Cacharel: Prints charming

The French label Cacharel is synonymous with quirky florals. Now, new creative director Cédric Charlier is giving it a fresh twist, says Carola Long.

Prints, colour and a certain dynamism; all of them belong to Cacharel." So says designer Cédric Charlier, who has been the head of womenswear at the French label since March 2009. It's an indisputably well-known brand, thanks to the distinctive image the founder Jean Bousquet created for it in the Sixties and Seventies, and now Charlier is putting it back on the fashion insider's wish list.

Bousquet started the label in 1962 in Nîmes, taking its name from a bird native to the Camargue in Southern France, and immediately introduced signature pieces with which Cacharel is still associated. In the first year the label created a collection of women's blouses in cheerful colours, without bust darts, while the Liberty print blouse followed in 1965. In 1967 the photographer Sarah Moon began photographing the Cacharel ad campaigns, and her soft-focus, gently surreal images were integral to developing its identity. In 1978 the label launched its first fragrance, Anais Anais, a sweet, floral scent which many women remember as one of their first-ever perfumes, and in the Eighties and Nineties the company was well known for fragrance.

In 2000, after 20 years in which they were mainly absent from the catwalk, Cacharel hired the husband-and-wife design duo Clements Ribeiro and held a show in Paris. After seven years they left and were replaced by another couple, Mark Eley and Wakako Kishimoto of Eley Kishimoto, who brought a very naïve, cartoonish feel to the house. However, in 2008 that partnership came to an end, with Kishimoto citing a "conflict over creative vision".

In 2009 Cacharel signed a significant deal with AEFFE, an Italian group specialising in the production and distribution of luxury goods, with Cacharel responsible for the creative direction. Before that, Basquet hired Cédric Charlier and since his arrival there's been a buzz around the new-look Cacharel. It can't hurt that the designer, who moved from his native Brussels to study at La Cambre in Paris, was previously an assistant to Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, where he "learned to respect a woman's body", and had also worked with Michael Kors when Kors was at Céline. As with any designer joining a house with a certain heritage and image – particularly when there has been a quick succession of designers preceding them – Charlier acknowledges that "what is most important for me is the contemporary vision of the brand". He says: "I built new codes: a nonchalant allure, and a work on the cuts that we see each season."

The challenge specific to Cacharel is in retaining its sense of sweetness, and whimsy but removing any saccharine traces. Charlier has said before that: "It was always a romantic label and girly in a way ... I wanted it to go boyish girl. She plays with her hair and her shoes and she can wear the coat of her father if she wants to." Accordingly, his current autumn/winter collection features masculine black patent lace-up shoes teamed with black leather socks, and includes androgynous shapes such as oversized cocoon coats and jackets. The florals for which the label is famed are there, but in a less-naïve guise of red flowers on a dark black background.

With fashion phases of the last few years including the trend for "statement" clothing followed by the current move towards "real clothes" – namely pared-back modern classics – sweetness has been rather overlooked. However, there is always a demand for clothes with an unashamedly playful, youthful freshness to them, which favour exuberance over more dramatic or conceptual messages.

For the Resort 2011 collection, from which this look was taken, the freshness comes from Charlier's use of print. Here, Charlier says that he took, as the starting point for the collection, "photographs with flowers in the foreground and a dreamed skyline with an endless infinity". The resulting prints come in shades of cobalt, yellow and candy pink with a painterly, Monet-like quality to them. The patterns are eye-catching, but not domineering, so that they won't overwhelm the wearer. Among the key pieces in the collection are the printed trousers, which are something of a trend at the moment, appearing in Alberta Ferretti and Miu Miu's Resort collections, and a popular look among the fashion crowd at the last round of collections. The more restrained dresser might want to pair them with plain tops or dress them down, but for the Cacharel presentation several looks were styled by pairing a printed blouse with cropped trousers or a skirt. Shapes are simple and include pyjama-like cropped trousers and shirts, straight boxy jackets without lapels and tunic dresses, and these unfussy outlines are continued for spring/summer.

An emphasis on a sweet youthful spirit isn't the only way in which Cacharel is carving a space for itself in a competitive market, however. It's also attractively priced. At around £550 for a coat and from around £350 for a plain dress, it's not exactly a snip, but it does sit comfortably in a similar price bracket to Marc by Marc Jacobs or fellow-revived French label Carven, which appeals to consumers who want something more special than the high street but can't afford the increasing prices of the big designer brands. That consumer is likely to be a dreamer who happily follows her most romantic instincts when it comes to fashion.