Guillaume Henry Takes Carven ‘Round The World
“It’s been sort of like a Carven World Tour these days,” laughed Carven‘s creative director, Guillaume Henry, while sitting in the lobby of the Mercer hotel. His description wasn’t hyperbolic in the least. In the last month, Carven has opened two boutiques in Shanghai, its first flagship in London, and now the house is preparing to debut a stateside outpost, in New York. Located at 83 Mercer Street, in Soho (with stores like Chloé, Saint Laurent, and Proenza Schouler just around the corner), the 1,636-square-foot space was designed in collaboration with architect Eric Chevallier. “I didn’t want it to be too impressive, though,” explained Henry. “I prefer places that feel comfortable, familiar, and approachable.” He plans to achieve said ambience by combining luxurious elements—like a black leather bench and marble details—with more industrial ones. “I love the idea of mixing opposites—day and night, sophisticated and casual, sexy and shy. I love two extreme worlds connected.”
The New York flagship will mark Carven’s sixteenth freestanding boutique (though the designer hints that a third Paris shop, outside the Marais, as well as another location in Manhattan, could be on the way). Carven’s investment in new international digs is a testament to Henry’s success at the brand, which, founded in 1943 by a now 104-year-old Carmen de Tommaso, was revived in 2009. Throughout the past five years, Henry has brought the sleeping heritage house back to life with his crisp, clean sense of modernity and his youthful approach to design. Last night, Henry sat down with Style.com (next to a newlywed couple in a bridal gown and a morning suit, oddly enough) to talk Carven’s history, imagined muses, and why real life is the most incredible inspiration.
You’ve been at Carven for five years. What have you learned?
I’m learning new things every single day. It’s completely crazy. We started with a white page, and now the book is starting to fill up. What I love about Carven is, it’s about pleasure, and a challenge, but at the same time the clothes talk to real people. Carven is part dream, part reality. We do a catwalk each season, and we tell the story of a woman, or a man. But then when the show is finished, they’re not my clothes anymore. They’re everyone’s clothes. And I love that they’re going to tell their own story. People are going to bring our clothes into their daily lives, and that’s something I adore.
What does it take to successfully revive a heritage house? Many have tried and failed, but you seem to have a pretty good grip on it.
I’ve been lucky. Carven is an old brand, but I’ve been there for the rebirth. You know, what Mme Carven [Carmen de Tommaso] did in the fifties was good in the fifties, but you have to think about why the brand worked back then. It worked because it was connected to its client. And Mme Carven was dressing cool young girls at that time, so our goal was to dress cool young people. Young is not only a question of age for me—it’s a question of attitude. It’s a question of having a fresh mind.
Do you ever feel beholden to Carven’s history, or to what Carmen de Tommaso would want?
Not really. It’s a very approachable company, and a very approachable brand. Mrs. Carven was a grand couturier, as we call them, but she didn’t reinvent concepts. She was a designer, for sure, but she was really making clothes, and I do believe in that. I’ve met her a few times, and she’s 104 years old, but she’s super young! I think when she decided to sell the brand, she took a stance and separated herself from it. But I always ask myself if she would understand what I’m designing. I’m sure she wouldn’t have done the same things—but would she respect the DNA of the brand? That’s the main thing for me.
What has been your biggest challenge at Carven thus far?
Getting Carven on Mercer Street. Five years ago, when I’d call retailers and say, “OK, we are Carven,” they would hang up the phone. And now, we’re on Mercer Street, which is like, “OK, we did it!” It’s been a fantastic challenge for us, because it was a dream. It wasn’t a question of success or anything like that. I have no idea what success means. Especially in this industry—you never know. But Carven, for me, is fresh. And for people, it’s a new brand. It’s an international brand. It’s not a question of history anymore. And that’s very satisfying.
Recently you’ve spoken out against designers casting themselves as celebrities. Why do you choose to stay behind the scenes?
When you’ve got your own brand, you’re the voice. You’re the face, and you’re paying your own bills. So it’s normal that you’re out there. But I see myself as an employee of the brand. Carven existed before me. And Carven is the main thing. It’s not my name on the door. It’s not my own blood. I’m just happy that people are wearing the brand. I love my work, and I give a lot to it, but I do believe that the main thing is Carven by itself, and the DNA of the brand. It’s not that I want to play shy. It’s that I’m working for the brand, and I am not the brand.
You’re designing six collections a year. How do you feel about the pace of the industry at the moment?
I mean, it’s super interesting, because everything is changing now. Sometimes it’s a little scary, I have to admit. Everything is going so fast, so quick. You do a show, and sometimes you barely have time to appreciate it, because you have to start another collection the next day. So it’s like, Gasp! But it’s sometimes a little too quick. It’s like you’re at a restaurant and you have two minutes to eat. And it’s a little sad.
Do you think of a specific woman when you’re designing?
I always start with somebody who doesn’t really exist, and I ask myself, “Who’s that man? Who’s that woman? What is she doing? Who is she meeting? Where is she going? What kind of music is he listening to?” Then I start to design. But when I’m doing a fitting, I always ask myself, “Would my friend wear that? Would my best girlfriend love to go outside with that dress?” So it’s always a combination of somebody that doesn’t exist and real people. And sometimes it’s just about an attitude or a style—it’s a question of allure. I don’t really believe in fashion by itself—I love the idea of style. Style is important for me.
And what’s inspiring and exciting you right now, either in or outside of fashion?
The funny thing is that fashion by itself doesn’t inspire me so much. I try to get inspired by other things. Like traveling, for example, or the way people are moving, or funny visual experiences. Like a funny mix of colors in the street. I like to see things that tell a story. I like personalities. I like to meet people that have style. I love the fact that we’re sitting close to people that have just been married. That tells me a story, and I could start a collection just from that. Real life, for me, is the most incredible inspiration.