‘Tall’, ‘Elegant’ and ‘Kind’. These qualities make up the charming picture of the fashion giant, Hubert De Givenchy, as painted by his models and co-workers. He founded the design house Givenchy in 1952 when he was only 25 years old, and went on to take over people’s imagination with the iconic black dress in the film ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. His designs were the epitome of Parisian elegance for more than half a century. Many of the world’s most elegant women were and have been dressed by him. Among them are Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy and Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. Underlying all of his success as a designer was his creativity and passion for humanity. His legacies are his innovations and rebellions, against the mainstream fashion of his time.
Givenchy’s designing techniques were innovative. He was one of the first to draw inspiration from modern artists, for example the work of Miro and Rothko inspired his geometric designs. Givenchy reinvented traditions by blending contemporary and classic styles together. A tunic became a crew-necked sleeveless garment, to be worn over skirts or trousers of different lengths. He enjoyed experimenting with new combinations of materials when creating new collections, for example a cocktail dress made from silk, velour and muslin.
Givenchy also drew inspiration from his native French culture, although he was particularly fascinated with East Asian cultures, his classic silhouette originating from China. He always sought after fresh creations, doing what others before him had not, whilst also maintaining a certain degree of tradition.
Givenchy played a significant role in redefining women’s fashion. He remarked once “women don’t only wear a dress, they live in it”. Avoiding the constricted looks of this time, Givenchy opted for freedom of movement in his collections. He achieved this by using light and soft fabrics, creating looser, yet well-defined waistlines. Thus when his clothes were worn by Hepburn or other models, there was a sense of grace in the ease of the movement, creating a sylph-like quality. His perspective was that garments were made for the body, not the other way around.
During Givenchy’s first showcase of his collection in February 1952, he introduced ‘separates’ for women, providing females with the option to wear blouses, trousers and skirts as separate items, rather than a one piece outfit. The Givenchy website looked back to the debut and recounted: “the elegant blouses and light skirts blending architectural lines and simplicity met with enormous success in light of the more constricted looks of the day.” The use of structural lines in his designs created a sense of power and confidence for the person wearing them. Givenchy’s muse, Audrey Hepburn, described Givenchy as a creator of personality, recalling that his clothes made her feel confident and protected.
Givenchy shunned the extravagance that characterised the high fashion of his time. Instead, he maintained simplicity and sophistication in his designs. Described by Catherine Join-Dieterle as a sculptor, who admired “the motifs, shades, texture, quality and fall” of the garments, his designs were comparable to white marble and Greek sculptures; exquisite and sophisticated. Givenchy also attributed much of his creative style to Balenciaga, a designer who influenced him throughout his career in the fashion industry. He once commented, “today when I was working, I could feel Balenciaga’s hand on my shoulder. He was saying, subtract. Make it simple. Make it Pure”.
Audrey Hepburn’s legendary black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was described by Givenchy as one of the hardest garments to make because it had to be simple. What characterises both Givenchy and his muse, Balenciaga, is their pursuit of purity and perfection, elevating every garment to the status of an art object. In the end, Givenchy’s greatest legacy is his endless passion for design, to which he dedicated the entirety of his life.
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