Carven's new artistic directors aim for a more urban appeal
Pressure is part of the fashion world. Few industries have such a do-or-die mentality, and yet Carven's top executives waited until three days before its autumn-winter 2015 presentation to announce that young designers Adrien Caillaudaud and Alexis Martial had become the brand's artistic directors.
It happened in March, just before their first runway show at Paris Fashion Week.
The collection they created embodied the brand's signature Parisian spirit, yet heralded a new urban look with global appeal. Taking inspiration from chic London girls living in Paris such as Jane Birkin, the duo showcased new silhouettes including sporty high-waisted trousers, trench coats and mod 1960s miniskirts with frilled hems. Floral printed jacquard bomber jackets combined masculine and feminine codes. Even the fabrics seemed more luxe, with sleek eel skin coats, textured knits, and lace and tweed separates.
A few days after the show, Caillaudaud said he appreciated the reason the announcement came so late.
"It was important for us to not have too much pressure," he says. "It wasn't about building from a clean slate. It was important for us to understand the DNA and keep the things that we think are Carven girl.
"From there we made it more electric. We gave it a twist with this urban city feeling. We also wanted to bring a couture feeling that is part of the history of the brand. It's also very much about attitude; a Parisian girl today is not necessarily French."
Unlike many French fashion brands that focus on high-end luxury, Carven broke away from its haute couture roots when it relaunched in 2010 and pioneered a new category with its affordable price point.
Designer Guillaume Henry stepped down after five years as creative director, and the brand appears to have found a good fit in the form of Caillaudaud and Martial, who are best friends.
Although relatively unknown outside fashion circles, Caillaudaud and Martial are part of the next generation of young Parisian designers. They met in 2004 at Atelier Chardon Savard design school in Paris.
"I started [my training] earlier because I studied at an atelier where I learned how to stitch, make patterns, and so on," says Martial. "We spoke on the first day and have been working together since then. We loved the same spirit about fashion, but had different visions. Working together was like an exchange for us. It came so naturally; either you gel or you don't."
After school, Caillaudaud headed to Marc Jacobs, where he worked in accessories until their paths crossed again at Givenchy. After a few years, Martial decamped to Italy. He was offered the opportunity to design for Italian brand Iceberg, where he took on a bigger role from designing to image.
Carven initially approached Martial about the job last year, and he suggested they also hire Caillaudaud, who was consulting at the time.
Actually, Caillaudaud came on board first and started working on the collection until Martial arrived just a week before the show.
"It was exciting because the brand is already hot and famous around the world," Caillaudaud says. "It may be 70 years old, but it's still quite young. It has this couture background, but then you have this cool brand that popped up five years ago with the ateliers of a couture house. We wanted to respect this heritage, but we knew we needed to propose our own vision of fashion, which is young and fresh."
The first collection went on to receive rave reviews from the press, but what really stood out were the fabrics that appear to be more expensive than you would expect from a contemporary brand. While the designers admit that some pieces will be higher priced than previous collections, they are determined to keep the brand affordable without compromising quality.
"Contemporary fashion is relevant for today," says Caillaudaud. "Fashion is something that can be affordable: if you want it, you can get it. But while contemporary fashion is a great concept, it doesn't mean you can't have a luxury product in the brand."
Martial adds: "We have done some real research into fabrics, and we also have an atelier we can work with. We can create what we want, and then a team thinks of how to execute it within the Carven price point. But it's not about setting a price; Carven is firstly about fashion, doing a creative twist, and then we give the right price."
The duo say it's still too early to reveal what their long-term vision is for the brand although they do have one common goal.
"For us, we didn't want to do too much," Martial says. "The mission for the first year is to really push the creativity and tell a story with each collection, and build step by step a new image."