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

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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

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