Givenchy: the designer hailed as a ‘personality maker’ by Audrey Hepburn

Aretrospective exhibition self-curated by a 90-year-old legend of fashion has all the hallmarks of an ego-flaunting vanity project. But Hubert de Givenchy, who attended the opening of his self-titled show at the Calais Museum for Lace and Fashion on Thursday, has more class than that.

The stars of this exhibition are not the couturier himself, but some of the women whose public personas he helped create, including Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy and the Duchess of Windsor.

In fact, one of the largest images in the show features a Burberry trench, rather than a Givenchy piece. That this blown-up black and white photo of de Givenchyand Hepburn walking arm in arm by the Seine is not a fashion photo opportunity is clear; instead, it is an image of genuine affection.

Also on display is the black satin Givenchy evening sheath with integral pearl necklace worn by Hepburn in the early frames of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The dress was chosen for its cutaway, shoulder-blade-framing X-shape, perfect for a scene in which Hepburn is seen mostly from behind – and because the high, wide neckline hid her “skinny collarbone but emphasised her very good shoulders”, de Givenchy has said.

Other garments making an appearance include the outfit Givenchy made for Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, to wear to the 1972 funeral of her husband Edward, the Duke of Windsor, and an embroidered dress and opera coat created for Kennedy on the occasion of her husband’s first presidential visit to France.

Speaking at the opening of the exhibition, the designer said the greatest luck in his career had been “to have the clients I did. They were my friends. The perfect dress can make many things happen in a woman’s life. It can bring happiness. It is so nice to give happiness to your friends.”

Through his professional relationships with high-profile women, the couturier’s life has intersected with Hollywood and royalty, with scandal and tragedy. “Audrey came into my life in an adorable way,” said de Givenchy. He remembered meeting “this very thin person with beautiful eyes, short hair, thick eyebrows, very tiny trousers, ballerina shoes, and a little T-shirt. On her head was a straw gondolier’s hat with a red ribbon around it.” (Hepburn once claimed that before she met de Givenchy she wore homemade clothes.)

The pair collaborated on a wardrobe for the film Sabrina, and “for every movie after that. It became a great friendship.”

That friendship produced one of the defining icons of modern style, and made the careers of both parties. Hepburn called the designer “a personality maker”. It was owing in part to the reflected glory of Hepburn that by the time de Givenchy sold his label to LVMH in 1988, he was wealthier than many of his haute couture clients.

But their relationship transcended business. When Givenchy launched L’Interdit with Hepburn as the face of the fragrance, no percentage or payment was made or discussed. Before her death in 1993, the actor made her lifelong friend the mediator of her will. Twenty-four years later, de Givenchy said, “Audrey is still present in my mind, because she was an exceptional lady.”

It is testament to the strength of de Givenchy’s bond with Kennedy that his contribution to her iconic first lady style is not better known. “I met Jackie before she was first lady,” the designer said. “She was very modern, very elegant, she loved fashion, she loved our clothes, but we had to be discreet.” Protocol dictated that the first lady must be seen to support the American fashion industry – the very opposite of Givenchy, which the French newspaper L’Express once said was to fashion what Françoise Sagan was to literature and Bernard Buffet to painting: successful, glamorous, gorgeous and very, very French.

The Givenchy atelier “made 10 or 15 pieces for the first presidential trip [to France], but her secretary told me that we could not tell the press”, de Givenchy said. Despite the attention that being publicly associated with the chic new first lady would have brought, the atelier kept its work for Kennedy a secret.

De Givenchy was one of the very first people the Duchess of Windsor called after the death of her husband, entreating the designer to create something that reflected both protocol and sophistication. The black wool coat with black cigaline veil was produced by the atelier within 24 hours, in time for her to travel back to London. The look was copied all over the world.Read more at:short formal dresses | cocktail dresses

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