Hubert de Givenchy, who passed away this week at the age of 91, was one of the last-living masters of couture, part of the elite that counted Christian Dior and Cristóbel Balenciaga as vaunted members. He was also the much-loved gentleman of French fashion, and his charming demeanour shone through in his impeccably elegant designs.
Gallic to the core, it was arguably M. de Givenchy who sold the allure of the modern French woman to the world. Yes, Christian Dior had women the world over swooning at his name with the New Look collection of 1947. But this was more a nostalgic throwback to full-skirted, wasp-waisted, pre-war times rather than a proclamation of modernity. That came in 1954.
There was tough competition. Coco Chanel was reopening her Maison and relaunching her collarless tweed suit, a style that would become every working woman’s staple for the next decade and beyond. But Givenchy had a secret weapon helping him design a new style à la française for the world: Audrey Hepburn.
The 25-year-old up-and-coming star was the lead actress in that year’s feel-good movie, Sabrina, in which she plays a chauffeur’s tomboyish teenage daughter who’s in love – painfully, unrequitedly so – with the boss’s rakish playboy son. After much moping about, the forlorn and lovesick Sabrina is sent to Paris for a two-year cooking course – her wise father’s nifty manoeuvre to fill her mind with new passions.
While we don’t see much of Paris beyond a glimpse of a snow-flurried Eiffel Tower tantalisingly close outside the cooking school window, the City of Light shines brightly as the other star of the film – which more or less serves as a two-hour advertisement for how Paris can gloriously change a girl’s life.
Towards the end of Sabrina’s Parisian stint, she sits down chez elle to pen a letter to her father. The illuminated Sacré-Coeur looms through her open windows; outside someone is playing La Vie en Rose and the lush-velvety tune is filling the room. The lyrics are “the French way of saying ‘I’m looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses’ and it says everything I feel,” she writes. Paris has not only taught her how to swirl together a vichyssoise, but the most important recipe of all: “I have learnt how to live.”
Sabrina, we next see, has also learnt how to dress, thanks to a wardrobe by rising couture star Hubert de Givenchy.
Legend has it that Monsieur de Givenchy, when told of an impending appointment with Miss Hepburn, was expecting the renowned Katharine to swan through the door. Instead in tripped the petite, pixie-faced Audrey – sent by Sabrina‘s director director to order a wardrobe worthy of a true Parisienne. The rest is fashion history: Givenchy styled Audrey into assured leading-lady stature, dressing her on and off screen, and in turn the actress became the House’s iconic ambassador, showing off a new brand of French chic to the world.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
They made particular fashion magic when it came to the black dress. Yes, Chanel had invented the LBD back in the 1920s, in her abstract and minimalist way, but Givenchy and Hepburn made it so much more nuanced. In their hands la petite robe noire could be sombre or sophisticated or impish or flirty, classic or cool, or all of these things at once. And, it turns out, the perfect thing to wear to both mourn and celebrate this great gentleman of fashion.