By Naomi Barling
Madame Carven was the French couturier, who traveled the world with her collections and brought back a trove of exotic influences that was significant in changing French style, and her own designs, passed away yesterday (June 8, 2015) at the age of 105.
Marie-Louise Carven-Grog was born Carmen de Tommaso. She launched her house in 1945 with the aim of dressing women of similarly petite stature, making her one of the rare women couturiers in Paris after Elsa Schiaparelli and Gabrielle Chanel. The doyenne was part of the great generation that also included Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain.
Carven studied architecture at the Beaux-Arts in Paris and took classes with her brother-in-law, Robert Mallet-Stevens. She soon found that she favored simple constructions and clean lines in her designs, and the moment she represented these simple forms in green-and-white stripes it quickly become the house’s signature look.
“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. But I wanted to retain my style, sober, practical and young, with a lot of sports garments,” the 5″1-tall designer said in the 1950’s.
The designer introduced comfort and freedom into the exclusive world of haute couture and this new relaxed way of dressing captured the carefreeness of the post-World War II era in Paris. The brand soon had an elite clientele such as Leslie Caron, Édith Piaf and Michèle Morgan.
“Designers today unfortunately think about making their mark on their design, 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,” said Carven on her reason for designing wearable clothing for women.
As soon as she had designs to show, she took her collections on the road, staging shows in international destinations like Egypt, Thailand, Morocco, Cuba, Brazil, Singapore and Mexico. These trips also hugely influenced her creations. Madras checks, batik prints, African patterns, raffia embroideries and Aztec-inspired motifs featured on outfits with names such as Amphora, Ivory Coast, Chiquita and Opium, which was shown in 1964, more than a decade before the Yves Saint Laurent fragrance of the same name! When “Gone With the Wind” premiered in France in 1950 which was only a mere 11 years after its U.S. release! Carven decided to design a collection of crinoline dresses inspired by the film’s characters and toured the country, staging fashion shows at movie theaters. The businesswomen knew how to create a buzz and market herself.
She designed ski outfits and bathing suits and was among the first designers to actually produce a ready-to-wear line. This initiative, launched in 1950, brought together manufacturers with a group of couturiers that also included Jacques Fath, Robert Piguet, Jean Dessès and Jeanne Paquin. In the Sixties after a change in licensing agreements, she created uniforms for more than 20 airlines, and in 1977, the City of Paris contracted her to dress its female traffic wardens.
Following the brand’s acquisition in 2008 by Société Béranger, Carven underwent a renaissance under artistic director Guillaume Henry and chief executive officer Henri Sebaoun. Their intent was to position it as a contemporary brand. Recently, the brand named former schoolmates and Givenchy collaborators Alexis Martial and Adrien Caillaudaud their new artistic directors after Sebaoun moved to Nina Ricci.
Carven loved crisp fabrics such as white cotton and lace, or pink gingham, which regularly appeared in her collections from 1948. Her love for nipped-in waists, bold stripes and draped necklines meant her wearable creations soon fed into the mainstream and the French Fashion innovator with be remembered through her beautiful aesthetic and the house of Carven.