Hubert de Givenchy, the French couturier who upheld a standard of quintessentially romantic elegance in fashion for more than four decades, dressing the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Grace Kelly and memorably Audrey Hepburn, in a little black dress, in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, died at the weekend at his home outside Paris. He was 91.
Philippe Venet, his longtime companion and a former couture designer, confirmed the death.
Givenchy was emblematic of a generation of gentlemanly designers who established their couture houses in postwar Paris, nurturing personal relationships with customers and creating entire collections with specific women in mind.
His very first show – a smash hit with retailers and the press when it was seen in February 1952, when he was just 24 – included the “Bettina blouse,” a tribute to his original muse, Bettina Graziani, Paris’ leading model of the day, who had joined his fledgling company as director of public relations, saleswoman and fit model.
Shortly thereafter, Givenchy came to the attention of the young Hepburn, a rising star who was so charmed by his youthful designs that she insisted that he make her clothes for nearly all of her movies, and help mold her sylphlike image in the process.
In 1961, Hepburn and Givenchy created one of the most indelible cinematic fashion moments of the 20th century in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, when her character, Holly Golightly, approaches the titular Fifth Avenue jeweller wearing oversize sunglasses, four strands of sparkling pearls, long evening gloves and a black Givenchy dress, a slender, shoulder-baring column that looks startlingly out of place for the early morning hour.
For generations of young women dreaming of a glamorous life in the big city, the image of Hepburn as Holly came to represent a certain ideal, that of the rich bohemian throwing wild parties while wearing magnificently gorgeous gowns. In 2006, the dress was sold at a charity auction at Christie’s in London for $US923,187.
Although claim to the invention of the little black dress is more often attributed to Coco Chanel, who had already popularised the look, or to the many designers who had made black dresses before her, the style instantly became associated with Hubert de Givenchy.
“The little black dress is the hardest thing to realise,” he said, “because you must keep it simple.”
Givenchy was the founding chairman of the Cristóbal Balenciaga Foundation, which opened a museum dedicated to Balenciaga in Getaria, Spain, in 2011.
Since his retirement from fashion in 1995, Givenchy remained active in the arts as an antiques expert for Christie’s, the Château de Versailles and the Louvre museum. He also managed the French branch of the World Monuments Fund for several years.
Six feet 6 inches tall, with a shock of sand-coloured hair, chivalrous to a fault, athletic and handsome, Givenchy was the epitome of a French aristocrat.
The March 3, 1952, issue of Life magazine introduced Givenchy to US audiences in a four-page feature: “De Givenchy, a New Name in Paris”. The young designer had planted his flag in a tiny showroom at 8 Rue Alfred de Vigny, heralding a new concept for modern women: separates that were designed to be worn interchangeably, creating multiple outfits from a few key pieces – three tops plus three skirts equals nine outfits.
Givenchy created one of the most recognisable fashion labels in France, with products licensed for children’s wear, men’s dress shirts, and at one point a Givenchy edition of a Lincoln luxury car.
Givenchy sold his house to the luxury conglomerate LVMH in 1988 and continued to design there until his retirement.