Guillaume Henry arrived in Paris when he was 18 years old. His dream of working in fashion, however, started years earlier. “I told my parents I wanted to be a fashion designer maybe when I was nine years old,” he recalls. “My first contact with the fashion industry was through TV; during the couture week you would see couture reports and I was so in love with what I saw. I still remember some images from Saint Laurent shows or Christian Lacroix.” From watching those fêted collections on the television to working at some of the industry’s most celebrated maisons, Henry has certainly been busy since his move to the French capital.
Three years at powerhouse Givenchy – initially under the direction of Julien Macdonald before Riccardo Tisci joined in 2005 – were followed by a further three years at Paule Ka, where Henry was able to experiment with the more commercial aspects of the fashion industry, something which he clearly valued. “I thought it was important, because I was young and at the beginning of my career, to really understand what clients need.” This focus on product was key to Henry’s next appointment, as artistic director at French label Carven, where he was able to combine his love of the creative image with a commercial reality. Ultimately, Henry refreshed and redirected the brand’s ready-to-wear line for a contemporary audience, leading the ex-couture house into a modern market to instant acclaim.
In 2014 Henry took up the creative reins at Nina Ricci, and is effusive about the appeal of the house and what prompted his decision to join the team: “I thought it was the right moment to move to a more mature brand. It’s an amazing name with a fantastic background, but at the same time it’s not all over the place; there are really few shops worldwide, so I felt free enough to express my own vision. I felt comfortable. It was both a strong brand in terms of name and at the same time still very intimate.” He has bold plans for the future of the label. “I really want us to have our own singular voice. For me, it’s all about emotion, sensitivity and when you’re true to yourself. I think people can recognise that.”
Indeed, Henry has clear views about designing for women and what he prizes about his work, circling back to his first exposure to the world of fashion through couture and how that influenced him. “For me, couture means knowledge, technique and respect. And those are words that are key in my work. I wouldn’t be able to show something that is not properly done, I wouldn’t be able to dress a women with something that is not technically perfect.”
His love of women is evident. Henry is constantly referring back to the ladies who surround and influence him, and the gamut of women around the world for whom he designs. “Seduction, allure, taste … these are universal”, he explains. “I’m French, I’m in a French brand, and I’m working every single day in one of the most beautiful streets in Paris, surrounded by French girls and women. But I’m not designing for a French woman. I hope that at the end of the day it’s something that everybody can really understand and appreciate.” While his appointment at a traditionally feminine brand may have left some in the industry expecting more pastel lace, more georgette, Henry is quick to share his view of femininity, and how he believes it complements the Ricci direction. “For me, femininity is not the fabric you’re using, it’s the way you move, the way you cross your legs, the way you smile when you’re seduced. For me, femininity is the voice; it’s not a tiny jacket with flowers on. This is femininity through my eyes.” For spring/summer 2017, this means showing the Nina Ricci lady through a strong, colourful, confident filter – with rich tones, have-to-touch fabrics and opulence brushed with a sporty attitude.
Femininity also means starting his seasonal collections with a woman’s face, whether it’s an anonymous profile or a more famous portrait, as with German actress Romy Schneider, who played muse for his earliest collections at the house. How to find this inspiration, this woman? “You have to breathe the oxygen of real life, of beautiful things”, Henry says. “You have to spend your time outside – it comes from anywhere.” From these beginnings, Henry and his team let ideas develop into mood boards that go on to inform the brand’s designs (designs that Henry sketches – “I love having a paper and pen,” he says), and subsequently what appears on the runway each season.
It’s not news that the current fashion-week system is in a state of flux. Designers continue to move their shows to other cities – Proenza Schouler and Rodarte to Paris, Philipp Plein to New York – while others reinvent their schedules completely to offer a see-now, buy-now shopping concept (think Burberry and Tom Ford). What does Henry make of the challenges designers face as the lines of fashion are redrawn and a new generation wants even more, even faster? “I remember when I started at Carven I had two collections a year and I thought it was too much, and when I left the brand I had eight, or more. At Nina Ricci I’m working on four collections a year. I would love somehow to spend more time working on things, but you have to be prepared, to be organised.
“The worst thing is not to find inspiration to design a collection, it’s to deal with all the aspects of the industry; you have to deal with so many, many, many people. And no matter what, you have to be ready on that day at that time. We’re not like artists in our studio, with colours and a frame … to do one dress you have so many components, and that’s kind of intense. When I started in this industry – it wasn’t that long ago – I remember at that time the cruise collection was dedicated to the woman that would travel during the wintertime, and now it’s not that any more. You have to offer both something warm and something super light, because you’re dealing with so many different countries. When you have to face all those worldwide needs, it starts to be a lot. It’s a big job, so most of the time I try to forget about that and just do things that I enjoy.”
Social media has played a large part in this landscape shift. No longer purely the remit of editors and buyers, shows are now home to an influx of bloggers, influencers and superstars of the digital sphere – some who attend with bold, fresh insights but also those following the flash of the media-circus light bulbs. With more people than ever before consuming fashion thanks to live streams and instant sharing there have been seismic changes all the way down the fashion food chain. “It’s key and it’s scary”, Henry accepts. “I mean, it’s priceless to have this media support because you have to be recognised, and if you stay in your own little studio and if there’s no audience, it’s like being a singer and singing for yourself. But at the same time, a tiny picture on a mobile phone … you can’t necessarily face the beauty of the creation.” He searches for the word. “The subtleties.” You get the sense Henry is a designer always seeking to see the positive and find the value in change, but who still appreciates exceptional craftsmanship that speaks for itself. “Today”, he concedes, “you have to scream – it’s quite difficult to whisper.”