PARIS — Madame Carven, the French couturier who traveled the world with her collections and brought back a trove of exotic influences, died at the age of 105 here Monday.
The doyenne of a generation that also included Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain, Marie-Louise Carven-Grog, born Carmen de Tommaso, launched her house in 1945 with the aim of dressing women of similarly small stature — making her one of the rare women couturiers in Paris after Elsa Schiaparelli and Gabrielle Chanel.
“I decided to make haute couture outfits in my size because I was too short to wear the creations of the top couturiers, who only ever showed their designs on towering girls,” the 5-foot, 1-inch designer said in 1950. “But I wanted to retain my style — sober, practical and young, with a lot of sports garments.”
Having studied architecture at the Beaux-Arts in Paris and taken classes with her brother-in-law, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Carven favored simple constructions and clean lines, exemplified by the green-and-white stripes that became the house signature.
By introducing comfort and freedom into the rarefied world of haute couture, her creations captured the insouciance of the post-World War II era in Paris, garnering a following among stars such as Leslie Caron, Édith Piaf and Michèle Morgan.
“I never did it for myself,” she told WWD in 2009, at a ceremony marking her 100th birthday. “I did it for the youngsters that came to see me, to teach them how to dress, to give them confidence in their own beauty — how to show themselves off through colors, styles, everything.
“Designers [today] unfortunately think about making their mark on their design,” she continued. “I didn’t think of my designs like that. I thought about the young girls, the young women that I dressed, even my models, to show off their beauty to the maximum.”
Carven — who named her design house by splicing her first name with the surname of her aunt Josy Boyriven, who introduced her to couture — was one of the first to understand the importance of marketing.
Known for her sunny disposition and warm personal touch, she immediately took her collections on the road, staging shows in far-flung destinations including Egypt, Thailand, Morocco, Cuba, Brazil, Singapore and Mexico.
These trips in turn fed into her creations. Madras checks, batik prints, African patterns, raffia embroideries and Aztec-inspired motifs featured on outfits bearing names such as Amphora, Ivory Coast, Chiquita and Opium — the latter shown in 1964, more than a decade before the Yves Saint Laurent fragrance of the same name.
She designed ski outfits and bathing suits and was among the first to produce ready-to-wear, as part of an initiative launched in 1950 that brought together manufacturers with a group of couturiers that also included Jacques Fath, Robert Piguet, Jean Dessès and Jeanne Paquin.
Signaling the advent of a more democratic spirit in fashion, 1955 marked the launch of the Carven Junior line as well as the first of a multitude of licenses. Beginning in the Sixties, she created uniforms for more than 20 airlines, and in 1977, the City of Paris contracted her to dress its female traffic wardens.
Carven favored crisp fabrics such as white cotton and lace, or pink gingham, which regularly appeared in her collections from 1948 (the fabric would later be popularized by Brigitte Bardot, who wore a pink gingham dress for her 1959 wedding to Jacques Charrier).
She also cared about underpinnings. With lingerie designer Marie-Rose Lebigot, she developed a brassiere for young women, the Sylvène, and patented the push-up bra, designed explicitly for bustier gowns.
The couturier knew how to create buzz. When “Gone With the Wind” finally premiered in France in 1950, 11 years after its U.S. release, she designed a collection of crinoline dresses inspired by the film’s characters and toured the country, staging fashion shows at movie theaters.
In 1954, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris, she dropped samples of her fragrance Ma Griffe tied to small green-and-white striped parachutes over the French capital. Carven went on to launch several perfumes, including Eau Vive and Vétiver, the latter inspired by her husband Philippe Mallet.
With their nipped-in waists, bold stripes and draped necklines, her creations soon fed into the mainstream.
Carven designed costumes for films including the 1955 psychological thriller “Les Diaboliques,” starring Simone Signoret, and her creations are thought to have influenced Edith Head’s costume designs for Alfred Hitchcock movies such as “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.”
She was also a prolific bridal designer, frequently opening her shows with up to 10 wedding gowns. Among the famous brides she dressed was Anne-Aymone Giscard d’Estaing, the future First Lady of France.
In addition to traveling the world, Carven enjoyed spending time in a number of holiday homes in France, including her summer house on the French Riviera, where she hosted friends such as photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue, and her château in Chantilly near Paris, where she kept peacocks and kangaroos.
Following the death of her first husband in 1966, Carven in 1972 became the wife of Swiss businessman and renowned antiques collector René Grog.
The couple went on to donate an important collection of 18th-century furniture and decorative objects to the Louvre museum. In 2001, she gifted her archives, including some 80 outfits, as well as accessories, sketchbooks, travel journals and press clippings, to the Palais Galliera.
Having hosted a number of her shows, including a 50th anniversary event, the museum held a retrospective on Carven in 2002. The designer also supported rising talents through the not-for-profit Association Grog-Carven, which provides grants to students in the field of decorative arts.
In 1978, she was named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and in 2009, she was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest distinction for civilians.
Following its acquisition in 2008 by Société Béranger, the Carven brand underwent a renaissance under artistic director Guillaume Henry and chief executive officer Henri Sebaoun, who positioned it as a contemporary brand. Recently, the brand named a team of three designers to succeed Henry, who has moved to Nina Ricci.