In April of 1952, at the age of twenty-five, Hubert de Givenchy arrived at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in New York, with eight elaborate couture gowns. He was making his American début at the first annual April in Paris Ball, a high-society spectacle that was meant to strengthen Franco-American relations through the power of good old-fashioned beau-monde hedonism. The event featured, among other attractions, zoo animals rented from the Ringling Brothers circus; a living tableau in which Sir Laurence Olivier and Rex Harrison played François I and Henry VIII; a gift of fine French perfume for the women and neckties made in Lyon for the men; and a cavernous ballroom transformed to resemble the gardens at Versailles. And yet the most memorable impression of the night was, perhaps, the one left behind by the six-foot-five wunderkind couturier. During the fashion-show portion of the evening, the crowd cooed over Givenchy’s meticulously embroidered boleros and a starched white peplum cape that looked like stiff meringue.
Givenchy, who died on March 10th, at the age of ninety-one, was born in Beauvais, France, the grandson of a tapestry-maker, and blazed through teen-age apprenticeships at the houses of Jacques Fath, Robert Piguet, and Elsa Schiaparelli before striking out on his own, in February of 1952. His vision was clear from the beginning: he was determined to give women in the postwar era more plentiful options by designing “separates”—couture tops and bottoms that could be mixed and matched at will. The idea for a two-piece ball gown was, at the time, quite the innovation. “By giving her the opportunity to make changes in her costume,” one fashion reporter for the Times gushed after meeting Givenchy, in 1952, “the designer feels that he is offering his client the pleasure of feeling herself a bit of a creator of her own style.”
Still, in the summer of 1953, when the woman who would become his most important client first walked into his atelier in Paris, neither was yet a household name. As the well-worn anecdote goes, when Givenchy heard that a movie actress with the surname Hepburn was due to pay him a visit, he assumed that he would be meeting Katharine, and was confused when a woman appeared at his door “with doe eyes and short hair and wearing a pair of narrow pants, a little T-shirt, slippers, and a gondolier’s hat with a red ribbon that said Venezia.” It was the twenty-four-year-old Audrey Hepburn, fresh off the filming of “Roman Holiday.” She had come to Paris, at the urging of the director Billy Wilder, to purchase authentic French clothing for “Sabrina.” Givenchy was charmed by her, but he was in the throes of preparations for his fall presentation, so he told her that he had absolutely no time to create anything new for her to wear. Hepburn begged to try on the existing sample garments that were hanging around from a previous season, and, in a mid-century spin on “Cinderella,” every seam fit the slender actress perfectly. Givenchy was so delighted to see this giddy actress bouncing around in a black cocktail dress, his signature boxy neckline flattering her clavicle, that he dropped his work that evening to take her out to a bistro.
For the next four decades, Hepburn wore Givenchy with near-religious devotion. Most famously, she wore a Givenchy gown as she stood idly munching on a pastry outside the Tiffany windows as Holly Golightly, a scene that stopped traffic on Fifth Avenue as it was being filmed. Many designers have a muse, but the Hepburn-Givenchy relationship was something more entwined and symbiotic. The actress often called the designer just to talk, and she told reporters that he was a “psychiatrist” as well as a dressmaker. In Hepburn, Givenchy found an ideal emissary for his theory of separates; she became known as a jaunty pip in his clothes because she could move in them. Givenchy’s legacy is the notion of “personal style,” a concept we now take for granted, but one that was not baked into fashion in the same way before Hepburn and the little black dress that helped make her a star. “He is far more than a couturier,” Hepburn said of Givenchy. “He is a creator of personality.”
Givenchy was as avid a businessman as he was a designer. In witnessing Hepburn’s rise firsthand, he saw the limitless potential of brand recognition. In the seventies, he launched a menswear line, officially licensed his name, and became one of the first designers to put his brand on more than just clothing—Givenchy silverware, china, hotel draperies all eventually became available. The name “Givenchy” became shorthand for bubbly, au-courant French chic with a dash of Old World sophistication. After Givenchy’s retirement from designing, in 1995, the house (which he sold to LVMH, in 1988) became a breeding ground for young, avant-garde designers launching their careers—John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Julien Macdonald, and then, for twelve years, Riccardo Tisci, who rebranded the house with ornately gothic gowns in delicate oxblood and putty-colored gauze. (It is said that Tisci was the only person who did not mention Hepburn in his interview, and this radical omission clinched his job.)
Tisci left Givenchy in 2017, and now the house has its first woman at the helm, Clare Waight Keller, a British whiz kid who, in the mold of the house’s namesake, had done stints at Calvin Klein, Gucci, Pringle of Scotland, and Chloé by the age of forty-one. In October, Keller presented her first collection, after an hour-long meeting with the ninety-year-old Givenchy. She told the press that she had pored over his early sketches and found that he designed from the shoulder down, so she had done the same. What emerged was a collection that returned to items with square, sleek silhouettes—many of them separates—in winking homage to Givenchy’s early work. Keller showed a navy double-breasted dress, a black-and-white evening gown paired with cowboy boots, and a fluttery cocktail dress the color of Red Hots with a neckline similar to the one Hepburn wore in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” This sleek but youthful collection débuted at the Palais de Justice, a grandiose building in the center of Paris, where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned while awaiting her execution. It had never been used for a fashion show before, but, as in the case of the April in Paris Ball, the house of Givenchy has never shied away from spectacle. The elder designer did not attend the show, but Keller said later that she felt she had his blessing.
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