Hubert de Givenchy on Audrey Hepburn and the Scent of Silk

Hubert de Givenchy et Audrey Hepburn, Paris © Coll
Hubert de Givenchy et Audrey Hepburn, Paris © Coll

Hubert de Givenchy on Audrey Hepburn and the Scent of Silk

The legendary designer speaks to AnOther about his life, career and relationships with famous clients

Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn, Paris© Collection Hubert de Givenchy

Opportunities to meet the originators of fashion as we know it today are few and far between. So speaking with Hubert de Givenchy, the legendary founder of the eponymous French fashion house, at the opening of a new retrospective in his honour, was an unforgettable occasion. Dressed in a beige linen suit, black tie and tinted aviator glasses, Mr Givenchy is statuesque and elegant ­– and although his six-foot-six frame is supported by two walking sticks, he is as powerful a presence now as ever before.

Spanning the designer’s illustrious career, from when he founded his Parisian atelier in 1952 until his retirement in 1995, the show, which Givenchy himself played a key role in curating, is a comprehensive overview of the codes of the house. It comprises separates from the 1950s – notably the Bettina blouse and skirt which marked a pivotal moment in the way women could personalise their wardrobes by mixing and matching. His deft work with textiles is evident throughout; a 1980s evening gown in black satin and velvet transforms the sombre shade so that it appears almost luminous. A 1968 cocktail dress embellished with turkey and rooster feathers – arguably not the most graceful of birds – is one of the most alluring pieces on display.

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Ensemble de jour composé d'une blouse dite Bettin
Bettina cotton blouse and linen skirt, Summer 1952© Givenchy, Photography by Luc Castel
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Robe de bal en dentelle Chantilly et satin et bole
Chantilly and satin lace prom dress with matching bolero, 1952© Givenchy, Photography by Luc Castel

And then, fittingly for such a museum, there is an abundance of lace (“[Cristóbal] Balenciaga was the emperor of lace,” Givenchy says of his idol), not least in the dresses he crafted for his friend and muse Audrey Hepburn to wear in How to Steal a Million (1968). Beside these sit the iconic black gown – the most recognised ‘LBD’ worldwide, no less – worn in the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), the cut-out back designed to highlight the nape of Holly Golightly’s neck and her angular shoulder blades.

Here Mr Givenchy reflects on bringing happiness to his clients, and shares his thoughts on fashion today. At the end of the interview, when asked what the future holds, he energetically exclaims: “A lot of projects! There’s always something that inspires. If there is willingness and health, I will do it.” A rare and much needed expression of life and of optimism if ever there was one. 

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Leavers lace detail, Winter 1963© Collection Museum for Lace and Fashion, Photography by Luc Castel
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Dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's - Diamonds on Canvas, by Blake Edwards, 1961© Givenchy, Photography by Luc Castel

On Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy…
“When I met Jackie she was not yet the First Lady, but she was working as a journalist in Paris. When she came to us it was important for her to be discreet. The press were so curious they wanted to know what was going on. We kept her discretion. I was astonished when they said that she would be wearing my creations. This lady had a beautiful face. She was elegant and chic.

“Audrey came into my life in a very adorable way. She came to me and wanted to have dresses made for the Sabrina movie. And from then, she asked me to make her dresses for all her other films and we had a really great friendship – but it was even more than that. We were so close. She was an exceptional person.”

On happiness and teamwork…
“Each of my garments is something special in itself. You give all your energy to each piece, to each creation, and I have no favourite. I love all of them equally. It was a dream to make those creations for women. I was so lucky to have clients who came to me telling me that they owe me so much. ‘I was wearing your dress when I met my fiancé and got married,’ they would say. ‘You have brought happiness to me and to my life.’ And this is the most important thing to me. My clients also had an excellent relationship with my première in the atelier – she is the one who knows your body, your shape, and the correct choice of fabric. I was very lucky that I had an excellent première d’atelier, so it was completely harmonious between me, her and my clients. The team I had for years I’m still in touch with. It’s the most beautiful job in the world to give happiness to people.”

“It’s the most beautiful job in the world to give happiness to people” – Hubert de Givenchy

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Detail of a satin evening ensemble composed of a dress embroidered with a bodice and a coat, worn by Jackie Kennedy during an official visit to France, summer 1961© Givenchy, Photography by Luc Castel
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Cocktail set composed of a dress and a Chantilly lace jacket, worn by Audrey Hepburn in the film How to Steal a Million, 1966© Givenchy, Photography by Luc Castel

On fashion today…
“This is an embarrassing question. I’m going to be clear-cut: I think we’re experiencing a different era of haute couture and of fashion. Before, people took time to choose fabrics and there were events and parties to wear these creations to. Fashion was fashion – and I don’t think the creations today are fashion anymore. Since Yves Saint Laurent stopped making his couture everything changed. Amongst young creators it would be nice to have new images and a new vision of fashion. We don’t wear hats so much anymore. At the time it was common and the final point of my drawings would always be the hat to finish the silhouette. It’s not so studied or sophisticated anymore. At the time it was a fashion that was very elegant, with shoes, matching dresses, and so on. It’s difficult to find a fashion that is chic, harmonious and refined with modern times.”

On meeting Cristóbal Balenciaga…
“I first saw his work in the pages of fashion magazines when I was young. The garments were simple, sober, well balanced – always with a hat. Little by little I began thinking that I want to work with a man who has this kind of profession. So I wanted to meet Balenciaga. When I was 11 years old I decided to take a train from my hometown in Beauvais to Paris and when I arrived at Balenciaga’s store I met the manager. She was quite severe. I told her I want to meet Mr Balenciaga, and she said ‘listen young man it’s impossible! Mr Balenciaga will never meet you.’ And I went back home and never spoke of it again. But then, in 1952 I met Mr Balenciaga after opening my own atelier, and we became friends.”

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Detail of an evening set consisting of an embroidered patchwork jacket and satin trousers, 1992© Givenchy, Photography by Luc Castel
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Ensemble du soir composé d'une veste et d'un pant
Evening set consisting of a jacket and trousers in brocade lamé, embroidered with gold and silver braids, metallic leaves and pearls, winter 1990© Givenchy, Photography by Luc Castel

On his first ever fragrance…
“At the time, this wasn’t the done thing, creating fragrances in fashion houses. A lot of people said we couldn’t do it. And then Mr Balenciaga said to me ‘this is the future!’ My first idea was to launch two perfumes at the same time – I got Mr Balenciaga’s opinion again – and he said this was a good idea. At the time we didn’t use the name of a young lady or a young actress. But the first perfume, L’Interdit, was made for Audrey [Hepburn].

“Whenever you smell a perfume it must disappear and come back. It mustn’t be too strong as it can give everyone a headache! There are thousands of women who never change their perfumes because they are so identifiable. For example, a woman I used to know wore Miss Dior, and I can’t smell this without thinking of her. You identify a person through their fragrances.”

“It was the fabrics that were such an inspiration too, Swiss or Italian fabrics. Silk as well – from the silk worm you have such a particular smell” – Hubert de Givenchy

On the importance of fabric... 
“I don’t think I am avant-garde. I made a lot of creations and created harmony with my fabrics, but I was not like Balenciaga, for example, although he was of course a great inspiration. My mother was a beautiful lady, elegant, chic and that was the biggest inspiration to me. It was the fabrics that were such an inspiration too, Swiss or Italian fabrics. Silk as well – from the silk worm you have such a particular smell. Touching all the fabrics formed the inspiration for many of my designs, to create the harmony so important to the house of Givenchy. For example you must avoid having too many elements – you must be comfortable and have the garment cut very well first. You need to have dresses moving well on the body of woman. Fabric has a life, and for fabric to talk you must never create too many discrepancies on it otherwise it distracts from the essence of a garment.”

Hubert de Givenchy runs until December 31, 2017 at the Museum for Lace and Fashion, Calais.