The long, colorful personal life of Marie-Louise Carven made for quite a lively conversation at the recent lunch hosted by Mark “Jappy” Gonzalez for Carven president Henri Sebaoun and commercial director Julien Labat. This was held in Carven’s first Philippine boutique at Shangri-La Plaza Mall’s East Wing in Mandaluyong City.
Madame Carven, born Carmen de Tommaso in France, is the oldest living fashion designer at 104 years old (she turns 105 on Aug. 31). She studied architecture and interior design, and set up her couture house in Paris’ Champs-Élysées in 1945, restyling herself in the process with a new name. She combined hers and that of an aunt.
It may be apocryphal, but it has often been told and retold that Carven was derided by her own mother, who would tell the 5’1” woman that she would “never be elegant.”
As if to prove her mother wrong, Carven began making flattering clothes for petite women like herself. She also defied the norm of
couturiers making clothes only for older women by pioneering the junior’s line. The Carven look was both fetching and alluring.
A year later, Carven introduced its first fragrance, Ma Griffe, an instant success that brought the house’s founder fortune. She would go on to have a prizewinning career. In 1993, at age 84, Carven retired.
The job of designing the brand would be passed on to several people, and the brand lost its luster.
In 2008, businessman Henri Sebaoun acquired the company, and, in 2009, hired Guillaume Henry, formerly of Givenchy, as creative director. Carven was poised for a comeback, not as haute couture but as a midrange ready-to-wear brand.
That same year, its founder marked her 100th birthday.
“When I bought Carven in 2008, the business model of the brand relied on a plan from the ’80s, which was mainly generated via licensing incomes,” Sebaoun told Inquirer Lifestyle. Income came from its fragrance line.
“Working the past 14 years as licensee, I witnessed the potential of the brand in terms of [popularity], thanks to positive feedback from customers. My wish was to put the brand back on the fashion map by engaging Ms Carven’s core values, who was a pioneer, a woman connected to her contemporaries. The success of this comeback is mainly due to the desire to associate creativity and accessibility, which back in 2009 was unusual,” said Sebaoun.
In a short period, Sebaoun made Carven into a profitable label with dozens of shops across the globe. Henry sent out his first Carven collection in 2010; that same year, Sebaoun sold the fragrance division of the business.
Gonzalez, managing director of H&F Retail Concepts, which exclusively distributes Carven in the country, said the addition of the brand to their portfolio “makes the [H&F] brand less serious.
“The daughters of our customers are growing older, and if in Homme et Femme our customer won’t buy anything for her daughter, here she would.”
Univers and Homme et Femme, the H&F-owned multibrand boutiques, carry labels like Jil Sander, Roland Mouret, Comme des Garçons, Balenciaga, Lanvin, Rick Owens, Dries Van Noten.
Carven is 70-percent women’s and 30-percent men’s. Though the vibe is youthful, the core market is between ages 30-50 among women. The male demographic is the 30s bracket, Labat said. Prices start at P6,000 for men’s, and P8,000 for women’s.
Notably, dresses far outnumbered the accessories and shoes at the Carven boutique. Sebaoun has been vocal against inflating Carven’s accessories collection. He thinks the concept of the It bag is passé.
“I think that the era of the It bag is over because every fashion brand offers a wide range of accessories collections,” Sebaoun said. “However, I do think accessories are very important and whole collections should be proposed, rather than one single product.”
Gonzalez himself frowns at women who wear high-street clothes and carry an expensive bag.
“In our world, we’re against that,” he said. “We’re about the whole package. We’re more ready-to-wear as a company.”
Sebaoun believes Carven’s couture heritage was a plus for the brand’s revival.
“The history of Carven is intrinsically linked to haute couture, which presents a great advantage as we have [maintained] from this heritage all the essential values: the taste of refined finishing and the making of outstanding clothes.
“The Carven style and the Carven girls are settled notions in the fashion world. The Carven customer is recognizable through her style, and oozes Parisian attitude,” Sebaoun pointed out.
Its founder, Sebaoun said, sent him a “lovely note to thank us for all the work we were doing” for Maison Carven.
In turn, on her 100th birthday, they sent the grand dame her favorite macarons, custom-made in Carven green, which symbolizes freshness and also her favorite color.
STORE PHOTOS BY KIMBERLY DE LA CRUZ
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