PARIS — He wears a necklace full of evil-eye charms, but Serge Ruffieux looked a picture of calm at a preview of his first main collection for Carven since taking over the house’s creative helm in January, which continues the trend for second-in-command designers moving into the spotlight.
To be sure, Ruffieux has earned his stripes working in the wings, with a career that includes more than five years working under Sonia Rykiel — “Sonia and me, it was a love story; it was possibly the experience of my career that touched me the most” — and eight years at Dior, working respectively under John Galliano, Bill Gaytten and Raf Simons, with whom he also had a “real connection.” He was then asked to man the ship as Dior’s co-artistic director with Lucie Meier following Simons’ exit in October 2015.
Ruffieux, who until then had been head designer of Dior’s women’s ready-to-wear and haute couture studios, said his experience under Gaytten — “which was also very rich on a human level for me and my colleagues, because it was such a tough period after the chaos of what happened with Galliano” – had stood him in good stead. “We were under a lot of pressure, but I also knew how [amazing] the experience could be, it was super interesting,” he said.
The designer described his arrival at Carven — a house known more for its zesty spirit than identifiable sartorial codes — as starting with a blank page. “I felt free to create the new Carven,” he said. “Guillaume Henry relaunched the house around this idea of a certain type of girl and a new fashion approach that was also more affordable. I immediately wanted to anchor them in real life with a new, urban attitude.”
A peer of Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain, Madame Carven, who was born Marie-Louise Carmen de Tommaso and later changed her name to Carven, launched her house in 1945 with the aim of dressing women of similarly petite stature as herself (she was just over 5 feet tall) — making her one of the rare female couturiers in Paris after Elsa Schiaparelli and Gabrielle Chanel.
She favored fresh, casual pieces with 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.
But for Ruffieux, she was better known for her successful fragrance business, innovative approach to scents, and graphic packaging, like her men’s cologne Vétiver, which was a hit in the U.S. “She was a pioneering marketer; she once had sample bottles of perfumes dropped over Paris using mini-parachutes,” he said.
“What struck me when I first arrived was the name, which is a bit old-fashioned, but I think it’s something you can build a strong fashion aesthetic around,” said Ruffieux. “But what also really spoke to me was learning about Madame Carven’s [energy]. She toured her collections — taking them to Brazil, Egypt, Portugal — and would take her teams along with her. She was a businesswoman, but she also had this real appetite for enjoying life.”
Her approach to clothes was also super modern, according to Ruffieux, who in his first week at the house hit the Carven archives at the Palais Galliera, plumped, he said, with draped dresses characteristic of the era in graphic, bi-color versions, but also couture gowns in African boubou fabrics, a direction that can be felt in his own collection.
The idea of a creative director role in a Parisian house has been a long time coming for the Swiss talent, who has known he wanted to be a designer since he was eight, growing up near the Lac de Joux in the Joux Valley in northwest Switzerland, the cradle of high-end watchmaking, and an area of great beauty where “you can swim in the lake in the summer and go ice-skating in the winter.”
Ruffieux’s father was a master watchmaker at Jaeger-LeCoultre, and had a passion “for the minutiae details and for doing things with patience.” But the family member who had the biggest influence on him was his eccentric great-aunt, who was a couturier at Schiaparelli. “Maybe it’s in the blood,” he shrugged. “Already as a young boy, I was excited by the idea of fashion and Paris.”
Ruffieux has poured himself into the Carven collection, but likes to think what he’s doing reflects what the house founder would have been doing today. He describes his own signatures as the cuts, the freedom, and the mix of references. “I’m all about contrasts, I like playing and mixing things up, pulling things apart.”
A fun, escapist, cut-and-paste mood pervades his collection, playing on relaxed, hybrid, summery silhouettes accessorized with futuristic-Fifties shades and multicolor out-of-Africa flats mixing hand-braided leather, whip stitches and fringing. Case in point: A two-tone army- and bottle-green polo dress fusing a polo shirt collar with a loose, ruched satin dress with feminine couture details.
Like Madame Carven, travel is a major source of inspiration, but the designer especially likes to “imagine places I’ve never been to.” His choice of show venue — the Jussieu university — reflects his melting-pot stance. “I like the idea of it being a democratic university, of all types of people mixing together, students from everywhere,” said Ruffieux, who for Carven’s inviting new chapter explores fun clashes, such as fragments of embroidery sprinkled on cream ivory pants, mixing the raw and the refined.
“Madame Carven was known for this fresh, cute-girl look, but it was also a house known for Parisian savoir-faire,” said the designer, who plans to uphold the tradition. Details in the collection include crafty, colored stitching accents and a silver chain fixed at the nape of garments ending in a C.
“Here [in the current headquarters in Paris Saint-Germain district] we also have the atelier on site. The collections are made in-house, with a lot of people who followed me on the team. I’m intent to keeping the quality top-notch, even if the prices cap at 1,200 euros. I still work with the fabric suppliers I worked with at the big houses,” said Ruffieux. “I work with the best, and I want the best for this house.”