Hubert de Givenchy Discusses His New Museum Retrospective

Hubert de Givenchy, winter 1991. Photo: © Skrebneski Photography

Givenchy has most recently been synonymous with Riccardo Tisci, who helmed the label from 2005 until this year (with Clare Waight Keller appointed artistic director in his wake). Now the Museum of Lace and Fashion, a converted 19th-century factory in Calais, France, is presenting 80 accessorized looks that celebrate the label’s originator Hubert de Givenchy and his silhouettes. The designer — who, at 90, is still incredibly tall and dapper — made a rare appearance at a press conference last week to discuss the exhibition, which opened Friday.

“At one time hats and gloves were indispensable. No one came without them,” Givenchy told reporters of one display dedicated to 15 hats: satin pillboxes with ostrich feathers, a long flat velvet hat with bow, and dramatic capelines adorned with sequins and turkey feathers. “Hats were like ending the sentence with a period: They finish off the construction of the drawing, of the silhouette.”

He displayed a gentle, deferential manner, and was positively worshipful when speaking of Balenciaga, who was his friend and mentor. Givenchy described Balenciaga’s garments as “impeccable, well cut, in equilibrium … perfection” and “a lesson in elegance.” Of his clients’ fidelity, he downplayed his role: “Clients were faithful to the designer, but they were especially faithful to the première d’atelier” — or head seamstress — “who knew their flaws. They’re a little like doctors — they know their bodies.”

Born in Beauvais, France, in 1927, Givenchy as a boy liked to advise (and critique) his cousins while they made their own dresses. He transcended the expectations of his rigid Protestant family, who initially derided his designer ambitions; eventually his mother came around to being his biggest fan. He learned the “métier” while employed under couturier Jacques Fath and later joined the ateliers of Robert Piguet and Lucien Lelong before working for Elsa Schiaparelli.

The exhibition’s first vignette starts with the earliest Givenchy collection in February 1952, which Givenchy launched in rented rooms within a private mansion. Opening the show was the “Bettina blouse” — white shirting with flounce sleeves trimmed in black broderie anglaise — worn by, and named after, the fashion model Bettina Graziani. It was paired with a linen skirt, broad-brimmed hat, and straw bag with “1953” woven in. The collection featured separates, a then-revolutionary concept: simpler and more affordable than haute couture, requiring no fiddly fittings. Givenchy proved in step with the spirit of sportswear — which was gaining ground in the United States but not in France, where firm rules dictated garment propriety based on time of day and social calendar.

Adjacently, Givenchy’s leather pieces from the 1980s and early ‘90s look super modern, notably a slender black leather day dress (belted, pocketed, with gold buttons, accessorized with a foulard and a huge hat) and a red leather skirt suit trimmed in white. Counter to these are heavily embellished garments that use red vinyl, black pearls, brocade lamé, and sequins. And counter to those are the killer-chic black evening pieces: a crêpe cocktail dress adorned with rooster and turkey feathers (1968), a lace cocktail dress and velvet cape embroidered with horsehair ribbons (1989), and a silk jersey evening dress with peekaboo gold lattice running down the side worn by Jerry Hall (1975).

The Jerry Hall dress is uncharacteristically sexy: Givenchy is mostly known for dressing an uber-opulent soigné clientele (Jacqueline Kennedy, a slew of duchesses and countesses). There’s a Jackie sector in the expo: She was, in fact, a Givenchy client long before she was the First Lady (she used to come by the ateliers when she lived in Paris as a journalist). An evening dress with embroidered bodice and matching coat is on display, which Jackie wore during the presidential couple’s first official visit to France (it spurred President De Gaulle to compare her to a bucolic Antoine Watteau painting). However, the First Lady of the United States was not supposed to be dressed by a French designer, and Kennedy eventually appointed American Oleg Cassini as her official designer.

The sweetheart of the Givenchy archive, however, was Audrey Hepburn. The two met on a misunderstanding: A mutual friend told Givenchy that Miss Hepburn was keen to meet him, and the couturier assumed the gamine in question was Katharine. When it was the budding actress instead, and she requested costumes for her upcoming film, Sabrina, he declined. But during a subsequent dinner she charmed him, leaving with a number of Givenchy prototypes in tow. The designer ultimately outfitted her not just for Sabrina (1954), but also Funny Face (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) — notably that paradigm-of-chic long black sheath with a pretty scoop back that walked 5th Avenue — Charade (1963), and How To Steal a Million (1966).

Givenchy’s influences reached widely: from vibrant colors inspired by his time chez Schiaparelli (like a 1986 evening dress covered in silk gauze flowers) to artists (1970s taffeta evening coats and robes du soir in hommage to Joan Miró and Nicolas de Staël), and pieces influenced by the Madame Grès pleat (notably a tucked bodice dress with a star-shaped cutouts from 1995).

“It’s hard to judge fashion now,” he admitted, remaining diplomatic, never cranky, while expressing his take on fashion today. “It’s laissez faire, mixing things together. It wasn’t like that at all — it was much stricter, more refined. Now we wear more or less what we want. … The Belle Époque of couture was when there was Madame Grès — grande couturière! — Madame Vionnet, Monsieur Balenciaga — whom I admire, as we all do — and Monsieur Dior. It was a time when couture was really at the top of its form. To wear all this sumptuous stuff, you needed moments and places to wear them. All of that has changed. I cannot say I’m enthused [by today] — I don’t look at much, and I’m not invested anymore. After the death of Saint Laurent — we would wait to see his colors, what he would change — fashion was already something else.”

“Hubert de Givenchy” is on view until December 31, 2017, at the Museum of Lace and Fashion in Calais.

Hubert de Givenchy Discusses His New Museum Retrospective