Hubert de Givenchy obituary
Couturier to Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy
Mon 12 Mar 2018 17.44 GMT Last modified on Mon 12 Mar 2018 17.45 GMT
Audrey Hepburn glides through the credits of the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s in a black dress that is in no way little. It’s a long, narrow sheath, though she can still amble down Fifth Avenue unimpeded. The dress is sleeveless – yet gloves cover her arms far above her elbows – and collarless, with a striking back strap revealing her shoulder blades. Several generations have worshipped images of Hepburn in that dress as defining sophistication.
This was the work of Hubert de Givenchy, who has died aged 91. His clothes for Hepburn made her feel secure. “I put them on and I feel protected,” she said. He helped her to downplay the trampiness of Holly Golightly, who trips into Sing Sing prison in Givenchy’s lampshade hat, and shops at Tiffany’s in his tailored coat. No wonder Jacqueline Kennedy commanded Givenchy to outfit her state visit to Paris that year.
Givenchy had been brought up to enjoy textiles, to regard them as treats. He was the younger son of the Marquis of Givenchy, who died when the boy was three, and Béatrice Badin; and the pet of his maternal grandmother, Margaret Badin, widow of the director of the Beauvais tapestry workshops. That was his happy memory of childhood, his grandmother rewarding him for good behaviour by opening cupboards filled with fabric treasures, or allowing him to rummage in trunks and bundles. “My mother and my cousins played customers, gathered about the sewing machine.” His mother backed his decision to be a fashion designer, provided he did it to the highest standards. She introduced him to couture houses and sent him to study in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
As a postwar teen he worked briefly for Jacques Fath, Robert Piguet and Lucien Lelong before joining Elsa Schiaparelli in 1947. She had confidence in him, despite his youth, and told him to use up 900 metres of prewar, surrealist-print silks cluttering her stockroom. He did what he always did thereafter: hung up the cloth until he understood its properties, and then cut separates from it, amusing enough to sell well despite the stuffs being so out of date. “Never work against the fabric, it has a life of its own,” he said.
Givenchy was 24 when he opened his own house with financial backing from his brother-in-law, Louis Fontaine, who owned the Prisunic chain stores. There was only money enough to pay his few workhands (many of whom then stayed with him for life). He showed his clothes on plastic mannequins to save model hire and, not being able to afford the silks of his competitors, made a collection with the cotton toile (shirting) traditionally used for couture prototypes. This, plus the simplicity of his lines, and his philosophy that a dress should defer to a woman’s shape, not she to it, positioned him closer to American sportswear than to Paris couture.
His heroes were the unique dressmaker Madame Grès, who left him her personal collection of 300 gowns, and Cristóbal Balenciaga, who redirected clients to Givenchy when he closed his own house – despite the fact that Balenciaga was baroque in spirit, while Givenchy was a neoclassicist.
Givenchy’s freshness and vivacity were just right for the new world of the Vespa scooter and the beach bag. And they attracted the ultimate customer in 1953. When he was told Mademoiselle Hepburn had made an appointment, he assumed that meant Katharine the great movie star. In walked Audrey, who had just made Roman Holiday, the definitive Vespa movie, aged 24 but looking a teen in T-shirt, ballet flats and no make-up. She thought he could supply the believable sophistication she needed for Sabrina (1954), the Billy Wilder film in which a below-stairs girl returns from Paris transformed. There wasn’t time to create to order, so she chose from what was available and stood through three-hour fittings in service of exactitude. Her boat-necked Cinderella gown won a deserved Oscar, but not for Givenchy: his work was credited to the studio designer Edith Head.
Hepburn was mortified by that, but the episode established the Givenchy-Hepburn relationship, which lasted to her death in 1993. He made her costumes for the musical Funny Face (1957) and the thriller Charade (1963). By How to Steal a Million (1966), the partnership had become an in-joke — when Hepburn’s character asks why she must be disguised as an aproned charlady during a robbery, she is told: “It’ll give Givenchy a night off.”
Yet the next year, the studio dressed Hepburn in ready-to-wear clothes, and not from Paris, for the comedy Two for the Road. The mood had changed, and the big money had gone. She demanded Givenchy should design her period costumes for Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, then withdrew from the project, and their only movie together after that was the made-for-television Love Among Thieves (1987).
Among Givenchy’s clients were also Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Leslie Caron, Maria Callas, Grace Kelly and the Duchess of Windsor – he stayed up all night to sew the black coat she wore to the Duke’s funeral. Although he never lacked wealthy customers, he was uncomfortable with the extravagant showmanship of couture from the mid-1970s: the “impossible, crazy clothes” that did not “think about the life of a woman”, and were careless, almost contemptuous, of textiles. He remained commercially astute, selling his perfumes to the Veuve Cliquot champagne brand in 1981, and the couture house in 1988 to the LVMH luxury conglomerate, which later acquired the perfumes, too.
Givenchy is applauded by his models after presenting his final High Fashion collection in 1995. Photograph: Reuters
Givenchy kept his patience, just, with LVMH’s head, Bernard Arnault, until his formal retirement in 1995, and thereafter spoke of Arnault’s designer appointments (including John Galliano and Alexander McQueen) with distant politeness. “C’est la vie,” he told commiserators. “Happily, for many years we had a wonderful time, beautiful fabric, beautiful people.”
He had long since set up an alternative life as an “amateur d’art”, buying from artists he had met, Miró, Picasso and the sculptor Diego Giacometti. His real passion, though, was for the very best French furniture of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and over the decades his Paris apartment became a miniature Versailles. But he sold his collection in 1993 – too museum-like – and lived mostly in Le Jonchet, his manor house near Tours, with its gardens edged by 36,000 box bushes and its white roses in memory of Hepburn.
Givenchy was awarded Paris couture’s Golden Thimbles in 1978 and 1982, and there were major exhibitions at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, in 1982, and the Musée de la Mode in Paris, in 1991.
He is survived by his partner, and fellow couturier, Philippe Venet.
• Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy, couturier, born 21 February 1927; died 10 March 2018
Hubert de Givenchy: an elegant master of devastating chic
He dressed Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy and forged a timeless style for a golden age
Mon 12 Mar 2018 15.40 GMT Last modified on Mon 12 Mar 2018 22.00 GMT
The first and last time I met Hubert de Givenchy, who has died at the age of 91, was at the opening of his eponymous exhibition at the Calais Museum for Lace and Fashion in June. His elegant 6ft 6in frame was even more imposing for the stately pace at which he moved, supported by a wooden cane. He had an impressive head of snow-white hair, and wore a simple dark suit and tie with a white shirt.
Hubert de Givenchy, maker of style icons, dies aged 91
The reporters who had assembled for the opening asked reverent questions about the iconic dresses he made, but he was much more interested in talking about the women he made them for. He told a funny story about his first meeting with Miss Hepburn, and how taken aback he was to be presented with the pixie-like Audrey instead of the other, at that point more famous, Katharine. Givenchy recalled Audrey as “this very thin person with beautiful eyes, short hair, thick eyebrows, very tiny trousers, ballerina shoes and a little T-shirt. On her head was a straw gondolier’s hat with a red ribbon around it.” The two became close, collaborating on a wardrobe for the film Sabrina and every subsequent role.
The designer’s elegant tailoring and eye for a perfect line, combined with the unusually spare taste of Hepburn, created style magic. Together they forged a refined image of pared-to-the-bone glamour that still looks chic more than half a century later. “She was not like other movie stars, because she loved simplicity,” Givenchy once said. Black dresses, ballerina pumps, sunglasses and pearls still conjure up the image of Hepburn. That their partnership grew into “a great friendship”, as Givenchy said at the opening of the exhibition, is reflected in his appointment as the mediator of her will towards the end of her life.
Givenchy’s death comes as the house he founded enjoys a renewed lease of life under , the British designer appointed as its creative director last year. Many celebrated designers, including Alexander McQueen, have been at the helm in the years since Givenchy sold his company, but Waight Keller is the first to have met the founder in person. When she joined the house she paid homage to his “confident style”. Backstage after her fashion shows, Waight Keller often mentions the designer she calls “Hubert”.
He was the unrivalled master of the devastatingly chic, all-black look. One of the first telephone calls made by Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, after the death of her husband Edward, the Duke of Windsor, in 1972 was to the Givenchy atelier. Photographs of that black wool coat with cigaline veil, produced within one day in time for the duchess to travel to the funeral, were reproduced all over the world.
The iconography of first lady style owes a debt – largely unacknowledged – to the Givenchy atelier. At the Calais exhibition opening, the designer recalled being charmed by the beauty and youthful energy of Jackie Kennedy, whom he first met while her husband was running for president. For the first Kennedy official visit to France, Givenchy “made 10 or 15 pieces … but her secretary told me that we could not tell the press”, he remembered – the need for the first lady to be seen to support American fashion meant Givenchy’s contribution to Kennedy’s image was downplayed. After the trip, Kennedy wrote a card to Givenchy relaying a compliment given to her by Charles de Gaulle at an event at Versailles, for which she had worn a Givenchy gown: “Madame, this evening you look like a Parisienne.”
The French news magazine L’Express once described Givenchy as being “to fashion what Françoise Sagan was to literature and Bernard Buffet to painting: successful, glamorous, gorgeous, and very, very French”. His death breaks a link to a golden age of 20th-century elegance, in the clothes he created for Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy and their chic contemporaries.