Your early 20s are a time for learning life lessons. Working at a magazine during mine, I acquired some pretty messed up ideas about how to get ahead which took years to shake off. Of my peer group – all ambitious, capable twentysomethings – I noticed it was a cabal of grandstanding boys that garnered the attention of higher-ups. One in particular was spoken of as a kind of journalistic savant, even though there were women – less ostentatious, for sure – who were capable of achieving just as much.
The memory of that frustrating situation came back to me last month when I saw the response to news of Virginie Viard succeeding Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. “She is my right arm and my left arm,” Lagerfeld said of Viard, whom Chanel described in a press release as the charismatic designer’s “closest collaborator.” Yet despite her 30 years of experience at the French fashion house, Viard’s appointment met with tepidity.
“She rarely wears makeup or heels,” said the Sunday Times by way of introduction. “So who is the secretive woman about to step into the biggest shoes in design at Chanel?” The Guardian, after acknowledging that Viard has “long been thought to be the natural successor to Lagerfeld,” ended its analysis on a note of doubt: “There is no indication of how long Viard will be steering the ship for.”
‘She is my right arm and my left arm,’ Lagerfeld said of Viard
While Viard, with her French-girl fringe and blacker-than-black jeans, is indisputably of the fashion world, these reports seemed to suggest she was not fashion-y enough. She is, The Times noted, “more likely to be found huddled backstage than posing for photographs.”
It’s true, there are way more photos of Karl Lagerfeld’s cat than of his trusted lieutenant – and Karl himself was so famous that his pony-tailed silhouette appeared on a special bottle of Diet Coke, his favourite beverage.
But although Lagerfeld was undoubtedly a fashion genius, he was also just one example of how to be a designer and a leader. Along with John Galliano, Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni Versace and Tom Ford, whose labels were not just eponymous but synonymous with their own selves, Lagerfeld’s success reaffirmed an age-old notion of creative genius. That is: singular and flamboyant. “Superhuman,” is how critic Cathy Horyn described Lagerfeld.
Consider, in contrast, the case of Phoebe Philo. The former head of Celine was seen as very good at her job; almost, even, as era-defining as Lagerfeld. But would anyone describe her as superhuman? Doubtful. Perhaps that’s because Philo was so obviously uncomfortable with stardom, rarely seen out of an understated uniform of oversized turtleneck, slouchy trousers and sneakers.
Claire Waight Keller at Givenchy is similar. Think of how she managed to fly completely under the radar in designing the world’s most highly anticipated wedding dress.
Then there’s Sarah Burton, who took over at McQueen and convincingly reinvented a brand known for its bad boy elan into something quieter yet no less elegant. It’s striking that Stella McCartney and Victoria Beckham are two of the few women in high fashion who operate under their own names.
Dr. Lyndell Fraser, an education researcher on workplace issues surrounding the knowledge economy, has surveyed a growing body of evidence that women are modelling a new kind of leadership. “Most of the people at a senior level are very capable,” Fraser says, “but I think sometimes women at the top are more inclined to foster and facilitate peoples’ capabilities, and to showcase them, rather than thinking they have to do that all themselves.”
Viard, who started at Chanel as an intern for haute couture embroidery, exemplifies this quality. “Everything goes along smoothly because, above all, our studio is about teamwork,” she told the French magazine Crash back when she was Chanel’s creative studio director. “I don’t feel like I’m a ‘director.’ Our hierarchy isn’t felt throughout the studio, it’s seamless.”
Everything goes along smoothly because, above all, our studio is about teamwork – Virginie Viard
Why are women more willing to share the spotlight with others? Dr Marian Baird, a professor of gender and employment relations at the University of Sydney Business School, says that in addition to the social construction of gender identities, there are structural issues which mean women often have little choice but to share the load.
“Women are constantly being pulled to do other things [outside of their careers],” Baird says. “Roles which require grit and determination, like caregiving. Often they simply don’t have time to do otherwise.”
Viard hasn’t given many interviews, but is by all accounts reliable and diligent. She’s been overseeing eight collections a year for decades, but is known for keeping reasonable hours. And she has plenty of interests outside work, including music, art, the theatre, and spending time with her partner and teenage son. Pretty unassuming stuff, and a far cry from appearing on a Coke can. Is it possible we’re finally seeing an appreciation of other ways to lead? With the ascent of Viard, Philo and others, women rising through the ranks right now are hopefully learning very different lessons about the world of work.