At the summer program where I work in Paris, we frequently have the children of famous people among our students. I’m generally pretty blasé about the star power, but one connection did get my interest. We had the great-niece of Hubert de Givenchy with us a few years ago. I would have welcomed an invitation to meet him when she went to visit Oncle Hubert, but the iconic fashion designer was by this time an elderly man in ill health.
French aristocrat Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy was born on February 20, 1927. He had worked for various designers, including Jacques Fath, Robert Piguet, Lucien Lelong, and Elsa Schiaparelli, before opening his own Maison in 1952. At just 25, he was the youngest designer in Paris at the time, and his progressive ideas soon found favor with the young and avant-garde; his collections were some of the few in Paris that offered an alternative to the dominating, conservative rule of Dior. From the outset, the use of cheaper fabrics, such as raw cotton, and the predominance of daywear separates, such as tailored suits, skirts, and blouses, were defining characteristics of his collections.
His first collection included his Bettina blouse, which was copied worldwide. His eveningwear was elegant and, while initially, it incorporated a New Look silhouette, it had a younger and more playful feel to it due to his fabric and print choices, including lace and his famous fruit prints. A year after his début collection, Givenchy met Cristóbal Balenciaga, whose designs he greatly admired. Givenchy’s change in design direction dates from this meeting. While he did not abandon his more classic and ‘in fashion’ silhouettes, they were joined by pieces that played with volume, draping, and straighter lines. Both designers introduced their versions of a new line – the Sack dress, a loose dress without a waistline.
His preference for separates not only offered women an alternative to formal evening dress, but it also paved the way for luxury prêt-à-porter that was elegant yet relaxed. His career skyrocketed after he met Audrey Hepburn on the set of Sabrina in 1951, and he would go on to design the famous black dress she wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The two became good friends, and she continued to wear his clothing in her off-screen life.
Givenchy managed what few couturiers achieved: universal praise. Not only did the press and celebrities adore him, but traditional, conservative customers, just as much as younger ones, eagerly awaited every new collection. It seems this approval from all corners of the spectrum may have been because he sought design inspiration in both the elitist beau monde of Paris as well as the trendier locales of New York’s East Village. He managed to marry these extremes into wearable, chic, and novel silhouettes. Givenchy retired from fashion in 1995 and died on March 10, 2018.