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Carven Resort 2018Photography Jack Davison

Carven’s new designer on finding inspiration in his obsessions

We catch up with creative director Serge Ruffieux as he approaches his one-year anniversary at the Parisian label

Way back in 1945, the bodacious bohemian Madame Carven was the couturier known for her female-centred designs, patenting Paris’s first ever push-up bra. Clashing references from her travels and building them into couture for herself – a “petite woman” – she quickly became the favourite of mini-divas like Leslie Caron and Edith Piaf.

As well as launching the still adored perfume Ma Griffe by parachuting hundreds of bottles across the skies of Paris, she also toured movie theatres across France to stage fashion shows at each pitstop. Focussed on this kind of democracy and accessibility, in 1950 Madame Carven became one of the first in France to adopt the ready-to-wear system. It would establish Carven as a true French fashion staple.

Fast-forward over 75 years and the newest designer at the helm of the French house is Serge Ruffieux. He was the right-hand man to the late Sonia Rykiel – another French favourite – but you would more likely know him from his quiet in-house ascent to the top seat at Dior for the two seasons after Raf Simons’ departure, before Maria Grazia Chiuri’s entrance. Together with Lucie Meier, he created a younger, freer vision for the Dior woman. 

It’s this attitude, since his appointment as creative director of Carven (which, in its contemporary iteration, has come back to life since its revival in 2009, the same year Madame Carven passed away), that makes him the perfect chief for an historic brand that has always found its feet among the real girls of Paris.

Here, we catch up with Ruffieux as he approaches his one-year anniversary at the Parisian label. 

What do you think the DNA of Carven is?

Serge Ruffieux: The DNA of Carven, from Madame Carven herself, was imaginative, very easy couture-shapes, but easy to wear for a normal woman. That’s not the most important thing when it comes to my history of the brand, it’s more the lifestyle of Madame Carven that I look to: she’s very inspiring and that pushed my vision. She was the first one to present pret-a-porter and couture outside of France – in Portugal, or Cuba or Brazil. And that is her lesson – she was a bourgeoise, artistic woman, she was international and democratic. That’s what I love and want to use for Carven.

How are you reinterpreting this to create your own vision for Carven today?

Serge Ruffieux: It’s the lifestyle I want to look at. I love the contrasts Madame Carven loved. It is very important to me to have the notion of mixing – patchwork, stitching, fine fabrics, with a lot of figures and detail to make this kind of clash cool, essentially.

How does this influence your approach to design?

Serge Ruffieux: I have a new rhythm – I love working on these new pieces and these new shapes. From the beginning, I wanted to have a new vocabulary for the house. So I tried to invent that, to add a new vocabulary of pieces – the polo, quilted jackets. I’m interested in the modern woman, a contemporary attitude. I wanted to embrace the DNA of Carven, not to keep or copy, but to build new things into it – a new attitude which represents wearers today.

“I wanted to embrace the DNA of Carven, not to keep or copy, but to build new things into it – a new attitude which represents wearers today” – Serge Ruffieux 

Who is the Carven woman that you’re designing for today?

Serge Ruffieux: In the beginning, I wanted to bring avant-garde to the streets of Paris – that’s why we shot the first campaign in Barbès, in between a lot of people, between a lot of Parisian people. I wanted to put the Carven girl into reality – and I think Paris now is more diverse and I wanted to work with that. It’s not just a fake fashion cliché, it’s very real and I don’t want to have only a luxury cliché for a luxury brand, we need focus on something more real and realistic. You know, Madame Carven was really open and that’s what we want to be.

You have previously referenced ‘international influences’, what do you mean by this?

Serge Ruffieux: When I said clash earlier, at the end it’s that. You push a different sensation or different details or prints – and I love thinking about different cultures, artworks, the past of Carven, the present of Paris. It’s representative, but not patronising.

Why do you think being representative is important right now? 

Serge Ruffieux: Well firstly, at the beginning Carven was a democratic brand. So this is what we are. I’m wary that fashion often just speaks about diversity and uses it, but for me, it’s very obvious that this democracy and representation is at the heart of Carven. And I want to reflect the market, the scene, the people. So while the politics of diversity are incredibly important to me, democratic fashion has to be looking to diversity. We want to be accessible.

How is designing for Carven different to your time at Sonia Rykiel or Dior? 

Serge Ruffieux: The difference is the challenge to use fabric less expensive than at Dior. I’m still working with the best – all my suppliers for fabric are still the same, they decided to come with me – so I’m still working with the best quality. But the challenge to use the best references, with the best people, with the best quality, but to keep it at a good price. This is the most difficult and different aspect, and we’re a small house so we have a lot to do. We are updating all of our stores, and it’s brilliant but big.

How do you feel approaching your one-year anniversary at the house?

Serge Ruffieux: I do love it, of course, it’s exciting and you need to have a vision like other brands… and we do. It’s been one year and I feel good. After the first show, you want to show everyone what you have in your mind. But the second one is even more difficult because you have to show a continued sense of vision, shape, proportion – that’s crucial. I’m trying to push accessories now, because at the beginning when I started to be a designer, my dream was to make only accessories years ago. And now I’m managing a lot to work on shoes and bags, and I want to make Carven referential for these things. And I’m enjoying this aspect so much.

What are your plans to continue evolving the brand? 

Serge Ruffieux: I can’t say anything, but I will continue with all my obsessions – to establish something very solid.

What are these obsessions?

Serge Ruffieux: Always trying to offer something different – a new clash, new technique, new fabrics, new proportions, while maintaining the same detail, femininity, rhythm. It’s a balancing act… and I want to dream a bit.

Carven’s Resort 2018 collection is available online now.