President John K. Kennedy quipped, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris,” after a highly successful visit in 1961, during which time the American First Lady impressed the most jaded Parisians with her knowledge of French history and culture and with her chic style.
The designer who dressed her for that visit was Hubert de Givenchy.
The French designer who made a lasting impact on fashion on the runways, on Hollywood’s big screens, and at solemn state visits, whose name was synonymous with romantic yet modern elegance, died on March 11, 2018, at the age of 91. Agence France-Presse was first to report the designer’s death, citing a statement from his partner, Philippe Venet.
“He made impeccable haute couture–absolutely the finest,” writer Joan Juliet Buck, the former editor in chief of Paris Vogue, told The Vintage News. “The relationship with Audrey Hepburn was one of those magical friendships that create a template to be copied. A gentleman and a precise creator.”
De Givenchy was famous for dressing Jacqueline Kennedy, the Duchess of Windsor, Grace Kelly, and, of course, Audrey Hepburn. But what is perhaps less well known is that he was a French Protestant aristocrat. Born on February 21, 1927, Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy was the younger son of a marquis.
“It was always my dream to be a dress designer and my mother accepted that decision,” he said in 2010. At 17 he left for Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He apprenticed under leading designers, including Elsa Schiaparelli, until he had his own show at age 24. Shortly after, he met actress Audrey Hepburn and loaned her several dresses for her latest film, Sabrina. It caused a Hollywood controversy when Edith Head accepted an Academy Award for Best Costumes for Sabrina without acknowledging de Givenchy.
Hepburn brought de Givenchy to the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and he created for her what some praise as the most famous dress in the world. “It is the enduring image of a young woman wearing a long black dress and elbow-length gloves,” said an article in The Financial Times. “The dress is first seen from behind; lean and simple, with a wasp waist, it has a narrow skirt that allows its wearer only a geisha’s shuffle in her low-heeled shoes. But the real drama is in the details, two semi-circular cutaways across the back that reveal the shoulders and upper arms.”
In 2006, the dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s was sold at an auction for charity at Christie’s in London for $923,000.
“Givenchy’s clothes are the only ones in which I feel myself. He is more than a designer, he is a creator of personality,” Hepburn said in an interview. The actress was the inspiration for his first perfume, L’Interdit. Before her death in 1993 Hepburn left more than 25 Givenchy dresses in her personal collection to the designer and he loaned many pieces to various museums ever since, reported People magazine.
“It was a kind of marriage,” Givenchy told The Telegraph in 2015. “Little by little, our friendship grew and with it a confidence in each other. There [was never] any criticism of the other person, no upsets.”
Jacqueline Kennedy wore a sleeveless embroidered Givenchy gown to an event at the Palace of Versailles with French president Charles De Gaulle in 1961.
Madame Figaro magazine has described his styles as being made with an almost “surgical precision–not too much, not too little.”
The designer founded the House of Givenchy in 1952 and continued to maintain his status as a fashion leader in the decades following World War II. He sold the brand to LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 1988. Givenchy remained head of creative design for seven years. His successors included John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Riccardo Tisci.
He officially retired in 1995. In an interview several years ago, he said, “Today, I find there’s a kind of anything goes. It seems to me that fashion has become something else and I cannot say I’m enthusiastic. There’s fashion and there are fashions.”
“Hubert de Givenchy has brought together two rare qualities: to be innovative and timeless,” LVMH Chief Executive Officer Bernard Arnault said in a statement. “He was among those designers who placed Paris firmly at the heart of world fashion post-1950.”
Nancy Bilyeau, the U.S. editor of The Vintage News, is the former deputy editor of “InStyle” magazine. She has written a trilogy of novels set in the court of Henry VIII: ‘The Crown,’ ‘The Chalice,’ and ‘The Tapestry.’ The books are for sale in the U.S., the U.K., and seven other countries. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.