Carven’s Guillaume Henry: I Believe in Brands Over Designers

Photo: Elodie Daguin

At 9 years old, Guillaume Henry started to tell others he wanted to be a designer. His childhood in the French countryside “had nothing to do with fashion, really,” but, as he recalls, “I would draw dresses, and coats, and shoes — I would say almost by chance, because I’m not sure where it came from. I do remember that on TV, they were showing reports from Haute Couture in Paris, much more than they do now. I must have been looking at that and I felt like it was exactly what I wanted to do.” He eventually enrolled at the Institut Français de la Mode in Paris, later working at Givenchy and Paule Ka before, as the story goes, receiving a phone call asking for his thoughts about Carven. Henry’s response: The French fashion house, founded by Carmen de Tommaso (a.k.a. Madame Carven) in 1945, should finally move away from couture and toward dressing everyday women.

He quickly became the brand’s creative director and produced his first collection for the spring 2010 shows. “I wouldn’t say I felt ready for it, but at least I felt happy and [that] I could do something with a friendly, charming, and approachable woman in mind,” he told the Cut. Now, he’s reinvigorated the house, adding menswear, collaborating with the likes of Petit Bateau and Robert Clergerie, and most recently, opening a new showroom in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. We sat down with Henry to talk about the industry’s healthy competition, Alexander Wang at Balenciaga, and Madame Carven herself, who’s 104 years old and “following the sun.”

Tell me what it’s like to work for a heritage house. How do you mix your own inspirations with those of Madame Carven?
I think we have a lot in common.
I try to never force myself, and Madame Carven never forced herself. She was doing things that she found nice — it’s not about creating like a crazy concept or anything like that. It’s really approachable, but creative … but easy to understand. When you look at pictures of her when she was 30 or 40, she looks like somebody you want to talk with.

Do you interact with her at all?
Not that much. Now, she’s 104
years old.
She travels — she’s an old lady, but she’s really active still. She spends six months in Paris and six months in the islands. She’s following the sun. But she retired when she was 83 years old, so I think the more you work, the younger you stay … I really respect her. I think that she follows what we do [at Carven now]. But she sold her name, which means a lot. When you sell your name, I don’t know if you really want to stay in touch anymore with it. It’s like when you sell your own house, you don’t want to see how it is inside four years after. I have to be honest with you — I try to not destroy it.

How do you wrap your head around what a woman wants to wear?
I’m surrounded by girls, and they tell me what they want. And if they don’t like what I do, they get furious. [Laughs] But you do have to consider the people around you, that’s the first thing. Otherwise, I don’t see clothes as being only products — I see them as part of a story. For me, it’s really a narrative process, so when I’m thinking about a new collection, I don’t design clothes for customers; I do the wardrobe of a character. I see myself as a director, almost. It’s not like
I want to make a blue dress. It’s more like, if my character had a dress, what would be the color of it? I do the same for menswear.

Would you ever launch your own line?
I did. It wasn’t a worldwide launch — it was while I was still at school at IFM [Institut Français de la Mode] and I had it for three seasons, but then there was September 11, and the market got really cold. It wasn’t the best period and I wasn’t ready. You don’t learn how difficult it is to launch your own brand. To be the designer of your own brand today is heroic. You have to be really strong.

What did it look like?
It was kind of a new idea of chic for me. At that time, I loved the idea of sportswear with high heels.

What would your own line look like today?
I couldn’t say that now because I’m not thinking about my own vision. Even if I did Guillaume Henry for Carven, it would be more like, what can I give Carven? It’s still about Carven, because before me and after me, it’s still Carven.

What is it like to be a part of the Paris fashion community?
It’s like doing any other job. There are a lot of houses. But I’m not sure there is a fashion community here in Paris. We do respect each other, but I don’t spend time with designers. I spend enough time working in fashion that when I leave the office, I better go with my good friends that don’t work in fashion. I would lie if I said that it isn’t a kind of competition, because obviously everybody is looking at everyone. We are working in an industry, and it’s not only images — it’s a question of commercial result, so we’re all looking at each other, not with pain or anger. It’s really healthy. But, frankly speaking, I like to be a fashion designer here because the city is super-inspiring.

Obviously, I have to ask you about Alexander Wang at Balenciaga. You must have some sort of words of advice for him.
Not at all. I wouldn’t give him any advice — he’s an amazing designer. I believe in brands more than in designers. I love Balenciaga, so
it’s about Balenciaga. You know, I don’t want to talk about designers like we’re talking about soccer players. It’s about a team, it’s about a house, it’s about a name — that’s the most important thing. I don’t care who’s the designer; is the dress nice? Is the coat well-cut? That’s the main thing about it.

What do you think of the idea of trends?
I don’t really believe in trends, personally, because people decide what the trend is. One year ago, it was all about fluorescent things and I don’t know anyone around me who dressed in fluo, so it doesn’t really mean anything. I do think movement and evolution are important, but nobody should force himself to follow a trend because there’s nothing more important than honesty and style. Sometimes when I’m thinking about trend, I forget the idea of style, and for me the main thing is the style. If you really focus on trends, it means you can be someone in winter and be someone else in summer.

Guillaume Henry Believes in Brand Over Designer