Obituary

Givenchy refused to dress Audrey Hepburn

French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy in a 2016 file photo. Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy on the set of 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany's.
French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy in a 2016 file photo. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy in a 2016 file photo. Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy on the set of 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany's.
Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy on the set of 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany's.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy in a 2016 file photo. Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy on the set of 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany's.
Actress Nicole Kidman (above) in a custom-made outfit from the upcoming Givenchy Haute Couture Spring Summer 2018 collection, designed by Clare Waight Keller, at the 75th Golden Globe Awards; actress Gal Gadot and actor Chadwick Boseman in custom-made Givenchy Haute Couture outfits at the Oscars earlier this month. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
(From far left) Actress Nicole Kidman in a custom-made outfit from the upcoming Givenchy Haute Couture Spring Summer 2018 collection, designed by Clare Waight Keller, at the 75th Golden Globe Awards; actress Gal Gadot and actor Chadwick Boseman in cu
Actress Nicole Kidman in a custom-made outfit from the upcoming Givenchy Haute Couture Spring Summer 2018 collection, designed by Clare Waight Keller, at the 75th Golden Globe Awards; actress Gal Gadot (above) and actor Chadwick Boseman in custom-made Givenchy Haute Couture outfits at the Oscars earlier this month.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy in a 2016 file photo. Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy on the set of 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany's.
Actress Nicole Kidman in a custom-made outfit from the upcoming Givenchy Haute Couture Spring Summer 2018 collection, designed by Clare Waight Keller, at the 75th Golden Globe Awards; actress Gal Gadot and actor Chadwick Boseman (above) in custom-made Givenchy Haute Couture outfits at the Oscars earlier this month.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

Designer Hubert de Givenchy later fell under the actress' charm and made all the clothes for her films

PARIS • Fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy refused to dress a young Audrey Hepburn - who would later become a cinematic icon - when they first met in 1953.

"When Audrey came to me to ask me to make her dresses for the film Sabrina (1954), I didn't know who she was and I thought she was (American actress) Katharine Hepburn," said the aristocratic Frenchman, whose death at 91 at his home outside Paris was announced on Monday.

But she would not take "no" for an answer and invited him to dinner. Over the course of the meal, Givenchy, only two years her senior, fell under the Briton's charm and ended up asking her to visit his Paris studio the next morning.

From then on, she asked him to make all the clothes for her films. In 1954, she wore one of his dresses to accept her Best Actress Oscar for Roman Holiday.

Givenchy, who upheld a standard of quintessentially romantic elegance in fashion for more than four decades, also dressed the likes of socialite Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and actress-turned-royal Grace Kelly.

He was emblematic of a generation of gentlemanly designers who established couture houses in postwar Paris, nurturing relationships with customers and creating collections with specific women in mind.

His first show - a hit in 1952 when he was just 24 - included the "Bettina blouse" - a tribute to his original muse, Bettina Graziani, Paris' leading model of the day.

In 1961, Hepburn and Givenchy created one of the most indelible cinematic fashion moments of the 20th century in Breakfast At Tiffany's, when her character, Holly Golightly, approaches the titular Fifth Avenue jeweller wearing oversized sunglasses, pearls, long evening gloves and a black dress.

Though claim to the invention of the little black dress is more often attributed to Coco Chanel or the many designers who had made that item before her, the style immediately became associated with Givenchy.

Around this time, he was introduced to his creative idol, Spanish couturier Cristobal Balenciaga, with whom he would share an uncommon bond for more than a decade.

It was during this period that Givenchy's style transformed from simple and girlish to lavishly embroidered and romantic, with a strict reverence for construction.

It marked the latest turn for the designer, who was born on Feb 21, 1927, in France, and introduced to the fine craftsmanship of textiles at an early age.

When he was 10, the family visited a Parisian fair, organised by couturier Jeanne Lanvin, which included a display of fashions by Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. It was a moment that Givenchy remembered as inspiring his career.

"It was always my dream to be a dress designer and my mother accepted that decision," he recalled during a talk at the Oxford University Union in 2010.

At 17, he left for Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The next year, he did an apprenticeship with innovative couturier Jacques Fath.

In short order, he went on to work in the studios of Robert Piguet, a Swiss designer known for his devotion to classical elegance, in 1946, and Lucien Lelong in the same year, after Christian Dior had left that house to establish his own.

But the post-war years of Paris were challenging for couture fashion as designers struggled to stitch up a case for expensive decoration in an environment of austerity.

From 1947 to 1952, Givenchy worked for the eccentric Schiaparelli, dreaming of starting his own house even as top names, including Edward Molyneux and Piguet, were closing their doors because of the rising costs of luxury fabrics.

The March 3, 1952, issue of Life magazine introduced Givenchy to American audiences. He had planted his flag in a tiny showroom at 8 Rue Alfred de Vigny, heralding a new concept for modern women: separates that were designed to be worn interchangeably, creating multiple outfits from a few key pieces.

He went on to create one of the most recognisable fashion labels in France, with products licensed for children's wear, men's dress shirts and, at one point, a Givenchy edition of a Lincoln luxury car.

In 1988, he sold his fashion house to luxury conglomerate LVMH and continued to design there until his retirement. Just hours after he presented his final collection in 1995, the company said his successor would be brash British upstart John Galliano, who moved to Dior a year later and was replaced by another maverick, Alexander McQueen.

In 2005, the label was handed to Italian designer Riccardo Tisci, who introduced an aggressive aesthetic of streetwear printed with gaping sharks and raging Rottweiler graphics in addition to more avant-garde evening wear.

Last March, Clare Waight Keller became the first woman to run the creative side of the Givenchy house when she replaced Tisci.

But what allowed Givenchy himself to make the cut for so long? Speaking to Oxford students in 2010, he gave this piece of advice to aspiring designers: "You must, if it's possible, be born with a kind of elegance. It's part of you, of yourself."

Indeed, he proved a comfortable fit for what he described.

At 1.98m tall and with a shock of sand-coloured hair, Givenchy - whose long-time companion Philippe Venet is a former couture designer - was also chivalrous to a fault, athletic and handsome.

"His are the only clothes in which I am myself. He is far more than a couturier, he is a creator of personality," Hepburn said of her friend, who was at her bedside at the end of her life in 1993 in Switzerland.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2018, with the headline 'Givenchy refused to dress Audrey Hepburn'. Print Edition | Subscribe