Hubert de Givenchy, 1927–2018
The couturier who made Hepburn an icon
Hubert de Givenchy found his lifelong muse in Audrey Hepburn. Thinking he would be meeting with Katharine Hepburn, the French couturier was initially disappointed when a pixie-like actress he’d never heard of walked into his Paris studio in 1953. Too busy to design original pieces for her role in the romantic comedy Sabrina—about a Long Island tomboy who studies abroad in Paris and returns a chic, sophisticated woman—Givenchy said she could pick outfits from the previous season’s collection. Among her choices was the belted ivory dress she wore to the 1954 Academy Awards. Sabrina won the Oscar for costume design, and Hepburn would insist that Givenchy dress her in all subsequent movies. Their partnership produced some of the most iconic looks in Hollywood history, including Holly Golightly’s “little black dress”—a slender, shoulder-baring number—in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “His are the only clothes in which I am myself,” Hepburn said. “He is far more than a couturier; he is a creator of personality.”
Born to an aristocratic family in Beauvais, France, Givenchy was “brought up to enjoy textiles,” said The Guardian (U.K.). His grandfather had been an artistic director of the town’s famous tapestry workshops, and his grandmother rewarded the young Givenchy for good behavior “by opening cupboards filled with fabric treasures.” A graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the “darkly handsome, 6-foot-6 designer was only 25 when he opened his own atelier in Paris in 1952,” said The Washington Post. His debut collection pioneered the concept of “mix-and-match separates, including interchangeable dresses, light skirts, and chic tops,” giving women more flexibility in creating their style. It was an “instant hit”: On its first day, his store rang up 7 million francs (about $14,000 in today’s dollars).
Givenchy went on to dress some of the most glamorous women of the 20th century, said The New York Times, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Lauren Bacall, and Grace Kelly. His fashion label steadily expanded, adding a men’s line, children’s wear, perfume, “and at one point a Givenchy edition of a Lincoln luxury car.” After maintaining financial independence for most of his career, he sold the firm to luxury conglomerate LVMH in 1988, retiring in 1995. “You must, if it’s possible, be born with a kind of elegance,” he told a group of aspiring designers in 2010. “It’s part of you, of yourself.” ■