The first and last time I met Hubert de Givenchy, who has died at the age of 91, was at the opening of his eponymous exhibition at the Calais Museum for Lace and Fashion in June. His elegant 6ft 6in frame was even more imposing for the stately pace at which he moved, supported by a wooden cane. He had an impressive head of snow-white hair, and wore a simple dark suit and tie with a white shirt.
The reporters who had assembled for the opening asked reverent questions about the iconic dresses he made, but he was much more interested in talking about the women he made them for. He told a funny story about his first meeting with Miss Hepburn, and how taken aback he was to be presented with the pixie-like Audrey instead of the other, at that point more famous, Katharine. Givenchy recalled Audrey as “this very thin person with beautiful eyes, short hair, thick eyebrows, very tiny trousers, ballerina shoes and a little T-shirt. On her head was a straw gondolier’s hat with a red ribbon around it.” The two became close, collaborating on a wardrobe for the film Sabrina and every subsequent role.
The designer’s elegant tailoring and eye for a perfect line, combined with the unusually spare taste of Hepburn, created style magic. Together they forged a refined image of pared-to-the-bone glamour that still looks chic more than half a century later. “She was not like other movie stars, because she loved simplicity,” Givenchy once said. Black dresses, ballerina pumps, sunglasses and pearls still conjure up the image of Hepburn. That their partnership grew into “a great friendship”, as Givenchy said at the opening of the exhibition, is reflected in his appointment as the mediator of her will towards the end of her life.
Givenchy’s death comes as the house he founded enjoys a renewed lease of life under Clare Waight Keller, the British designer appointed as its creative director last year. Many celebrated designers, including Alexander McQueen, have been at the helm in the years since Givenchy sold his company, but Waight Keller is the first to have met the founder in person. When she joined the house she paid homage to his “confident style”. Backstage after her fashion shows, Waight Keller often mentions the designer she calls “Hubert”.
He was the unrivalled master of the devastatingly chic, all-black look. One of the first telephone calls made by Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, after the death of her husband Edward, the Duke of Windsor, in 1972 was to the Givenchy atelier. Photographs of that black wool coat with cigaline veil, produced within one day in time for the duchess to travel to the funeral, were reproduced all over the world.
The iconography of first lady style owes a debt – largely unacknowledged – to the Givenchy atelier. At the Calais exhibition opening, the designer recalled being charmed by the beauty and youthful energy of Jackie Kennedy, whom he first met while her husband was running for president. For the first Kennedy official visit to France, Givenchy “made 10 or 15 pieces … but her secretary told me that we could not tell the press”, he remembered – the need for the first lady to be seen to support American fashion meant Givenchy’s contribution to Kennedy’s image was downplayed. After the trip, Kennedy wrote a card to Givenchy relaying a compliment given to her by Charles de Gaulle at an event at Versailles, for which she had worn a Givenchy gown: “Madame, this evening you look like a Parisienne.”
The French news magazine L’Express once described Givenchy as being “to fashion what Françoise Sagan was to literature and Bernard Buffet to painting: successful, glamorous, gorgeous, and very, very French”. His death breaks a link to a golden age of 20th-century elegance, in the clothes he created for Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy and their chic contemporaries.