Behind the legend
As the fashion brand that Hubert de Givenchy founded enters a new era, Sarah Maisey learns about the late couturier’s lifelong friendships, inimitable talent and unending generosity, from one of his closest aides
When Hubert de Givenchy passed away earlier this year at the age of 91, the world of fashion lost one of its greats.
Despite having already left the house that carries his name, and long settled into genteel retirement, Givenchy was the last remaining link to a bygone era. One of the master couturiers, he hailed from a time when society ladies wore custom-made dresses, and when the dazzling visions of designers such as Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga and Givenchy, himself, quite literally changed the way women dressed.
Although the man himself has now gone, his legacy survives not only in his archive (his pieces can be found in fashion museums all over the world), but also in the memory of those who knew him. One such person is the acclaimed Spanish curator Eloy Martinez de la Pera Celada.
“We met 12 years ago, when both of us were working on the opening of the Museum of Cristóbal Balenciaga in Spain,” Martinez tells me during a trip to Dubai. “I was working on exhibitions where his name was always on the table. He was one of the biggest buyers of the artist Giacometti, and he adored Rothko. But for him, Balenciaga was the most important person, and he spent part of his fortune buying his creations at auction for the museum collection. He was such a generous person, always spending money for others.”
During a serendipitous meeting, the two men hit it off, and soon Givenchy tasked Martinez with staging a retrospective of his work. “I started to work on his first retrospective eight years ago, in Madrid. And from that moment onwards, I curated all his exhibitions – in The Netherlands, Calais, Switzerland. We spent the last eight years very close to each other and were preparing a trip to Marrakech to visit the Yves Saint Laurent Museum. I was constantly in Paris, as the exhibitions were based on sketches that Givenchy was making constantly. He was still sketching until 10 days before he died. Beautiful sketches.”
Givenchy’s other defining friendship was with actress Audrey Hepburn. However, his meeting with her did not start so smoothly. In 1953, already aware of his work, Hepburn contacted the designer to ask him to create clothes for her next film, Sabrina. Thinking he was speaking with Katherine Hepburn, who was better known at the time, he readily agreed. Only when the actress walked into his atelier did he realise his error, and could barely conceal his disappointment.
Unfazed, Hepburn took him to dinner, beginning a friendship that would endure until her death in 1993. With her cropped hair and boyish figure, the actress was beautiful, mischievous and gamine, and Givenchy relished dressing her. With her hint of androgyny, she was able to wear the most elaborate looks without being overwhelmed by them, and the two developed a close synergy. Givenchy went on to dress her for many of her film roles, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) – which featured the sculpted gown that is perhaps the most iconic little black dress of all time. Hepburn once said of Givenchy’s designs: “His are the only clothes in which I am myself. He is far more than a couturier, he is a creator of personality.”
His are the only clothes in which I am myself. He is far more than a couturier
Through Hepburn, Givenchy was able to bring his beautiful designs out of the closed world of couture and on to the silver screen, where they were seen by millions of people. While only a charmed few could afford the luxury of a handmade dress, almost anyone could afford a cinema ticket.
“He changed haute couture and he changed fashion,” Martinez explains. “This collaboration between these two people, it was beyond a love affair. She never wore anything that was not Givenchy in public. She was very loyal and faithful to Hubert. It was such a beautiful relationship.”
As a token of this bond, Givenchy one day decided to surprise the actress with a gift of a bespoke fragrance. Totally unique, the one-off scent had notes of jasmine, violet and rose, over a heart of woody grasses. Around the same period, he was being advised by fellow designer Balenciaga to launch a perfume, so he could reach a wider audience. Immediately, all eyes turned to the scent created especially for Hepburn. Legend has it, however, that Givenchy was mortified at the idea, and dreaded asking Hepburn for her permission.
When he finally broached the topic, her response was: “Je vous nol’interdis [I forbid it].” Thankfully, her retort was taken in the spirit it was intended, and when L’Interdit was eventually launched in 1957, its name was taken from this exchange. Hepburn went on to became the face of the fragrance, and it was a tremendous success.
Now, 70 years after it was first launched, L’Interdit has fallen out of step with modern tastes. The delicate, almost powdery scent that characterised the fragrance feels outdated. In a move that is both bold and audacious, Givenchy, headed up by Clare Waight Keller, has taken the step of not only relaunching the fragrance, but reimagining it.
Calling on the expertise of master perfumers Dominique Ropion, Anne Flipo and Fanny Bal, a new scent has been created for the modern woman. Gone are the violet and rose notes, replaced instead with a light bouquet of orange blossom, jasmine and tuberose, with notes of patchouli and vetiver to provide an earthy contrast. The inclusion of vetiver is significant, not only because it is an ingredient traditionally only used in men’s fragrance, but also for its link to Hubert himself. “He smelt of vetiver,” Martinez reveals. “It was his favourite scent.”
The fragrance was completed in January, and the brand took the unusual step of presenting it to Monsieur Givenchy. Although no longer part of the company (he showed his last haute couture collection in 1995), it felt like it was important to have his blessing. Keeping to the house theme of contrasts, the perfume bottle is presented in a simple white cube edged in black, with the house’s four-G logo embossed on the front. Elegant and understated, it holds true to the codes of the maison, and when Givenchy opened the box, he was so delighted with the shocking red interior, he signed it. His signature has since been faithfully replicated on every box. “This perfume is very modern,” says Martinez, “and one clever thing is they kept the bottle. Givenchy participated in this perfume, and he designed the original bottle.”
Although close to the first design, the new bottle has been subtly updated, not least with the addition of a crossed ribbon around the neck – a touch added by Keller. It is telling that it is under her leadership that this project came about, as she is the only one of Givenchy’s successors that he ever met.
“When he quit in 1995, he never wanted to meet the designers,” Martinez says. Following the departure of the French founder, the role was first filled by John Galliano for a little over a year, followed by l’enfant terrible Alexander McQueen (who called Hubert de Givenchy “irrelevant” soon after he joined) and even Welsh designer Julien Macdonald, who all struggled to find their voice at the house.
“He realised he was not going to be honest. He was a person who says what he thinks, he never lied. So, he said: ‘I don’t want to get involved, I don’t want to criticise, I don’t want them to be forced to pay tribute to anything I have done before.’”
However, all that changed when Keller took over as the artistic director from Riccardo Tisci last year, becoming the first woman to head the label. “We organised a meeting between Clare and Hubert,” the Spanish curator recalls. “He had liked what she made for Chloé, and he thought she was a woman with a feeling of beauty. He thought that she made beautiful things for Chloé, and he said: ‘I have the feeling she is capable of making beautiful things for Givenchy.’ He was really keen on the designs that Clare was going to make, and he respected the love that she had for designers. Clare likes Balenciaga and Vionnet, and the designers that she is a fan of are the same names that Hubert adored. There was a connection. They liked the same beauty, and because of that he was happy to put his money on her.”
Under Keller, the house of Givenchy is undergoing something of a renaissance, not least because it
Actress Rooney Mara is the face of Givenchy’s latest fragrance
Top, Eloy Martinez de la Pera Celada worked closely with Hubert de Givenchy, left, who created many of Audrey Hepburn’s classic looks.
Right, a look from the brand’s autumn/winter 2018 collection. Far right, the new L’Interdit. The original was created for Hepburn