the man who revolutionised fashion
March 11th 2018
Standing at 6 foot 5 inches tall with an aura of regality and grace, the strikingly handsome French haute couturier, Hubert de Givenchy who died on the 10th of March 2018 at age 91, will be remembered as one of the great fashion designers that helped to style a generation, leaving behind an ever-lasting imprint on the way contemporary fashion is viewed. His designs often considered somewhat autobiographical, reflected his own restrained elegance and composure.
Born on the 21st of February 1927 into a family of French aristocrats, Givenchy spent much of his early life surrounded by luxury. Bought up in the city of Beauvais in Northern France and raised by his mother and maternal grandmother after his father, Lucien Marquis De Givenchy, died from influenza in 1930 when Hubert De Givenchy was merely 2 years old. The young and curious Givenchy was fascinated by his grandfather, Jules Badin’s vast collection of textiles and “objects d’art”, keepsakes from Badin and his ancestor’s visits around the world that Givenchy was only allowed access to if he did well in his studies. This exposure to finery from such a young age helped to catalyse Givenchy’s infatuation with fashion.
At age 17, after persuading his mother to allow him to pursue fashion, despite her insistence on him becoming a lawyer, Givenchy enrolled at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in 1944. Whilst studying at the most formidable art school in Paris surrounded by other creatives, Givenchy flourished. His admiration for the great masters of haute couture grew into an obsession. Young Givenchy set out to work for those that he admired and idolised; his first stop seeking a job was of course Cristobel Balenciaga’s salon. As noted in Drusilla Beyfus’ biography of Givenchy, he stated,
‘As a child I was already admiring Balenciaga. The elegance and beauty of his clothes and shapes were very different from other designers.’
However after initially being turned away at the door by the salon’s formidable sharp-tongued directrice, Mademoiselle Renee, Givenchy resided at Jacques Fath, arguably the most “fashionable” house in Paris at the time, where he gained the invaluable industry experience he needed to excel. Givenchy described Fath as ‘a strikingly handsome man, quite different from anyone else… His fashion house was a haven of fun and fantasy…the atmosphere completely captivated me. Entering Jacques Fath’s fashion house was like stepping into a universe of danger and sensuality.’
Between his time at Fath in 1945 and opening The House of Givenchy in 1952, Givenchy worked briefly for designers Robert Piguet and Lucien Lelong before his 4 year residency at Elsa Schiaparelli - beginning in 1947 - where he was granted total creative freedom and given the opportunity to form relationships with important clients he would eventually work along-side once setting up his own fashion house. There he was introduced to The Duchess of Windsor and later in 1972 made the iconic black coat she would wear to her husbands funeral. At Schiaparelli’s Givenchy’s reputation as a budding designer thrived and so did the development of his own personal style. Many of the ideas that featured in his 1952 launch show were conceived in Schiaparelli’s salon.
On the 2nd of February 1952, At age 24, Givenchy founded The House of Givenchy launching his first collection of “Separates”, this milestone marked the beginning of what would become a four-decade long journey as creative director of his label. However, It could be argued that the key to Givenchy’s success was of course Audrey Hepburn. A muse and close friend who eventually epitomised the signature “Givenchy Style”, Hepburn embodied Hubert de Givenchy’s vision of restrained elegance. After the pair first met on the set of Sabrina in 1953, where Givenchy first designed clothes for Hepburn, a creative collaboration was formed which led to each of their success. “Hubert is like a tree,” Audrey Hepburn described. “Tall and straight and beautiful, in spring summer fall and winter creating and recreating loveliness. The roots of his friendship always deep and strong, the wide branches of his affection sheltering those he loves.”
Through his designs Givenchy aimed to empower the women that wore his clothes. He believed ‘trying to make a woman more beautiful is to try and understand her well, for her to be well dresses and above all, comfortable in her clothes. If a woman moves well, her gestures will be natural and she will be happy.’ Givenchy’s designs had an emphasis on comfort, free from a sense of constriction at a time when corsets and tight fitted bodices were still widely used in Parisian haute couture. Inspired by unusual and unconventional materials when designing, Givenchy helped to pioneer the use of breathable synthetic fabrics such as lurex and orlon, while criticising and avoiding artificially stiffened fabric, corsetry and restrictive padding. He was part of the progressive generation of designers that innovated fashion with practicality and female comfort as a priority, above all he understood and valued wearer freedom.
‘I had a vision of fashion that was more convenient, easier and different. to make getting dressed an easier choice.’
Throughout his lifetime Givenchy’s individuality came from his ability to move with the times while retaining a sense of classicism. He successfully combined both aspects of fashion - old and new - embodying the state of flux and desire for change within post-war society, in a way that avoided shocking the conservative Parisian consumer. Susan Train, American Vogue’s Paris Bureau Chief outlined that Givenchy came to ‘personify not only the continuity of post-second-world-war haute couture, but also links with the traditional pre-war couture.’ He was the bridge linking the old to the new at a time without continuity or stability. Successfully, Givenchy’s discipline and passion reinforced and validated the vitality of French tradition, something that was corrupted throughout the Second World War.
In November 1998 Givenchy retired from fashion, handing over his label to LVMH. He told Vogue’s Drusilla Beyfus, ‘The real haute couture as I knew it was over. What will replace it I do not know? But change is there. Its obvious new designers will find a style for future change.’ He went on to say, ‘I hope something exciting happens.’
In retirement Givenchy dedicated his time to Les Giacometti d'Hubert de Givenchy at Christie’s. As well as spending much of his later life preserving the legacy of his idol, mentor and close friend, creating the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa in the village of Getaria, Spain. Hubert De Givenchy’s own legacy, personified and preserved by Audrey Hepburn, is reminiscent of grace, elegance and above all, an understanding of what makes women feel comfortable and therefore look beautiful.