A feminine mystique

The talented Guillaume Henry has put aside girlish things and embarked on a quest for the complete Nina Ricci woman

“Who is my Nina Ricci woman?” It is with this simple question that Guillaume Henry, the new creative director of Nina Ricci, set off on his quest to capture the trademark elegance of one of Paris’ most storied houses.

Nina Ricci has always been known for femininity. Maria “Nina” Ricci led one of the great female-fronted couturiers of interwar Paris, alongside Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Jeanne-Marie Lanvin, after establishing the house with her son in 1932. Most women’s first encounter with Nina Ricci comes in the form of scent. L’Air du Temps, in its iconic dove-shaped Lalique bottle, is one of the most successful in the history of fragrance. Perfume has kept Nina Ricci relevant and at the forefront of luxury consumers’ minds, yet now, with the arrival of Henry, the focus looks set to move back towards clothes.

In recent years Nina Ricci has been fairly quiet when it comes to fashion. Unlike its brash contemporaries it has produced no films, no exhibitions, no retrospectives to remind the consumer of its archive and history. Instead, the Puig Group, which today owns the brand, has leaned on a steady influx of talented creative directors to develop the language of the house in ready-to-wear and accessories with their own frames of reference.

This saw Olivier Theyskens bring his gothic sensibilities to the Nina Ricci woman, which stood in stark contrast to his successor Peter Copping’s ultra-feminine voice (Copping recently moved to that most feminine and ladylike of houses, Oscar de la Renta). Both designers explored different facets of the Nina Ricci woman, thereby adding and subtracting relevant consumers, but both have moved on, leaving Nina Ricci as a stepping-stone in their longer career narratives.

The buzz that Henry – then unknown in the constellation of star designers – created at the all-but-forgotten house of Carven after his first show in 2009 established the quiet Frenchman as the newest darling of Parisian fashion. In his first collection Henry presented a girlish figure featuring short, exaggerated shapes and immediately achieved what is considered the holy grail for designers: he created a new, iconic, moment-defining silhouette.

That look and shape for Carven resonated with women, at a price point tempting enough to bring in a wider audience, while his charm and eloquence brought in the critics. Carven’s sales exploded and the brand was reborn, becoming a case study for investors looking to achieve, at lightning speed, both cool and global commercial success.

So this January, Henry stepped into the Nina Ricci ateliers with two months to put on his first show, for autumn/winter 2015, and define his vision for the house – a daunting task for any designer. “I didn’t look at the archive,” Henry tells me over lunch in Paris in June. “I was just repeating the name of the brand forever in my mind. What this name tells me in terms of colours, in terms of attitude, in terms of music, but I didn’t look at the archive. I think I will one day, just not now. I think I will because this first collection was definitely an introduction; that’s the way I see it. I really wanted to introduce that idea of the woman to the people, more than a fashion concept, even if in the end for me it’s a fashion concept.”

When it came to designing that first collection, he was clear that his consumer was no longer the Carven youth. “The one thing I was sure of was that she was a woman,” he explains. “Through the name, through all this history, I can imagine an idea of femininity, but also sensuality. These are keywords that I really want to keep in our vocabulary for the brand. But then how do you express femininity?”

For the viewers of Henry’s first catwalk presentation in March this year, his articulation of femininity seemingly came through a collection full of short, chic lace and sequin party dresses, styled with oversized masculine pea coats and a single pair of kitten heels throughout. Oh, and one thigh-high boot; this is a French label, after all. But, as Henry says, “How does a woman have to get dressed to be feminine? I think there are no rules. And I tried with this first collection to find my rules. For me, femininity is more a question of movement than body shape. And to see a woman getting lost in the male coat is far more feminine than being over-shaped in a tiny dress. But we had so little time to do it. So I tried to really focus on a few words. Ease. Languidness.”

While Nina Ricci has always been associated with French femininity, in today’s market perhaps Henry’s biggest challenge is keeping his concept distinct from other, larger houses. “When I was thinking through this first season’s woman, I found women whose attitudes are indémodable – timeless? Romy Schneider, Monica Vitti, Annie Girardot, Jeanne Moreau.” And Henry has displayed a genius for making abstract femininity concrete and has begun translating that into a new vision of the Nina Ricci woman. For example, in his first show, models wore one look each. “I loved working on the casting because it was like, which girl is going tell the best story with that piece?” he says. “It was a cast of characters, definitely. Who would be the most vulnerable in the biggest masculine coat shape? I adore this idea of sensuality, strength and vulnerability – but without screaming it.”

As the speed of fashion ramps up and up – big houses now create more and more collections for pre-autumn and resort shows – a small(ish) house like Nina Ricci faces a challenge in competing with larger brands. “The schedule now is getting totally crazy,” Henry says. “We have to be ready in such a short amount of time. And you have to be creative and commercial. Nina Ricci is ultimately a brand that sells clothes. We should never forget about women’s needs or women’s new desires because we’re offering clothes. So it’s always a little competition with ourselves.” He laughs. “But I’m happy to be with people who understand that we shouldn’t rush everything. Truly, the only thing that really excites me is freedom. I was so free at Carven, and I’m very free at Nina Ricci. So far I’ve been really lucky. [The owners are] really supportive.”

For now, Henry’s freedom to explore is creating an exciting phase in the brand’s history. In the age of Instagram, where more and more celebrity designers communicate with consumers directly through social media, his is a singular and traditional point of view. Henry relies on fashion shows to deliver his message and focuses on creating the beautiful clothes that women desire with a hint of storytelling, all rooted in the character of the Nina Ricci woman he has so expertly traced. “You know,” he muses, “I’ve never asked myself, where do I want to take a brand, or anything like that. It’s something very spontaneous. I try to figure out a woman from one season to another. I just try to follow her. Between you and me, I have no idea where she will be in two years.”

Wherever Henry’s quest for the Nina Ricci woman leads him, one thing is sure: we are all bound to follow. §

All clothing by Nina Ricci / Text: Caroline Issa / Photography: Bruno Werzinski / Styling: Nobuko Tannawa / Hair: Maki Tanaka using Bumble and bumble / Make-up: Natsumi Narita using M.A.C Cosmetics / Videography: Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie / Styling assistant: Hakan Demiray / Model: Martina Lew at Next Management London

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