A Cut Above
updated 01/15/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/15/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST
To the gilded world Givenchy had dominated for four decades, it was a bittersweet farewell. He had announced his retirement four months earlier, after Louis Vuitton Moët-Hennessy—the French luxury-goods firm that had bought his design house in 1988 (price tag: $46 million)—sought to downscale his responsibilities and bring in a new designer. Calling the proposed changes an insult, Givenchy shut his Paris atelier in October. Immediately, flamboyant, dreadlocked, 35-year-old British couturier John Galliano, the yang to Givenchy's yin, whose clients include Princess Diana, Elizabeth Hurley and Nicole Kidman, took over. "You have to know when to stop—that's wisdom," says Givenchy of his decision. "At times it may be difficult, but I'll try not to think about it too much." Says longtime friend and '40s model Bettina Graziani: "Givenchy left with chic and allure. You don't sense that he's a victim."
Grace and elegance have long been Givenchy's trademarks. Always garbed in a white smock and addressed as Monsieur at his Avenue George V atelier (where, during a fitting, the garments a client arrived in would be ironed for her so they would be fresh when she left), he has created clothes that have adorned some of the world's most stylish women—Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, the Duchess of Windsor and Princess Grace, to name a few. A trendsetter through the '60s, he helped define Jackie Kennedy's much-emulated style with his high-waisted coats and sleeveless shifts. "I dressed her from head to toe—I even did the pregnancy outfits she wore when she was expecting Caroline and John," he recalls. "She was very attentive to the advice she was given." Such trust wasn't uncommon. "Givenchy's great claim to fame," says Susan Train, Vogue's Paris bureau chief, "is that he knows who his clients are. They are not fashion victims. They want something new, they want a divine color, but first of all they want it to be becoming."
That's not to say he's never had to go over-the-top. Called upon in the early '60s to dress Elizabeth Taylor, he remembers, "She wanted no corsets but wanted her bosom to be vivant—natural. The bust had to be supported and then dropped so it would appear natural and beautiful. We had a lot of interesting fittings."
Famously well-mannered ("I've never heard him raise his voice," says Train, who has known him for over 40 years) and dashingly handsome, the 6'6" Givenchy looks—and acts—the aristocrat he is. "He doesn't have a very visible form of humor," says Graziani. "He is not a party person. It wouldn't occur to people to slap him on the back." But, she adds, "there are people who seem distant who are in fact great friends. He is one of them." Says Train: "Once in a while he'll send beautiful flowers with a charming little note that says, 'Just thinking of you.' "
The younger son of the Marquis Lucien Taffin de Givenchy, a military pilot who died in a plane crash in 1929, Hubert, then 2, and his brother Jean-Claude (now 71 and the former head of Givenchy's perfume division) were raised in Beauvais, 40 miles north of Paris, by their mother, Beatrice, daughter of the manager of France's famed Beauvais tapestry works. "My mother adored dressing up—she was always elegant," recalls Givenchy, who as a child joined her on shopping trips and, in his free time, pored over fashion magazines. Reprimanded at school for his incessant sketching, he still earned good grades, which his grandfather rewarded by allowing him to rummage through his personal collection of rare fabrics. "I'd take piles of them and look at them and touch them for hours," he recalls. "I think that's where my vocation began."
Upon finishing high school in 1944 at age 17, Givenchy headed to Paris where, armed with his drawings and "all the pretense one has at that age," he says, he landed a job with couturier Jacques Fath. Five years later, when his snappy creations for designer Elsa Schiaparelli became a big hit, she urged him to go out on his own. His first collection—superbly tailored separates in black and white—premiered in 1952 to wide applause. "These dresses," said one critic, "remind you of that first glass of champagne." Recalls designer and friend Jean-Louis Scherrer: "Givenchy's style was for the well-heeled woman. Everything he did was always in perfect taste."
But it wasn't until he created Oscar-winning designs for Hepburn in 1954's Sabrina that Givenchy, then 27, found international renown—and the start of an enduring friendship. "She was an extraordinary woman," says Givenchy, who came to regard Hepburn as a sister and went on to dress her in Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany's and Charade. "From our first meeting, Audrey and I understood each other—I instinctively knew what she wanted." The feeling was mutual. Referring to him as her "personality-maker" and "psychiatrist" (later in life she named him an executor of her will), she would, he recalled, phone "just to tell me how much she loved me."
Now dividing his time between his lavish, antique-filled mansion on Paris's Left Bank and a 17th-century château in Romilly-sur-Aigre in the Loire Valley, which he shares with four Labradors and one Bichon Frise, Givenchy is busier than ever. Currently helping curate an exhibit for Paris's Palais Galliéra about his friend and mentor designer Cristobal Balenciaga, who died in 1972, he is also redesigning Louis XIV's vegetable gardens at Versailles. "I have lots of projects, things you can't do when you have six collections a year," he says. And though the ladylike looks he made famous are now back in vogue, Givenchy calls current fashion "just plain ugly. There's no elegance to it. No one is discreet anymore." Still, he has no regrets about devoting his life to the ephemeral art form. "I dreamed of fashion as a little boy," he touchingly recalled at his farewell ready-to-wear show. "It's fantastic in a way to have the joy of arriving at the end of that dream."
CATHY NOLAN and CLAIRE WILSON in Paris