Madame Carven, First Petite Women’s Fashion Designer, Turns 100!


Madame Carven turns 100!

By Ann Lauren

Paris (AFP): Only a diminutive five feet one in her stockinged feet, for half a century she was the favourite designer of petite women.  “Couture brought me happiness, they were the best years of my life,” Madame Carven recalls with a smile at a celebration to mark her 100th birthday on July 9, 2009.

In recognition of her contribution to fashion and imminent birthday on August 31, the French Federation of Couture threw a party for her in the gardens of the Musee Galliera at the end of the haute couture shows for next winter.

“I know this place very well. This is where I always showed my collections,” Madame Carven told AFP.

Frustrated by the lack of clothes suitable for small women like herself, Carmen de Tommaso dropped plans to become an architect or interior designer and took the remedy into her own hands. In 1945 she opened her own house under the name Carven.

Her fresh and carefree style was an immediate hit with actresses likeLeslie Caron and Martine Carol and young girls around the world, including the future wife of president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, whose wedding dress she designed.


“Couture brought me great happiness, the joy of creating. I did everything I could to make women beautiful,” she says, still immaculate herself in an elegant green suit, her favourite colour, with a pearl necklace.

“I started out without anyone. Now you need a sponsor, everything is very expensive, very difficult.”

Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand, nephew of the late Socialist president, paid tribute to her as “one of the most eminent creative forces in French and international fashion.”

On a more personal note, he recalled that his mother “was always dressed by Madame Carven” and that for him she felt like “part of the family.”

“She was the first to dare to do ready-to-wear, she was revolutionary,” acknowledged Federation president Didier Grumbach, who once actually worked for Carven.

“I sold Carven Junior dresses and took the Carven Junior collection to the United States in 1964,” he admitted, getting a round of applause from guests, who included designers Jean Charles de Castelbajac and Claude Montana, the chief executive of Louis Vuitton Yves Carcelle as well as many personal friends of Carven.

carvenIn the immediate post-war years, marked by the return to prominence of male designers like Christian Diorand Jacques Fath, Madame Carven “was something of an exception,” according to Florence Miller, who teaches at the French Fashion Institute. “She had the intuition to appeal to young girls at a time when the couturiers mostly dressed older women.”  Her style was practical, flattering, very feminine, very close to what women actually wanted, she explained. “She wasn’t into building a spectacular image for her label, like Dior, for example.”

“When I was a little girl, there were two names which entranced me: Carven and Paris,” remembered Lady Nancy Chopard-Sain, a vibrant old lady wearing a turquoise coat with matching flower in her hair, who said she had been a personal friend for “a very, very long time.”

Madame Carven only finally gave up designing in 1993, in her 84th year, to concentrate on her passion for old furniture and antiques. Today her house is owned by the Paris group SCM and has abandoned haute couture to focus on ready-to-wear.

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