She dressed Edith Piaf and Leslie Caron. She created uniforms for more than a dozen airlines and dressed French traffic police. When she launched a fragrance, she provocatively named it Ma Griffe, which can mean either “my signature” or “my claw” in French. She was a force and a character. She was Carmen de Tommaso, or as she was better known in the world of haute couture, Madame Carven. Yesterday Madame Carven passed away at the age of 105, leaving behind an incredible legacy, both in the world of fashion and fragrance.
De Tommaso was introduced to couture by her aunt Josy Boyriven–the last three letters of whose name, “ven”, got joined with “car” of Carmen to form “Carven”–and she started designing both out of fascination and frustration. She was dismayed by the limited choices for petite women and the lack of attention from the fashion masters.
“France was learning to dance again after the war and I wanted to be slinky. This desire to be attractive inspired a few reflections,” mentioned Madame Carven in interviews. “First I noticed that I wasn’t the only petite woman I knew, and that the grand couturiers weren’t very interested in us. But I had a feeling for proportion and volume. All that remained for me to do was to create, with the help of friends who were scarcely taller than I was, dresses that would allow us to be ourselves. I’d found an opening where there was no competition and a moment when Paris was overflowing with happiness.”
When the Carven fashion house opened its doors in 1945, she rose to fame for her elegant lines and a dose of whimsy. By the time Jacqueline François sang of “les robes de chez Carven” in her 1949 hit, Mademoiselle de Paris, Carven embodied French chic. In the male-dominated world of fashion, Carven was a breath of fresh air. Her sense of balance and style gave her an edge, while her marketing genius made her a tough competitor. As WWD reports, “Madras checks, batik prints, African patterns, raffia embroideries and Aztec-inspired motifs featured on outfits bearing names such as Amphora, Ivory Coast, Chiquita and Opium — the latter shown in 1964, more than a decade before the Yves Saint Laurent fragrance of the same name.”
Equally groundbreaking was her signature fragrance. Let’s consider for a moment today’s “youthful offerings”–all cute and sweet, and hard to tell apart. Carven dreamed up Ma Griffe for a young woman, but she also wanted it to dazzle and to project confidence. The perfumer up for the task was none other than Jean Carles, already famous in the 40s for his sophisticated compositions and impeccable craftsmanship.
Carles and Carven pinned gardenias on a velvety backdrop of moss and somber woods. They gave Ma Griffe a bold character, but the fragrance is put together as intricately as a Byzantine mosaic– notes like ylang-ylang, iris, jasmine, rose, sandalwood, and benzoin are set into a delicate arrangement and polished till they fade into each other. You notice the details only if you pay close attention and smell like a sleuth. I recommend just to douse yourself in Ma Griffe, shiver as the shimmer of aldehydes and green leaves brightens up the richness of white flowers and reflect on the life of a designer who brought it to life. Goodbye, Madame Carven.