Walking back from the break room to get my afternoon snack, my phone lit up with news notifications. Hubert de Givenchy, gentle giant and fashion icon, has died at the age of 91. Considering I had just finished reading two books on twentieth century fashion, my heart sunk an extra 5 levels of hurt. If you haven’t heard of Count Givenchy, bless your soul for living such a deprived life (yes, he is a Count). Givenchy is responsible for dressing the likes of Jackie O., Marlene Dietrich, Babe Paley, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn.
The Inspiration. Givenchy was born on February 21, 1927 with the name Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy to father Lucien Taffin de Givenchy – the Marquis of Givenchy whose family was ennobled in the 1700s – and mother Béatrice Badin – whose came from a family of well-connected artisans. In 1930, Lucien died of influenza, leaving Hubert and his brother to the care of Béatrice and his maternal grandparents. According to Givenchy myth, Givenchy decided he wanted to become a dressmaker at the age of 10. His family went to a Parisian fair where hot designers like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli displayed their designs. He told his mother he was to become a dressmaker. Her mother accepted.
Early Career. Givenchy’s early career can be traced as far back as 1945 when he designed for Jacques Fath, a fashion designer part of the Trifecta of “postwar haute couture”. Later in the decade, he worked with Robert Piguet, Lucien Lelong, Pierre Balmain, and Christian Dior, borderline-New Look. Starting in 1947, Givenchy worked under Elsa Schiaparelli (or “that Italian” as Coco Chanel would say), until 1951 to open up his own fashion house. In 1952, at the age of 25, Hubert de Givenchy opened up the House of Givenchy. History was to be made.
Hubert and Audrey. Fashion. Charlie Brown noises are what some of you are hearing. That’s okay. Everyone has their own interests and opinions. I do believe what you fail to realize is the impact Givenchy and his counterparts has made on the world beyond just fashion.
For example, Audrey Hepburn. She wasn’t known as a style icon pre-Givenchy. In Sam Wasson’s Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, Audrey, who was shooting Sabrina in 1953, was assigned to ditch her low-key look for a more chic style. She visited Givenchy, who only gave the time of day because he thought Katherine (“the other Hepburn”) had come to visit. With some begging and the good ol’ Audrey charm, the two became fast friends and the rest is history. Givenchy styled Hepburn in films such as Charade, Love in the Afternoon, Funny Face, and, of course, Breakfast at Tiffany’s with the famous Little Black Dress (side note: in Chanel fashion, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel came up with the concept of LBD and popularized it. Givenchy reinvented it, making it cool again).
Don’t think it was a one-sided friendship. Aside from putting Givenchy’s name out there through movies (and diminishing Edith Head’s power in the process), Audrey was the face of Givenchy’s first perfume collection – L’Interdit and Le de Givenchy – which he designed for exclusively for her. This was the first time a celebrity was seen on a perfume advertising campaign (you can thank them for the 60 seconds of Kristen Stewart and Julia Roberts perfume ads).
Vogue Paris has provided a lovely article on Givenchy and Hepburn’s friendship in 25 photos. You can check it out here.
The Idol. Around this time, 1950s/1960s, Givenchy met The One: Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga. The two were peas in a pod for more than a decade. Because of Balenciaga, Givenchy went from simply girly to lavish romantic with, as Eric Wilson puts it in his NYT article “Hubert de Givenchy Dies at 91; Fashion Pillar of Romantic Elegance“, “a strict reverence to construction.”
The Battle of Versailles. In the early 1970s, French and American designers decided to put on a “battle of the bands”-esque show for the restoration of Versailles Palace. Think Givenchy and Dior vs. Oscar de la Renta and Anne Klein. This battle was Givenchy’s shining moment. He blew the minds of the traditional societal sticklers when he brought out African-American models. Not just one, not just two, but almost exclusively all his models, seven of which are well-known. This was a radical rebellion, especially for a French haute couture house. Why, this is still somewhat rebellious by today’s standards.
You can read more about Givenchy’s historical fashion moment in Pamela Keogh’s Vanity Fair article “How Hubert de Givenchy Brought Diversity to the Runway”
Later in Life. The House of Givenchy was split between the perfume line and the fashion house. The fashion house was sold to the LVMH conglomerate in 1988. Givenchy worked for as a designer for the Givenchy until 1995. From then until his death, he spent time collecting art pieces and being an antiques expert for Christie’s, the Louvre, and Versailles. For several years, he managed the World Monuments Fund. He was a founding chairman for the Cristóbal Balenciaga Foundation. Givenchy died in his sleep, confirmed by longtime partner, Philippe Venet.
Givenchy, you were an icon. You looked into the future and didn’t fear it, but embraced it. You were more than a fashion designer. You were an innovator. Rest in peace with the rest of the innovators and the lovely Ms. Hepburn.