French designer Guillaume Henry is in a hurry. Not content with resurrecting the long-forgotten couture house Carven and turning it into one of the most talked about brands on the catwalk, the energetic 34-year-old from Chaumont in the rural east of France is busy taking the brand global and crafting the perfect "Carven man".
Henry was in Shanghai last week to launch Carven on the mainland with a star-studded fashion show, the brand's first in Asia, presenting spring-summer 2014 womenswear and menswear collections. The mainland push is the next phase of Carven's rapid renaissance; the brand has three boutiques there - two in Shanghai and one in Beijing - and plans to open two more by the end of next year, according to Doreen Cheng, chief executive of Bluebell Greater China, Carven's partner in China.
The speed of Carven's growth has surprised Henry. "We only relaunched the brand five years ago, so, for us, it's so quick, you have no idea. For us to be in China now is an incredible chance but it's also come incredibly fast. You are talking about other brands that have been established here for decades. Carven has been totally forgotten and, in some countries, Carven has never existed, even though it is one of the oldest brands in France."
The spring-summer 2014 Shanghai show took place at the much talked about Waterhouse development on the banks of the Huangpu River. The show itself wasn't the usual rehash of what happened in Paris. "It's not about showing the collection as we did in Paris because I don't believe in duplication," says Henry. "What's the point of copying the show in Paris? It's one moment. So each time you do something it has to be exclusive."
So Henry tailored the show to his Chinese audience, bookending it with performances by skateboarders and a hip indie band, the inclusion of which Henry hopes will underline what Carven today is all about.
"What is Carven?" he says. "We can show skirts, dresses and all that, but everybody does skirts, dresses and jackets, but what's the essence, the perfume, the DNA of the brand? I don't want the people to leave tonight and say 'OK, they had nice jackets.' I want them to leave the place and get an idea that Carven is more than just one piece in the wardrobe."
The spring-summer womenswear collection has furthered a signature that, after five years, Henry has defined with touches of youthful colour and cool girlish cuts. This season had plenty of plaid and camo with embroidered black belting.
"This collection has been inspired by the '90s. For this summer collection, I wanted something tougher, a little more sporty, but still with a couture twist. I had in mind images of Drew Barrymore, Liv Tyler in the early '90s, cool young actresses who actually were not playing that much with fashion but had style. I personally do believe more in style than fashion, as fashion doesn't last. Style is forever."
Henry sums up the brand's DNA, as well as the ideal Carven girl, as someone who is "young, fresh, elegant, spontaneous, and contemporary" and bats away the suggestion from some that his clothes are aimed only at a younger audience.
"Young for me, isn't young in terms of age. Young means being young in your mind. You can be 80 years old and enjoy Carven, I do believe in that ... I want to be young my entire life, I don't want to be old."
As if to emphasise his point about the universality of Carven, Henry points to the menswear collection. Still a relatively new medium of expression for Henry, Carven menswear is into its fifth season and the designer admits it's still developing. "I think the womenswear is recognisable but maybe that's because it is five years old now, the menswear still has to underline what it is," says Henry.
While Henry fine-tunes what the Carven man is, he knows what it isn't. "I don't see the Carven man as the Carven woman's husband because I never feel comfortable with the idea most of the brands have that the girls and the boys should be like a couple, flirting." Nor is he taken with the macho aesthetic or muscles, perhaps given his own gangly frame. Henry sees Carven man as a sensitive soul "more like a poet ... he could be a sports guy and all that, but I want him to spend time reading and painting. He's got an artistic spirit."
The menswear collection reflects the sensitive, slightly awkward underpinnings by playing with the cut and the proportions, which Henry says were influenced by his love for Jacques Tati. "I like it when the shoulders are a little too small. I am in love with Jacques Tati movies, when you look at them the clothes are in weird proportions, the pants are a little too short, the coats are a little too big. It's something awkward but somehow it works."
In the rapidly changing world of fashion, Henry has emerged as one of Paris' new generation hot shots. Some insiders wonder why the young Frenchman never struck out on his own. Henry thinks young designers are deterred by the vagaries and financial perils of the fashion world and doesn't think independence is always better.
"I don't know if it's better, but it's a kind of protection. I deal with a lot of things, but I don't have to deal with problems like accounting, management. When you've got your name on the label you have to consider every single detail. I have the chance to focus on creation."
And focusing on creation is what drives Henry to push Carven with his characteristic energy into new spaces and dress new people. "It's true that, at the moment, we dress people who are concerned about fashion, but we would love to enter everybody's wardrobe," he says of the growing impact of Carven.