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#BornThisDay: Fashion Designer, Hubert de Givenchy

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1960, photograph by Robert Doisneau, Horizon Pictures via YouTube

February 21, 1927Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy

”I absolutely believe my talent is God-given. I ask God for a lot, but I also thank him. I’m a very demanding believer.”

When Audrey Hepburn left this world in 1993, taken by cancer at 63-yearsold, she was at her home that she loved in a village near Lausanne, Switzerland. In L.A., she had been given just a few months to live after being diagnosed with cancer. She wanted to be home in Switzerland but getting there would be a significant risk to her fragile health. That is when Hubert de Givenchy came up with a plan. The famed designer, along with Hepburn’s friend Bunny Mellon arranged for a private plane to carefully transport Hepburn to Switzerland.

Hepburn was able to spend a last Christmas in Switzerland, where, she told her longtime partner, Dutch actor, Robert Wolders that it was ”…the most beautiful Christmas I have ever had.”

It was rather perfect that Givenchy was able to give Hepburn this final gift. They had been very close friends for decades, with a relationship that Givenchy called: ”a kind of marriage”.

They met just before the filming of Sabrina (1954). It was a fashion love affair and friendship that lasted for four decades.

Givenchy:

”Little by little, our friendship grew and with it a confidence in each other. There was never any criticism of the other person, no upsets.”

Hepburn wanted to wear a real Paris designer dress in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina. She had a style that was very much her own, knowing exactly what complimented her figure, and Hepburn insisted that she have approval over her own wardrobe for the film. In it, she plays a chauffeur’s daughter, who falls in love with one of the sons of the wealthy man her father works for. Lovesick, she flees to Paris, only to come back two years later and causes a commotion when both the man’s sons, played by William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, fall for her. Hepburn’s Sabrina has transformed from a shy girl into a sophisticated woman during her time in Paris.

The wardrobe supervisor for the film, Edith Head, had prepared drawings for Hepburn’s look, and she was shocked when Hepburn wanted a designer dress, because this was a film that would have given Head the perfect opportunity to design for a leading lady looking like a Paris model.

One of the outfits Hepburn selected in Paris was an elegant double-breasted collarless wool suit, that Sabrina wears on her first day back home. Head had given instructions to Hepburn to buy a dark suit: ”the type you would wear crossing the Atlantic by plane and arriving in up-state New York by train”. She advised Hepburn not to choose ”dead black or dead white” because they did not show up well on film. Hepburn brought back an Oxford-gray wool suit with a cinch-waisted, double-breasted scoop-necked jacket and a slim, calf-length vented skirt. She added a turban of pleated pearl-grey chiffon, both created by Givenchy.

“Sabrina”, Paramount via YouTube

Wilder’s wife had sent Hepburn to Cristóbal Balenciaga in Paris, but he was too busy preparing his latest collection. He suggested his friend Givenchy, who had once worked for Balenciaga. Givenchy had exactly what she needed, and Hepburn ended up buying a wardrobe of three outfits, the suit and the two gowns she would wear in the film, spending $850. It was their first collaboration.

Head, much to her disappointment, had to design the rest of the not so glamorous Sabrina wardrobe. The Paramount costume department also had to manufacture duplicates of the Givenchy clothes that would be needed in case the original ones were somehow ruined during filming.

Paramount via YouTube

With Bogart, Paramount via YouTube

Head would make sketches of his dresses for Hepburn and sign them with her name. Only after Head passed away in 1981 did Givenchy, a true gentleman, confirm that the Sabrina black dress was his original design, and had been made under Head’s supervision at Paramount. Sabrina was one of the best films of 1956 and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including for Hepburn for Best Actress and Wilder for Best Director.  Its only Oscar win came for its costume design

Even when she won the Academy Award for Sabrina, Head failed to acknowledge Givenchy’s contribution in her speech.

Givenchy designed Hepburn’s costumes for several films. The black Givenchy dress worn by Hepburn in the first minutes of Blake Edwards’ film Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) is now considered to be one of the most iconic items of clothing in the history of the 20th century, perhaps the most famous “little black dress” of all time.

In Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Hepburn plays the lead role Holly Golightly opposite handsome George Peppard. Her necklace was made by Roger Scemama, who often paired with Givenchy. Hepburn took two copies of the dress to Paramount Pictures, but the dresses, which the studio felt showed too much of Hepburn’s legs, were altered by Head. The original hand-stitched dress is currently in Givenchy’s private archive, and one of the two versions Hepburn brought to Paramount is on display at The Museum of Film in Madrid and the other was auctioned at Christie’s in December 2006. The film’s poster was designed by Robert McGinnis, who claimed that the photographs on which he based the poster did not show any leg and that he had added the leg to give the poster more oomph. The Edith Head dresses used in the film were destroyed by Head after shooting.

“Breakfast At Tiffany’s” Paramount Pictures via YouTube

 

In November 2006, Natalie Portman appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, wearing one of the original Givenchy dresses created for Breakfast At Tiffany’s. The next month, this dress was auctioned at Christie’s and purchased by an anonymous buyer for $923,187, with the funds going for a new school for poor children in Calcutta.

Givenchy was born in Beauvais in northern France. He came from an aristocratic heritage. In 1944, he moved to Paris, where he studied art at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. At 17-years-old, he began an apprenticeship with designer Jacques Fath. After, Givenchy worked for several famous French couture houses in the 1940s, including Lucien Lelong, Robert Piquet and Elsa Schiaparelli.

Givenchy opened his own design house in 1952. His debut collection was a huge hit. It featured separates of long skirts and tailored blouses, including the ”Bettina blouse”, named after his favorite model Bettina Graziani. In his following collections, he also designed elegant evening gowns, hats and tailored suits. The Givenchy name became synonymous with Parisian chic.

In 1953, Givenchy met Spanish designer Balenciaga, and in 1957, the two designers teamed up to introduce a new silhouette called ”the sack”, a loose form without any waistline.

By the 1960s, Givenchy was setting trends by embracing the youth culture. He favored shorter hemlines and straighter silhouettes in his designs.

For Hepburn he designed at least some of her costumes for Funny Face (1957)  Charade (1963), Paris When It Sizzles (1964) and How To Steal A Million (1966). The Givenchy brand also released a fragrance inspired by Hepburn called L’Interdit.

“Funny Face” (1957) Paramount, via YouTube

 

Givenchy said that he adapted his designs to Hepburn’s desires. When she wanted a bare-shoulder evening dress modified to hide her collarbone, he invented for her what became a style so popular that he named it ”Décolleté Sabrina”. Hepburn wore the little black dress that accentuated her tiny waist with long black gloves, and black pumps. Givenchy:

”Audrey always added a twist, something piquant, amusing, to the clothes.”

Among the other famous women of style dressed by Givenchy were Jacqueline Kennedy, who wore a Givenchy gown during an official visit to Paris in 1961; Princess Grace of Monaco; Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor; Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sunny von Bülow, Maria Callas, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Jeanne Moreau, plus socialite and Truman Capote confidante, Babe Paley.

After selling his business to the luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey in 1988, Givenchy designed for seven more years, retiring and presenting his final collection in 1995. He was succeeded by enfant terrible John Galliano.

Designers to later serve as head designer at Givenchy include Alexander McQueen and Riccardo Tisci.

In all my research, I find really very little about his private life. His friends speak of his warmth and generosity. There are his dogs, Philippe Venet, who lives with him and is Givenchy’s oldest friend, yet the greatest thing in his life seems to have been that platonic love affair with Hepburn. Love comes in different forms; in his case, it was in the form of a little black dress.

In the 2016 documentary Hubert de Givenchy, un destin Haute Couture (2015) by director Eric Pellerin, Givenchy notes how Christian Dior did not hold a grudge after Givenchy turned down a job offer in order to open his own house at 24-years-old in 1952, and he says that they remained great friends.

“Hubert de Givenchy: A Life In Haute Couture”, Horizon Films, via YouTube

 

Givenchy lives in retirement at his estate called Le Jonchet in the French countryside. His work has been shown in retrospective exhibitions at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC and the Musée Galliera in Paris. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1996. In 2014, he published To Audrey With Love, featuring anecdotes and original sketches of their collaborations.


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