Hubert de Givenchy is known for introducing the world to the “Little Black Dress” and dressing Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, but just who is he? And how did his journey to greatness begin? What makes his everlasting legacy fashion house still the epitome of style. Discover the man behind the style with me.
The little black dress is the hardest thing to realise because you must keep it simpleHubert Givenchy, Independent Interview in 2010
Where it all began
Hubert James Taffin de Givenchy was born in Beauvais, Oise on the 20th February 1927 into a protestant family. The younger son of Lucien Taffin de Givenchy, Marquis of Givenchy (1888 – 1930) and his wife Beatrice “Sissi” Badin (1888 – 1976). The Taffin de Givenchy family can trace its roots to Venice, Italy and were enobled in 1713 when the head of the family became the Marquis de Givenchy. His elder brother, Jean-Claude de Givenchy (1925 – 2009) would inherit the title and eventually became the president of Parfums de Givenchy.
After his father’s death in 1930 from influenza he was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother, Marguerite Dieterle Badin whom he inherited his love of fabrics from . Marguerite was the widow of Jules Badin, an artist who was also the owner and director of the historic Gobelins Manufactory and Beauvais tapestry factories. It’s clear that artistic professions ran in the extended Badin family with Hubert Givenchy’s maternal great-grandfather, Jules Dieterle working as a set designer who also created designs for the Beauvais factory which included a set of 13 designs for the Elysee Palace. One of his great-great grandfathers also designed sets for the Paris Opera.
Moving to Paris
Hubert Givenchy then moved to Paris at the age of 17 where he began his apprenticeship at the couture house Jacques Fath in 1945 whilst studying drawing at the École des Beaux-Arts, the French National School of Art. Later on he did designs for Robert Piget and Lucien Lelong – working alongside the then still-unknown Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior. From 1947 to 1951 he worked for the legendary avantgarde Italian designer Elsa Shiaparelli.
In 1952, he opened his own design house at the Plaine Monceau in Paris and later named his first collection Bettina Graziani for the top Parisian model at the time. The first collection presented consisted of elegant blouses and breezy skirts that blended architectural lines with the simplicity of the materials and was named “Separates”. This original look and view of the world marked the resounding success for a launch of a career that would cover four-decades at his own fashion house. These items were not for the wallflower, they were stunning detailed blouses with large cuffs and structure and also included floor-length skirts for evening looks. This was a revolution in simplicity for fashion, with youthful, zesty pieces that were intended to be mix-and-match with the women wearing the items as they would like, thus expressing their own personal style. Bettina Graziani joined Givenchy’s enterprise, organising publicity and promotion, leaving her work as a top Parisian model. She was rewarded with the dedication from Givenchy of the famous Bettina Blouse, the volumnious, puff-sleeved blouse made with raw cotton which remained the iconic look of the collection and of the brand itself for many years.
In Givenchy, we can see a new, exciting and innovative way to dress women – can you imagine the hype after the launch? The Second World War had recently finished, France had been occupied for over three years at this point and the country and its families were destroyed. Women needed to rebuild their lives and wanted to work and be comfortable without sacrificing their style and femininity. This is the kind of woman Givenchy had in mind when designing – he wanted women to feel beautiful and used simple fabrics and made them look luxurious.
Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn
His are the only clothes in which I am myself. He is far more than a couturier, he is a creator of personality.Audrey Hepburn on Hubert Givenchy
A year after the Separates collection had launched, Givenchy met lifelong friend and muse Audrey Hepburn. She considered him to be her best friend and he regarded her as a sister. They were a similar age and immediately emphasized with each other with their intimate relationship continuing into old age. They met in a romantic twist of fate to rival many of her star-studded films. He had been expecting to dress the delightful Katharine Hepburn for the upcoming picture Sabrina. Audrey is said to have turned up wearing a tied up t-shirt, tight cigarette pants, her trademark ballet flats and a gondolier’s hat. Givenchy not only went on to design her film attire for hits like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Funny Face and Sabrina; but also designed her personal wardrobe too. The relationship between Hepburn and Givenchy was more than just one of professional advantages, as they propelled each other into the royalty of their respective worlds but one of deep and lasting affection that last over 40 years. She was more to him than a muse, and he was more to her than a couturier.
What is exceptional is the quality of everything he does, the material, the sewingBunny Mellon on Givenchy
Working with Audrey Hepburn opened the doors for Givenchy and led him to a clientele of billionaire wives of America’s most powerful figures. “Babe” Paley, Mona Bismarck, “Bunny” Mellon and Mrs Jock Whitney all had eye-wateringly large dress budgets and were eager for real Parisian Elegance. All looked to him, particularly when their prime couturier, Givenchy’s mentor, Cristobal Balenciaga, closed his doors in 1968. Bunny Mellon is said to have even had him make her gardening clothes. After all, who doesn’t want some couture gloves so one’s manicure isn’t ruined. When Balenciaga retired, he walked Bunny over to Givenchy’s atelier and told her that he would dress her going forward.
The fragrane L’interdit was developed in 1957 by nose Francis Fabron on behalf of Givenchy. This was exclusively created for Audrey Hepburn who wore it for a year before it’s release to the public. The name itself is translated as ‘forbidden’ as Hepburn was the only woman in the world to wear this scent for the initial year after it’s creation. This scent is still available (after reformulation in 2002) and has a delicate, floral and powdery aroma. L’interdit contains notes of rose, jasmine and violet with a blend of woods and grasses at its heart. On release, Audrey Hepburn became the face of the perfume and was the first actress to do so.
Givenchy, raising hemlines and the sack dress
The dress must follow the body of a woman, not the body following the shape of the dressHubert de Givenchy
At the same time as L’interdit was released in 1957, Givenchy also released one of his most influential designs the “sack silhouette” which was also introduced by his mentor Balenciaga into both houses Spring collections. This formless, waistless dress narrowed severely at the hem and started the trend for straighter, waist less shift dresses. The silhouette first developed into a fitted, darted sheath dress after critics declared “It’s hard to be sexy in a sack” and later into the loose straight short shift dress with the style starting to catch on in 1958. This silhouette abandoned form and waistline and in its place offered mystery surrounding the body beneath. Givenchy would declare that the Sack Dress was “More than a fashion, it’s actually a way of dressing”. This design was picked up by Mary Quant who modified it to her taste. Various refinements on the early sack dress picked up by Courrèges, led Quant to go one step further and design the mini shift dress that was to dominate the 1960’s decade. Givenchy would also encourage women to show more of their legs during the daytime with raised hemlines becoming more influential on the mini skirts we would see in the 1960s.
Givenchy would continue to design until 1995 when his last collection was launched and hailed from a time when designers might have created an entire collection around one alluring woman and when clients become friends and vice versa. His legacy is unarguable and his mark on the world of women’s fashion remains paramount.