The designer’s interiors are every bit as extraordinary as his couture
An inimitable impact on design
In 1953, when Audrey Hepburn needed dresses for her role in Sabrina, the budding starlet looked to another talent who was just beginning to make waves, the 26-year-old couturier Hubert de Givenchy. But when the actress arrived at the atelier, the aristocratic designer was surprised. He was expecting Katharine Hepburn—a famous Hollywood grande dame—not the gamine beauty waltzing into the studio wearing gingham trousers, a gondola hat, and ballerina flats. The surprise, however, was a pleasant one.
Givenchy with his afghan hound, 1955.
Over the course of their lifelong friendship, Hepburn would return again and again to Givenchy to outfit her for roles both public and private, becoming so closely aligned with the house that its polished, feminine, and exquisitely tailored look became her own.
Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy couture for How to Steal a Million, 1966.
“His are the only clothes in which I am myself. He is far more than a couturier, he is a creator of personality,” Hubert de Givenchy’s muse Audrey Hepburn said of the designer.
In 1927, he was born Hubert James Taffin de Givenchy to an aristocratic family in the French city of Beauvais. The family’s nobility stemmed from his father’s side from the 18th Century, and artistic professions ran through his mother’s hereditary line. Having lost his father in 1930, he was raised largely by his mother and maternal grandmother from whom he inherited his passion for fabrics. Inspired, Givenchy left his hometown at the age of 17 for the vibrant opportunities of Paris.
Upon moving to Paris in 1944, Givenchy enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He began his career as an apprentice of Jacques Fath in 1945, and continued to learn the art of the couturier over the following years from Robert Piguet, Lucien Lelong and legendary Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli.
The designer’s statuesque height – he was 6′ 6″ – made an immediate impression on Paris, where he soon made a name for himself as a talent to watch.
That famous restraint is also evident in his homes. Jewelry designer James de Givenchy, the couturier’s nephew, recalls growing up visiting his uncle in houses where beautiful objects were soothingly composed and there was always a sense of place: striped fabrics and wicker in the south of France; a ski chalet in the Alps, properly cozy. “It’s the elegance that stands out the most,” he says. “Everything was always in the right place.”
Givenchy’s current residences, a Paris townhouse on rue Grenelle (photos above) and a country retreat, are gorgeously pulled together: 18th-century antiques and rich velvets in the city; Diego Giacometti furniture and white slipcovers out of town. But the atmosphere is never fussy.
Though the couturier retired in 1995, he still maintains contact with many of the women he dressed, friendships born of fittings in which Givenchy himself, and not a studio assistant, made even minute alterations. Now in his Eighties, Givenchy – who lives in his country estate Le Jonchet just outside of Paris – has all but removed himself from the fashion world, emerging only occasionally for brief interviews or rare public talks, like the one he gave at the Oxford Union in July 2010. He does occasionally comment on key fashion moments, and earlier this year described Kate Middleton’s choice of former Givenchy designer Alexander McQueen’s label for her wedding dress as “a lovely thought, a nice tribute” following McQueen’s untimely death in February 2010.
“He always wanted you to look your very best.” He helped socialite Simone Levitt define an identity. “He enhanced what a woman already possessed,” she says. “His clothes made you carry yourself differently. They made you feel feminine and impeccable—without reproach.”