Carven out a slice of the market

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The revived French label offers one of the best men's lines around. Adam Welch is a fan

Anyone who's seen Extreme Makeover can testify to the immense satisfaction of witnessing a dramatic transformation. Well, if they'll actually admit to watching Extreme Makeover.

Which is probably not advisable within the ritzy, admittedly rather snooty arena of luxury Parisian fashion. But don't be fooled – the stylish elite love to gasp at an unexpected turnaround just as much as anyone else.

Take Paris-based fashion house Carven. When it was set up by diminutive tastemaker Carmen de Tomasso in the 1940s, its stock-in-trade was simple, couture for the rich and petite. By the 2000s, like many of its mid-century cohorts, it had made a ton of cash from perfume and somewhat lost its way, remaining a respected but not particularly relevant presence. But in 2012, thanks to the efforts of its new creative director Guillaume Henry, Carven is now, suddenly, one of the most talked-about new labels in the business.

Carven's menswear line, despite only being two seasons old, is being toasted this week at the prestigious Pitti Immagine Uomo trade show in Florence, where Henry will present the brand's spring/summer 2013 collection. It's a conspicuous achievement, given that previous guest designers at the show, such as Gareth Pugh and Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli at Valentino, tend to have been kicking around a little while longer than he has. Henry himself says he was "honoured and shocked" when he received the invitation. "It was an intense moment for the house, and for me as well."

Part of the genius of Henry's Carven men's collection is its recognition of an opportunity in the luxury menswear middle market – it's much less expensive than comparable labels. "I felt that there was a need to access inspired fashion," says Henry, "[to] buy elaborate clothes for a reasonable price. Carven was the ideal house to concretise this vision. It was an ambition to create things that you can afford... Personally, I hate the idea of untouchable dreams."

There's an off-kilter charm to Carven menswear that makes it a truly unique aesthetic offering. Though the house's very feminine trademarks – dainty sizes, trompe l'oeil prints, stiff, bell-shaped silhouettes – seem ill-suited for this more conservative discipline, Henry has managed to rework them to produce convincing, wearable clothes.

Carven's history of providing for women of non-standard size seems to be nodded at in the collections' unusual proportions – shortened jackets, wrist-skimming sleeves, knitwear with wide, waist-hugging ribbed hems, slouchy, wide-leg jeans styled with thick, child-like turnups. It's all very smart and preppy-looking, but with a pleasing, subtle hint of wrongness – always a bit too big or a bit too small. "The Carven man is definitely gawky," says Henry. "He has the right instinct and the right taste but does not really know how to put himself together. His gawkiness comes from a certain kind of honesty. I prefer spontaneity to perfectionism."

Is there a particular man he's designing for? "I don't think of anybody in particular," says Henry. "The Carven man can be any man! I love true characters, with no question of age, body type or social appurtenance." Such populism is unusual in an industry based on its customers being the right shape of person with the right amount of money. But it's certainly welcome.

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