Appeared In
Special Issue
Menswear issue 06/18/2012

Some designers are like rock stars, the kind who demand cases of Kabbalah water backstage, rose petals in the toilet and ice with no straight edges. For others, a clean towel and a cold beer will do.

This story first appeared in the June 18, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Take, for example, Guillaume Henry, creative director of Carven. Sitting for an interview at the brand’s Paris headquarters on Rue Royale, he comes across as a worker bee, unaffected and down-to-earth. Despite his rising-star status, he seems more team player than artiste.

“The star is the brand — that’s the main thing for me,” says Henry, 33, who was brought in to revitalize Carven in 2009, the year after it was acquired by Société Béranger, a Paris-based company co-owned by Henri Sebaoun, now the brand’s chief executive officer, and his cousin Marc Sztykman, its managing director.

Henry put his initial focus on the women’s collection but soon reintroduced Carven men’s wear “super quietly,” by way of Paris showroom presentations. “We could have pushed it much more, but we didn’t want to,” he says. “I like it when people want to know more about something; I don’t really like to force people to turn their gaze.”

This month he may have no choice. As guest designer for the 82nd edition of Pitti Uomo, the men’s trade show being held in Florence from June 19 to 22, Henry is about to receive a hefty dose of exposure. With characteristic cool, he is taking the pressure in stride.

“They are bringing us into the light,” he says. “It’s not a question of being ready or not. If somebody you really like asked you to go for lunch with them, you would say yes. And I’m just going with a huge smile.”

Although Henry worked on the design teams of Givenchy and Paule Ka before joining Carven, he’s a newcomer to men’s fashion. Yet the fledgling Carven men’s collection is starting to catch up with the brand’s supremely hip women’s wear. It’s now in 100 points of sale worldwide, including two key corners in Paris, at Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, and men’s is sold alongside women’s in two new Carven boutiques in Hong Kong. Japan is Carven’s strongest market for men’s wear, with more than 25 points of sale.

Henry, who already has the Carven man fully formed in his mind, hopes the Pitti event will help bring him to life. The designer describes him as a guy who could be equally inspired by a superchic grandfather or a little boy. “What I love is, people who are not influenced, so I love kids and old people, and I’m always looking at what they wear,” says Henry, who likes to imagine that the Carven man and woman grew up together and would like to unite the collections in future ad campaigns. “I like the idea of a family portrait.”

He’s clearly delighted by the response to some of the quirky, playful pieces — such as the “shrunken high-waist jumpers that looked like kids’ [sweaters] knitted by grandmas” — in the fall collection. “There’s this nerdy geek thing going on right now, and I love it,” Henry says. “It’s the revenge of the ordinary people. It’s not about getting the coolest leather jacket; even the way you attach your collar or roll up your sleeves can make a statement.”

Like the women’s collection, Carven men’s wear has “democratic” pricing (a wool and mohair blazer, for example, retails for $695) and oscillates between being highly structured and ultralight, while experimenting with proportions and lengths. What drew the most interest for fall was “anything with a twist,” such as a duffle coat with nylon sleeves, shirts with contrast collars and pants in odd couturelike fabrics. “When we tried to play it safe, it didn’t do great in terms of business,” Henry admits.

For spring 2013—the collection to be shown at Pitti — he is tackling the suit, reinterpreting it in sportswear fabrics. He has also fleshed out Carven’s footwear offerings for men and will introduce a men’s swimsuit.
“We don’t want Carven to be the coolest brand ever; we want Carven to be proud of its men’s side, and we want both the men’s and the women’s to be strong enough by themselves,” says Henry. To that end, the brand hopes to open a men’s-only store near its women’s store on Place Saint-Sulpice. A men’s scent is also in the works.

Carmen de Tommaso (aka Madame Carven) founded the brand as a couture house in 1944 and developed a men’s wear business in the late Seventies through licensing. Henry — who grew up in a tiny village in Eastern France — recalls his two older brothers wearing Carven to the office. But his aim has been to provide a fresh vision for today’s Carven.

In keeping with its heritage, the brand remains quintessentially Parisian — but again, there’s a twist. When he moved to the city as a young fashion student, Henry recalls, he was determined not to look like a rustic from the countryside. Not being a Parisian, however, he was a bit stuck for what to wear. This suggests another clue to the Carven man: “Our guy is like a man who has just arrived in Paris,” Henry says, “because maybe it is part of my own story.”