Mid-way through the last century, a young designer founded the House of Givenchy. His work would inspire the starlets of the day while his couture creations became the desire or Paris’ – and the world’s – elite. The name has now become synonymous with modern luxury and a different kind of elite. But before Kim and Kanye were even born, Hubert de Givenchy struck up an unlikely and lifelong friendship with then rising star Audrey Hepburn. Sara Darling explores the new exhibition in The Hague, Netherlands that celebrates the fashion-meets-Hollywood power couple’s stylish relationship, as well as the history of their now very famous careers.
There is no doubt that anyone with an interest in fashion would have heard of Hubert de Givenchy. Perhaps not by his full name, but by association of the simple yet sophisticated haute couture gowns he began creating for his House of Givenchy in 1952.
With a vision of making understated fashions, Givenchy’s early stimulation came from his idol Cristóbal Balenciaga, and led to a successful career in Paris and beyond which lasted nearly half a century.
As a young craftsman, Givenchy showcased his avant-garde designs in post-war Paris to a captive audience, becoming one of the most successful and artistically distinguished couturiers of the time. Gaining notoriety as one of the original designers to use separates, his mix-and-match pieces caused quite a stir; soon after, Givenchy was approached by up-and-coming starlet, Audrey Hepburn. She was the first actress to hone in on his talents and contacted him to design her wardrobe for her new movie Sabrina (which was only her second starring role after Roman Holiday). The determined young actress was just as persuasive off screen as she was on, and confidently invited him out for dinner to discuss her needs, where her persistence and flattery won the designer over.
She was highly regarded as one to watch in the industry, so Givenchy was unsure that he could match her demands, but after the first meeting he noted that she was “an angel”, and what blossomed was a platonic love affair, Givenchy and Hepburn working as a lifelong team. He went on to design the wardrobe for the rest of her film career, including the iconic black dress she wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the lace dress and mask in How to Steal a Million. He says today “the little black dress is the hardest thing to realise, because you must keep it simple.” But dressing Audrey was easy as his fuss-free clothes complemented her slight, almost child-like silhouette.
The latest exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague explores the widely publicised platonic affair between the designer and arguably the world’s most-loved actress, Audrey Hepburn. In an accented English voice at the press conference, Givenchy declares that the show pays homage to his lifelong friend and muse. Having known her for four decades, they became so close that he was a mediator of her will and a pallbearer at her funeral. And even though designers of today work closely with models, the fact Hepburn was happy to be dressed by Hubert both on and off screen, in her personal and public life, shows her dedication and support for her dear friend.
This intense relationship between Audrey and the designer was both personal and professional, and lasted until Hepburn’s death from colon cancer in 1993, which was heart breaking for Givenchy. Now as he approaches his ninetieth birthday, he remains an immensely elegant figure and his height – all six feet and six inches – lends extra distinction. Even though he makes very few public appearances, he still speaks with authority and passion about Miss Hepburn and fashion. One memory he recalls is when he was asked to accompany Hepburn to a Royal film premiere on London’s Piccadilly. Travelling together from Claridges Hotel to the theatre in a Rolls-Royce, she took his hand and said “Look at us! Tonight, you and me are going to see the Queen!” Coming from a girl who started life with nothing, it was, said Givenchy, “like something out of Roman Holiday”.
Notably winning an Oscar for the wardrobe of some of Hepburn’s films, which are now as iconic for the storyline as the costumes, the golden age has also been immortalised in a beautiful coffee table book To Audrey with Love. Comprising of personal sketches of designs for clothes he created for her on and off the screen, as well as for the other luminaries on his client list, which included the Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace of Monaco and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, it is an insight into high fashion and haute couture of the late 20th century.
Hepburn was not the only actress to fall under Givenchy’s spell. He worked with numerous leading ladies including Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren, however it was Hepburn who was his friend and confidante.
Along with bridging Paris couture and Hollywood cinema, he also made Hepburn the face of his fragrance L’Interdit, which controversially used a movie star celebrity, rather than a model as its face. With their relationship intensifying due to personal circumstances, they became even closer during the making of Funny Face (coincidentally about the fashion industry) in 1957. “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.” A match made in Hollywood heaven.
The exhibition showcases Hepburn’s classic films in real time, alongside the actual outfits worn in the scenes allowing a full sensory experience. Highlights include the fairy tale ball gown from the 1954 film Sabrina, in which Hepburn played the Cinderella role of princess for a night, and the breath-taking scene of Hepburn’s undoubtedly most famous outfit, the little black dress she wore window shopping in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, complete with oversized shades. You can also admire the much-reproduced image of the back view of her evening dress with its cut-out design filled with ropes of pearls. If your knowledge of Givenchy is limited to the last decade, or if truly mesmerising fashion and Hollywood history is your thing, To Audrey With Love will excite, delight, and educate you on one of the original Hollywood power couples.
Since Hubert’s departure from the House of Givenchy in 1988, when it was sold to LVMH, it has boasted a flurry of designers, but not one, so far who has found a blossoming respect and confidante. Firstly, with John Galliano who only lasted a year before he went to Dior; Alexander McQueen was unhappy at the label; Julien Macdonald replaced McQueen and honed his couture skills there in the early 2000s but didn’t settle; the current, feted designer Riccardo Tisci took over in 2005 and his popularity as a designer has given the label street edge appeal, shifting its demographic to neo-goth girls, divas, rappers, footballers, and just about anyone “cool” today – including Beyoncé, Cara Delevigne, Kanye West, Madonna, Jordan Barrett, David Beckham and Kim Kardashian West, who are almost incomparable to Audrey.
See the exhibition at The Gemeentemuseum, The Hague until 26th March 2017. More details here.
Words by Sara Darling