When Guillaume Henry announced in late 2014 that he was leaving his post as creative director of Carven, many feared the fashion house was in trouble. After all, Henry was credited with the successful revival of the Parisian couture house and its transformation into a creator of contemporary and covetable fashion.
A year after its new leaders, Adrien Caillaudaud and Alexis Martial, took the creative helm, Carven has kept its hip reputation and youthful allure. Their approach, while still tracking that Carven spirit, is slowly but surely coming into its own. The results are enticing wardrobe pieces that many of the young and hip flock to for a hit of colour and modernity.
The design duo, both softly spoken, feel like kindred spirits wrapped in a bubble of imagination and ideas. “We met at the Atelier Chardon Savard. And from the first second we met, we knew straight away that we should work together,” says Caillaudaud, the chattier of the two. He and Martial had newly arrived in Hong Kong from Tokyo for the grand opening of a Carven store in Central’s Landmark mall.
The pair feel inspired by their trip to East Asia. “So far we’re loving everything in Asia. There is something that we can’t explain here ... freedom, it’s also very calm, clean and pure,” says Martial. “We had a lot of ideas when we were in Japan just before – it’s very polite but it’s also very crowded here. And it’s a place where we are discovering so much.”
Instinct plays a big part in the designers’ work. “When we started to think about the Carven story, we were thinking this girl was shy and quiet, and a bit Parisian. But now we are trying to add more layers of freedom, colour and fun. I think doing something fun will be the key first to helping the brand evolve,” says Caillaudaud.
“The process for us is also very organic – we never divide the work. We are just exchanging ideas every day on every piece,” says Martial. As if on cue, Caillaudaud chimes in, comparing their work process to a friendly game of ping pong.
In an industry now defined by celebrity designers and under incessant pressure to deliver collection after collection, it is nice to know that both designers are taking each season step by step. They’ve developed a rhythm that defines the way they work with, and lean on, each other.
"We want to have an Asian girl, African girl, curly hair, straight hair, blonde, brown… To have a vision that can celebrate that all women are different."
- Alexis Martial, Co-Creative Director of Carven
“I remember for the last show, we were just thinking of the story and we did it all without worrying about what people will think. Because if you start thinking about this, you just get crazy,” says Martial.
Seeing both designers, whose youthful, boyish looks are disguised under wispy beards, you can’t help but feel that they would naturally be friends with the young creative types – photographers, artists, singers – for whom they design.
“We are thinking about a Carven group, not just one figure,” explains Martial. “This is what we are doing in our fashion show. We want to have an Asian girl, African girl, curly hair, straight hair, blonde, brown… To have a vision that can celebrate that all women are different. This is why in the collection, depending on the section of the shop you are in, everybody has a chance to find what they like and feel most at home in.”
While Carven is known for its cool, versatile wardrobe pieces, it is its haute couture heritage that sets it apart. Both designers, who have worked for brands such as Alexander McQueen and Marc Jacobs, have access to a savoir-faire and a history few other ready-to-wear houses can boast of.
“We’re always thinking of doing something fresh and new for the cool girl, but taking into account that we have this amazing background to work with,” says Caillaudaud. “It’s like a dream come true.”
“We are trying now to [combine] old, ancient techniques of couture with new elements. We are doing things now that were not possible back then, like combining fabrics. We are not thinking about what has been done in the past, but more about what she wants now.”
Among the design resources at their disposal at Carven is a section devoted to fabric development, where custom prints can be created for production by Italian mills.
The design duo are also making a big push into accessories – important for today’s market. Caillaudaud says the cool Carven girl isn’t just into clothing but also “amazing shoes, a cool bag, good jewellery... having all of this creates a nicer silhouette”.
“In the end, it feels more real, more mature, more street. This is the way it should be, because Carven should not even be about the clothes, but the life and spirit of these women.”
Capturing that essence, albeit in a very contemporary way, might be something that Madame Carven would have approved of. There’s a playfulness in the label that speaks to a certain fashion set.
“Every season, our client is going to have her line of basics, but she can also play around with other elements to tell a story,” says Martial, “whether she is on a boat, an island, or driving a car somewhere, and simply live the brand. This is the Carven girl.”