Designer Guillaume Henry has a cinematographic approach to both the city and to fashion. He was born in eastern France but always had his sights set on Paris. “The distance that existed between me and that city of my fantasies spawned a whole set of references in my mind that have constantly nourished my work,” he explains. “My idea of Paris was shaped not by magazines, but by the cinema.”
Each ensemble, silhouette or quirky detail in his collections, infused with an astonishingly rich sense of narrative, is directly inspired by the films that left their mark on his childhood and teenage years. The modern heroines he dreamed up for Carven (2008/2014), Nina Ricci (2015/2018) and currently for Patou (acquired by LVMH in 2018) might be modelled on the Left Bank grande bourgeoise or the sassy Right Banker. They are the direct descendants of the Parisiennes portrayed by the likes of Louis Malle, Claude Sautet, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Tati and Boris Vian. They are complex characters that, as Henry puts it, reflect the “contrast and heritage” of Paris.
“I see fashion as part of the French heritage, just like theatre, culture and dance. You need to take part in it.”
A waitress at Brasserie Lipp, a landmark of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, founded in 1880.
Blue coat on the steps of Saint-Roch church, 1st arrondissement. Nina Ricci. Pre-Fall 2018.
Patou by Guillaume Henry, “Première collection” 2020.
What relationship do you have with Paris?
“I like to design in Paris because I understand the city and it understands me. I’ve lived there since I was twenty and I’m still getting to know it, even though my daily existence is rooted in a kind of tradition. I have my habits, my regular dates, my usual shops, my favourite places and my friends there. But I feel far from having seen it all. As long as I’m not tired of it, I’ll always love Paris.”
Your favourite Parisian hideout?
“My favourite spot in Paris would be a café terrace, where I love to watch people go by: people who are visiting the city, or who live there, the tourists and waiters, the elegant elderly ladies and the mums in a rush.
I’m also fond of hotel bars, because of their atmosphere. One of my Nina Ricci collections was directly inspired by those plush, ornate interiors, not bling in the least. The carpeted corridors, the different kinds of meetings taking place there, the sense of privilege and exclusiveness. In any case, my Paris, far from the clichés, is always a street away from where everyone else is.”
Where do you like to go for a stroll?
“I love to re-experience the delights of a trip in a bateau-mouche, relive the simple pleasure of observing the beauty and history of the city from the Seine. For a stroll, I like to wander around the Palais-Royal, cross the Louvre’s Cour Carrée, walk over the Pont des Arts and up the Rue de Seine behind the Académie Française, and then lose myself among the little streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.”
A place you’ll always marvel at?
“The splendour of the Invalides. I’m always fascinated by the architectural beauty of the institutions, the Invalides in particular, which is both church and military hospital. I presented the Nina Ricci Summer 2018 collection there. I like anonymous and administrative places like Bercy (the Finance Ministry) and the Sorbonne University. I’ve photographed some of my collections there. I love the delicate elegance you can find in ordinary things.”
What is the colour of Paris?
“Grey-blue, much like the colour of the stone and the Seine.” What time of day do you prefer? “Midday or midnight, for the warm hues and the bells that ring out over the city. Midnight at a cabaret like the Lido, which inspired my feathered silhouettes. Midday on a station platform, perhaps the Gare de Lyon, by the famous Train Bleu restaurant. I can see the coming and going, a white coat worn like a cardigan...”
Your mythic vision of Paris?
“Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (1958), which moves through Saint-Germain-des-Prés to music by Miles Davis. Or Cléo de 5 à 7 by Agnès Varda (1962), with Corinne Marchand and Antoine Bourseiller, which takes us from the Rue de Rivoli to the Dôme café. Those films fuelled my imagination as a child. I thought all Parisiennes wore Haute Couture.”
A truly Parisian garment?
“Sheer tights, the pea coat, the three-button sweater, kitten heels.” How do you conceive of your shows? “Like a film, with the models like a cast of actresses, the decor as a set and the music as the soundtrack.”
Oversized pink coat for Carven, Fall Winter 2013.
The Parisienne, a sketch by Guillaume Henry.
How do you appropriate the city?
“Paris is a wonderful place for a fashion show. The energy in Paris during these fashion fests is incredible. All the hotels are full, there are models everywhere with their portfolios tucked under their arm, the top restaurants are packed, tourist sites like the Louvre and the Invalides are taken over by tourists and fashion shows. It’s unique. And Paris also feeds the narrative of a collection. Even if the setting can seem superfluous sometimes, seeing how collections are concepts in their own right and the clothes themselves already say such a lot.”
Paris, a fashion capital: what’s your take on that?
“The finest creative offering is in Paris. It is a breeding ground and home to designers from all over and from every walk of life. But in terms of consumers and distributors, it doesn’t really match up to the fashion weeks that take place there. It’s a phenomenon you also see in gastronomy and fine craftsmanship. To me, fashion is part of the French heritage, just like theatre, culture and dance. You need to contribute to it, yet it’s no longer in the street: the French aren’t great consumers of what they produce. Fashion in Paris is more about fashion design. There is something special about that, and I see it as very embodied, very inspired, narrative, innovative and part of a tradition. Paris is more a city of fashion rather than a fashion city.”
And your image of the Parisienne?
“A certain idea of the French has always run through my work, sometimes unconsciously. It would be Miou-Miou in Daniel Duval’s 1979 La Dérobade (Memoirs of a French Whore), part call girl, part grande bourgeoise. These figures are sophisticated but approachable, appealing both to convention and fantasy, real without being ordinary.”