PARIS • 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 on Tuesday at the age of 85.
Last month, 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 in May last year 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.
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 Mr Alain Wertheimer, 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 and her maternal grandparents were silk manufacturers.
She lives in Paris with her partner, Jean-Marc Fyot, a composer and music producer, and they have a son, Robinson, 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.
She 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.
Even though his death leaves a huge hole at the head of Chanel, analysts say the fashion juggernaut is in such rude health that it is likely to power on without him.
Until last year, the real scale of his financial success at Chanel was kept secret. But in June, the Wertheimer family who owns the brand released figures for the first time, showing sales of US$9.62 billion (S$13 billion) in 2017.
That put Chanel ahead of Gucci and just behind Louis Vuitton as the second-biggest luxury fashion label, although much of LV's profits come from sales of bags and luggage.
Even without Lagerfeld, Chanel is still "a Ferrari of the luxury world", analyst Luca Solca of Bernstein Consulting told Agence France-Presse. "There is no doubt that the house is in a very strong position."
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE