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Hubert de Givenchy: a Loyal Knight of Haute Couture

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Hubert de GivenchyIn the history of fashion, Hubert de Givenchy will forever remain a champion of style and true aristocracy. He often said that his whole life he was looking for perfection, as described by Plato's triad - beauty, goodness and truth. In his lifetime, Givenchy has become one of the pillars of the XX century fashion, his work an inspiration for many generations of designers to come.

Givenchy showed his last couture collection in July 1995, amid a crowd of fashion's most respected and well-known designers, all present to pay homage to the departing master. Nudged out of his own empire by LVMH, who brought in wild-child John Galliano, Givenchy was not bowed. Traditional canons of haute couture were ridiculed, and Givenchy with the dignity of a true aristocrat preferred to step aside and leave his own design house.

Enjoying the Flight

Hubert Givenchy was born in Beauvais, France, in 1927. His father, a pilot, died young when Hubert was only two, and he was raised by his grandfather, a director of the prestigious Gobelins tapestry factory. He may have inherited his artistic talent from his grandfather and great-grandfather, a set designer. The young boy who loved to draw decided to become a fashion designer after being inspired by a fashion show that he watched at the World's Fair in Paris at ten years old.

Although Givenchy's wealthy family wanted him to study law, his heart was set on fashion design. The ambitious young man left Beauvais for Paris, the centre of the fashion world, at the tender age of seventeen. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and worked for the designers, Jacques Fath and Robert Piguet. He became the unconventional dress-designer, Schiaparelli's assistant and eventually directed her Place Vendome store where he designed separates.

Schiaparelli famously berated the young Givenchy when he left, telling him that he would go bankrupt. She was wrong; the ‘enfant terrible' opened his fashion house, The House of Givenchy, at only 25 in 1952. His first collection caused a sensation. He had used raw cotton (this was previously only used for fittings.) He also featured white cotton shirting, interchangeable separates, and the sack dress, a major innovation. Givenchy's muse was the popular Parisian model, Bettina Graziani. His ‘Bettina' blouse with its puffed sleeves is still considered a classic.

Givenchy Ladies

Soon, however, Givenchy found a source of inspiration in another woman, neither his lover nor his wife, but a true lady whom he treated with admiration and respect, like a knight treats the fair lady of his heart. The name of this fair lady was Audrey Hepburn, and she just started her ascent up the ladder of the world fame. Givenchy met Audrey Hepburn when she was searching for a designer for her film, Sabrina, for which Edith Head later won the Oscar for costume design and Givenchy received no credit at all. Although Head designed some of Hepburn's Sabrina wardrobe, the very soigne black tailleur and hat in which Sabrina returned from Paris, and the strapless white organdie gown embroidered with black and white flowers (which was the envy of every young woman who saw the film), were both from Givenchy's collection.

Givenchy's designs were the clothes that transformed Hepburn from charming gamine to paragon of chic sophistication. Similar transformations were at the heart of Love in the Afternoon (1957), Funny Face (1957), and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). By 1963, when Charade appeared, the gamine had finally grown into the sophisticate, and "the world's youngest couturier" had become the most elegant of classical couturiers. Hepburn remained Givenchy's muse for almost 40 years, the quintessential Givenchy client, even flying into Paris from Switzerland to sit in the front row for his collections until shortly before her death. Givenchy also created a perfume for Audrey called L'Interdit, which means 'forbidden'.

Another lifelong Givenchy client was Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis. When John F. Kennedy died, Jackie O dressed her whole family in clothes by Givenchy at his funeral. She commissioned a dress by him from Paris for herself.

The sixties were a difficult decade for couturiers because of the changing economic times and because people were starting to favor casual clothes more. Givenchy branched out into many other products besides clothes, such as jewelry and sunglasses. He even designed porcelain for Limoges.

In the 1990s Givenchy continued designing fashions that make a woman look beautiful; his oeuvre bespeaks restraint and refinement, with gradual transitions from one season and style to the next. Although Givenchy still produced cotton separates, including some with Matisse-inspired patterns in his 40th anniversary collection, his designs have matured along with his original clientele.

After Givenchy's retirement in 1995, John Galliano, graduate of London's St Martin's School of Art and thrice elected "Designer of the Year" by the British Fashion Council, became the new designer for Givenchy's Haute-couture and luxury ready-to-wear lines. In October 1996 Alexander McQueen, also graduate of London's St Martin's School of Art, was appointed to succeed him. In March 2001, Julien Macdonald was named Artistic Director for Women. In this role, Macdonald oversaw the design for Haute-Couture, women's ready-to-wear and accessories. In 2003-2007 the Creative Director for Givenchy was Ozwald Boateng, while Givenchy women's ready to wear and haute couture has been headed by Riccardo Tisci since 2005.

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