Saddened to hear that one of the greats of golden era Paris couture, Count Hubert de Givenchy, has died aged ninety-one. A second son of the Marquis de Givenchy, Hubert studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and cut his teeth working for another of my heroes, Jacques Fath, in 1945. He designed for Piguet, Lelong and Elsa Schiaparelli before opening his eponymous house in 1952.
Givenchy is one of the four cornerstones of post-war French haute couture along with Pierre Balmain, Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior. None of his peers came even close to Givenchy’s record as creative director of his own house from 1952 to his retirement in 1995. If Balenciaga was the Picasso of Haute Couture, Givenchy was its Degas: a class act who made beautiful work that enhanced women’s bodies.
And what bodies! Audrey Hepburn called him ‘a creator of personality’. The best-dressed women of the 1950s and 1960s could not survive a season without orders for Givenchy’s clever reductive chic little black dresses, couture separates and suits that combined tailleur and flou. Mona Bismarck, Marlene Dietrich, Daisy Fellows, Maria Callas, Gloria Guinness, Diana Vreeland, Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and the Duchess of Windsor all adored Givenchy the man and the work.
Givenchy met his muse Audrey Hepburn in 1963 when she was making Sabrina and costume design legend Edith Head co-opted Givenchy to make her gowns. His subsequent work on Funny Face in 1957 was arguably his finest 1950s moment for Audrey dressing her in the highest of haute couture modelled on landmark locations in Paris.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is arguably the most famous fashion film of the 20th century and Givenchy somehow knew how to dress Audrey as complicated call girl in all but name Holly Golightly. The not-so-little black dress at the top of the movie worn with shades and a diamond headpiece outside Tiffany is the high fashion equivalent of Marilyn’s Travilla white dress billowing above a Manhattan subway grate.
Givenchy was not as avant garde as Balenciaga and nor was he as innovative as Christian Dior who seemed to invent a new line with each collection. But Hubert bridged that specific moment between overblown 1950s haute couture and the hip futurism of Cardin, Courreges and Paco Rabanne in the 1960s and 1970s. Givenchy would never be hip but he somehow smuggled elegance into the Youthquake decade and beyond.
Count Hubert de Givenchy was nothing but complimentary as super nova designers such as Yves Saint Laurent became the star of the 1970s and 1980s. Givenchy oozed class and while not courting the fashion press, he was always charm itself and thus was never deserted by the ladies whose lives he understood sufficiently to dress.
What I appreciated most about Givenchy’s work was his economy. He could erase detail and yet make day and evening dresses fit for a Serene Highness such as Grace Kelly or a screen goddess such as Audrey. He was never va-va-voom like Fath and Balmain which might explain why Givenchy remained diplomatically silent after his retirement when Galliano, McQueen and Macdonald stepped into his not inconsiderable shoes.
Givenchy had sold out to LVMH in 1988 as the era of Power Dressing was rapidly passing. When he retired, the minimalism characteristic of the Japanese and Belgian designers plus Jil Sander and Helmut Lang had already replaced haute couture as the uniform of rich ladies worldwide. With elegance and discretion, Givenchy retreated beyond the moat of his Loire valley chateau with his lover and collected bronzes for the next twenty years or so. He never commented on contemporary fashion and God forbid about his successors at the House of Givenchy.
Givenchy leaving his own house reminded me of the elves in The Lord of the Rings knowing their era in Middle-Earth was drawing to a close and sailing away to Avalon. Fashion was a genteel occupation – or vocation – in Hubert de Givenchy’s day. He would be the last person to comment on Ricardo Tisci or, now, Claire Weight Keller running the shop. It is the difference between ruling pre-and-post Revolutionary France.
I personally believe my era was that of Givenchy, Balenciaga, Balmain and Dior. I think they were the apex of 20th century fashion and that it has all gone downhill since then. There are exceptions such as Yves Saint Laurent, Halston, Vivienne Westwood, Yohji Yamamoto and Dries van Noten. But by and large I think the world was a chicer place when the ladies who led fashion were dressed by the gods of Paris haute couture.
Givenchy did indirectly begin a trend that has caused consternation in the fashion industry. When he created his first perfume, L’Interditk, inspired by Audrey she agreed to be the face of the campaign gratis because she adored the scent and the man. Having just witnessed the latest celebrity scent advertisements such as Cate Blanchett for Armani and Kiera Knightly for Chanel Mademoiselle, it is eminently clear that the ladies are paid big bucks and there is zero integrity let alone affection behind the endorsement.