Obituary Hubert de Givenchy
He didn’t invent it but it is thanks to him that the iconic little black dress, with its simple straight cut, originally created by Coco Chanel, became an indispensable part of women’s wardrobes. Ultimately it gained worldwide attention in 1961 through Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.
Designed by Hubert de Givenchy, who died on 10 March 2018, the sleek sheath dress wasn’t really that little or narrow – it was in fact a variation of the gown cherished by Givenchy, and it was copied and worn all over the world. There was probably no Western metropolis in 1961 without some young woman in black humming “Moon River”.
Givenchy came from a wealthy family of French tapestry makers. He enjoyed materials at least as much as fine food and drink: “This pleasure, the smell of silk, the feel of velvet, the rustle of duchesse satin – what a thrill: the colours, the shine of Faillé, the shimmering inside of iridescent taffeta, the firmness of brocade, the brush of velvet trim – what a blessing! What sensual pleasures!” Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy both wore his creations, but more than anyone else his name is linked with Audrey Hepburn.
When Givenchy first met her in 1953 she was in her typical, almost boyish early outfit – Capri trousers, white T-shirt, ballerinas. He was instrumental in establishing Hepburn as an antidote to the emphasis on secondary sexual characteristics of female stars at the time, especially Marilyn Monroe. It was her eyes, attitude, and clothing rather than body that worked their magic with Hepburn. It didn’t really work for the initial Givenchy-Hepburn collaboration “Sabrina”, almost certainly exacerbated by the difficult relationship between Humphrey Bogart and Hepburn. But it worked doubly well in 1957 with “Funny Face”, one of the most retrospectively wonderful films about photography with a fabulous feel for the mid-1950s. Its influence extends at least as far as “The Devil Wears Prada”.
“Funny Face” also tells the real-life story of the Givenchy-Hepburn relationship through the tale of a New York-based bookseller (Hepburn) whose intellectual interests are being replaced by fashion-ready romance. It’s a tongue-in-cheek yet reactionary role-play, in some ways akin to a modern version of “The Taming of the Shrew”. In this film, as in real life, Hepburn wears Givenchy: bright colours, cascading fabrics, elegance that gives emotions space, dream images from the fairy-tale princess to the modern version of the goddess of victory, Nike. But Hepburn is not just a model or actress, she lives these roles, and when, on the occasion of a dress rehearsal in the film, the Parisian fashion designer thinks that the caterpillar has become not only a butterfly, but a bird of paradise, it is not only a spectacle, but also a reference to the symbiotic Givenchy-Hepburn relationship, also sensitively narrated in Pamela Clarke Keogh’s “Audrey Style” (1999). Givenchy dedicated a preface to Keogh’s book, written six years after Hepburn’s death, concluding: “Audrey was headstrong – in the choice of her clothes, her elegance and chic, the simplicity with which she wore them [...] I am proud and happy that I was allowed to work and adorn my dear Audrey. She was ‘unique’ and always will be.”