For more than half a century, Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy was the incarnation of l’élgance à la française. His deceptively simple designs combined modernity and refinement in a way that is as fresh today as when they first hit the runway.
Artistic creation was in his blood. His maternal grandfather had been the director of the Manufacture des Gobelins and of Beauvais, while a great-grandfather was a set designer who created designs for Beauvais, including 13 destined for the Élysée Palace; his great-great-grandfather designed sets for the Opéra de Paris. It’s hardly surprising that, at the age of 17, Givenchy took off for Paris to study at l’École des Beaux Arts.
He created designs for Jacques Fath and Lucien Lelong, and worked for Elsa Schiaparelli from 1947 to 1951 before opening the house of Givenchy in 1952. At 25, he was the youngest designer of note on the Parisian scene. His first collection was named “Bettina Graziani” after his first muse, Bettina, the top Parisian model of the day.
In time, his client list looked like Almanach de Gotha meets Social Register, with a generous dose of Hollywood royalty thrown in for good measure. He dressed such fashion-conscious women as Marella Agnelli, Jacqueline Kennedy, Empress Farah Diba, and Grace Kelly. In 1970, he was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame. But one name stands out above the rest: Audrey Hepburn.
Audrey Hepburn had just finished shooting “Roman Holiday,” for which she would receive an Academy Award for Best Actress (she accepted the award in a Givenchy gown). When Hubert de Givenchy was told that “Miss Hepburn” would like to visit his studio to look for clothes for her next film, “Sabrina,” he was delighted, as he admired Katherine Hepburn’s style and was enthusiastic at the idea of dressing her.
But it was the younger Miss Hepburn who appeared at his door, a fragile, doe-eyed creature, wearing a t-shirt and Capri pants, ballet slippers, and a gondolier’s hat with red ribbons. When he politely told her he was in the middle of doing a collection and was too busy to help her, she said she would take what he already had. The clothes fit perfectly and became her wardrobe for the film. And so it began.
Givenchy’s creations were just the ticket to lend an air of recently acquired bon chic bon genre to the title character, returned home after a year in Paris. “Sabrina” won the Academy Award for Best Costume design, although the credit went to Edith Head, Paramount’s costume designer. Thereafter, Hepburn had it written into her contracts that Givenchy would be responsible for her wardrobe. The results are legend.
In 1961, Hepburn starred as the eccentric Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Who can forget Holly standing before Tiffany’s window, crowned with one of the most impressive French twists in film, a sylph-like black column draped in pearls? Who else could munch so elegantly on a pastry as she indulges in fantasy? The idea of la petite robe noire may have originated with Coco Chanel, but it was Hubert de Givenchy who defined the “look” and elevated it to icon status. This is perfection. Anything that follows is merely commentary.
Givenchy created his perfume, “L’Interdit,” with her in mind — a delicate, floral scent with notes of rose, jasmine, violet, and, at the heart, a blend of woods and grasses. It was created for her in 1957, and available only to her until its release to the public in the 1960’s. Audrey Hepburn became the first actress to be the face of a publicity campaign for a perfume.
They met in 1954 while both were in their 20’s, and their friendship spanned 40 years. She called him her best friend; she was his “sister.” They were collaborators and soul mates whose mutual devotion lasted until the end. When Hepburn and family wished to return to Switzerland for her last Christmas, traveling on a commercial airliner after her recent surgery was out of the question. Givenchy arranged for socialite Bunny Mellon to send her personal Gulfstream, filled with flowers, to fly them from Los Angeles to Geneva. On January 20, 1993, Audrey Hepburn passed away at her home in Switzerland.
In a statement last year, Givenchy said, “I am happy because I did the job I dreamt of as a child. Mine is one of the most beautiful professions in fashion…making others happy with an idea.” Audrey Hepburn viewed her life in a positive way, as well. “How shall I sum up my life? I would say that I’ve been particularly lucky.”
Who among us would ask for more?
In a final tribute to the créateur, who died in his sleep last Saturday at the age of 91, President Emmanuel Macron declared, “It is with such artists that France shines in the world, and the figure of Hubert de Givenchy will long endure.”
Here are a few highlights from a stellar career: