PARIS: Hubert de Givenchy, the aristocratic French fashion designer famous for the “little black dress” and styling Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, has died aged 91, his partner said yesterday. Givenchy set the template for ladylike chic in the 1950s and 1960s, dressing everyone from Princess Grace of Monaco to Jane Fonda. His longtime partner, the former haute couture designer Philippe Venet, announced his death through the Givenchy fashion house, saying he had died in his sleep on Saturday. “It is with huge sadness that we inform you that Hubert Taffin de Givenchy has died,” a statement said.
With his perfect manners and old-school charm, the tall and handsome count was the very acme of French elegance and refinement. But it was his 40-year friendship with his muse Hepburn, whom he met while she was making Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning comedy “Sabrina” in 1953, that helped make him a fashion legend. The narrow-collared suits and slim woollen dresses Givenchy designed for the gamine actress in “Funny Face” and “How to Steal a Million” made both of them style icons.
The black sheath dress Givenchy created for the opening scenes of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was perhaps the most famous “little black dress” of all time – even if fellow Coco Chanel is credited with inventing the garment. “His are the only clothes in which I am myself. He is far more than a couturier, he is a creator of personality,” Hepburn once said of him. “To dress a woman is to make her beautiful,” Givenchy once said. “In haute couture, we are cosmetic surgeons, erasing imperfections and refining the silhouette… for isn’t a couturier a magician of sorts, who creates illusion and perhaps beauty itself?”
Givenchy was one of the first big designers to use black models, and in 1986 used only black models for one collection. US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy adopted the Givenchy look for her White House years, sticking to a uniform of shift dresses, pillbox hats and low-heeled pumps. The red coat she wore on the campaign trail for the 1960 presidential election was a Givenchy copy. On a state visit to France the following year, Jackie made a famously grand entrance in a Givenchy white silk faille dress at a state dinner at the Palace of Versailles, looking as regal as any European monarch’s consort.
“Hubert de Givenchy was a symbol of Parisian elegance for more than half a century… who revolutionized fashion,” his label said yesterday. Legendary Italian-born creator Valentino told AFP that he tried to get a job with Givenchy when he was 17. “Unfortunately he did not hire me… but I kept admiring his vision, his perfection of cut and elegance. Like me he always respected the woman’s body, never inflicting what was cool but only what was flattering.”
Givenchy’s current British-born designer Clare Waight Keller said that its founder was “not only one of the most influential fashion figures of our time, whose legacy still influences modern-day dressing, but he also was one of the chicest, most charming men I have ever met”. “The definition of a true gentleman that will stay with me forever,” she added.
Givenchy was forced to retire in Oct 1995 when his contract was not renewed by the giant LVMH group which had bought his house nearly eight years before. He was replaced by John Galliano, who was soon to leave for Dior, handing over to fellow Brit Alexander McQueen. With typical discretion, Givenchy made no comment, only that he had not been consulted about the appointments.
Yet two decades on his restrained style still informs the way Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and older American and Chinese socialites dress. Givenchy’s final couture show in July 1995 was an emotional moment, with his fellow couturiers Yves Saint Laurent, Paco Rabanne, Christian Lacroix and Valentino taking front-row seats in a packed salon in the opulent Grand Hotel at the Paris Opera. Givenchy took his bow on the catwalk in his atelier’s smock, and with characteristic modesty brought on all his loyal “petites mains” seamstresses to share the applause. – AFP