. You don’t wipe out three decades of shared history.
But there is also this breath of fresh air he has left behind, and which is absolutely not inconsistent with what he did. On the contrary, I think he would be very proud to see how we’re handling this, because it’s going smoothly. That doesn’t mean there are no discussions, it doesn’t mean it’s always easy, but there is a goodwill and a desire to keep the brand going, but by looking at the future, rather than the past.
Everyone from the atelier up is involved. People are not downcast, on the contrary: They want to show they have understood what Karl taught them and that they are ready to write a new chapter for the house.
WWD: What can you tell me about the celebration of Karl Lagerfeld’s life that is planned for June 20?
B.P.: It will be a celebration lasting a little more than an hour at the Grand Palais. It’s too early to talk about it. What I can say is that everyone is bringing a lot of energy and goodwill to the project. It wasn’t easy to find a space in the schedule at the Grand Palais when everyone could be present. I think everyone is very impatient and wants to do something exceptional that measures up to Karl, so I think it will be very powerful. On top of all the people who will be attending, I think it will be a beautiful tribute to Karl as a person, to the things he loved and that inspired him. We are working against a tight deadline, but I believe it will be quite exceptional.
It won’t be about Karl at Chanel, or Karl at Fendi or Karl at KL. It will really be about him: Who he was, what he loved, what gave him his exceptional energy. That’s what we really want to celebrate.
WWD: What has been the impact of this transition period on your other ongoing projects, namely the digital innovation partnership with e-commerce platform Farfetch announced last year?
B.P.: We have started testing the innovation project with Farfetch in earnest at our new boutique at 19 Rue Cambon in Paris. We will be able to reveal further details in a few weeks’ time, but the teams have been trained and they are super excited.
The program will debut with the Métiers d’Art collection. It’s very interesting. We will have to tweak it as we go along, but the principles are sound. The response from our store teams has been positive. The next stage, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself, will be bringing our customers on board. That will start next month, and it will take a few months before it’s fully operational.
All our projects are proceeding according to schedule. In parallel, we continue to work on new openings.
Our new Seoul flagship, which opened a few weeks ago, is performing very well. There is a great energy in the store. It stands out from the rest of the retail scene in South Korea, for us at least, since all our other stores are located in malls or department stores.
We also had a very successful launch for the Mademoiselle Privé exhibition in Shanghai recently, with attendance levels beyond expectations and excellent feedback both in the media and on social networks.
Tonight we are launching the revamped J12 watch — so Chanel continues to be very active.
WWD: Chanel is expected to publish its annual results in the next few weeks. How did the company perform, and did the yellow vests protests in France dent sales?
B.P.: 2018 was an excellent year for the house. I will let [chief financial officer] Philippe Blondiaux comment on the results in the coming days or weeks. Returning to the yellow vests, we had to close for six or seven Saturdays, which is not necessarily good. The problem is not so much the financial impact, but the effect on service. Our customers are busy. Even if we offered alternatives by opening on Sundays and late in the evening, it’s annoying that they were unable to visit our stores for several days, and we were not in a position to attend to their needs. For a brand such as us, being unavailable is the most bothersome thing.
I think the brand is sufficiently international and sufficiently well represented worldwide that the impact will be minor, but it’s annoying that a city as important as Paris, where we welcome a huge amount of international customers, is not able to offer them the level of service they deserve.
WWD: This is happening at a time when Chanel is investing heavily into stores and other infrastructure in Paris.
B.P.: It’s an important moment for Chanel in Paris, but it’s an important moment for Paris, period. Paris as the capital of creativity and capital of fashion. Obviously, Paris is key for Chanel, so what we offer our customers in Paris has to meet the right requirements.
I hope things will gradually return to normal and calm down, but it’s true that it’s frustrating not being able to do what you want. Having said that, I think that Chanel has to be stronger than that. We have to find other ways to address the needs of our clients. Our stores are very creative in that respect.
WWD: Have the protests resulted in any delays in your projects in Paris, including the building of the new site housing your specialty ateliers north of Paris?
B.P.: Everything is on track. We’re dealing with major construction projects, whether it’s the new building near Porte d’Aubervilliers, or the renovation of our flagship and headquarters on Rue Cambon and Rue Duphot in Paris, so delays are always possible, but for the time being, it’s all going fairly smoothly.
WWD: You recently launched the brand’s first collaboration, a line of clothes and accessories codesigned by Pharrell Williams. How did it perform? Are additional partnerships in the works?
B.P.: It performed well, but I would say that rather than reflecting a current trend for collaborations among luxury brands, it represented a new chapter in our relationship with him. We have worked together on advertising campaigns, films and a pair of sneakers. This was Pharrell’s take on the Chanel items he likes to wear. It’s a way to express his vision of the brand. It doesn’t reflect a shift in strategy, but rather an evolution in the collaboration between Karl, Virginie and Pharrell. It doesn’t mean we’ll go looking for another Pharrell to do the same thing. That is not the objective.
Chanel is Chanel, and the brand has to remain strong and creative. The starting point is always the studio.
Pharrell continues to be a spokesman and an ambassador for the brand.
Our intention is to work with the people we love, who love the brand and who allow us to express things a little differently, so we are not entering an era of collaborations all over the place.