FROM THE MAGAZINE

The Unparalleled Elegance of Hubert de Givenchy

No one exemplified grand French style better than the late designer—as Christie’s auction of his collection of art and objects makes clear.

Photography by François Halard

The Empire living room at Hubert de Givenchy’s 18th-century Hôtel d’Orrouer, in Paris.
The Empire living room at Hubert de Givenchy’s 18th-century Hôtel d’Orrouer, in Paris.

If ever there was a sobriquet that was just perfect, it was the one for Hubert de Givenchy: le Grand Hubert. At about six feet five, with an aristocratic background and bearing, Givenchy, one of the greatest postwar couturiers, was truly larger than life. He carried that sense of grandeur in his work, through his circle of friends—from Audrey Hepburn to Bunny Mellon—and especially in his style of living. For decades, he was known to be a great connoisseur of art and design.

His impeccable taste will soon be on display, when “Hubert de Givenchy: Collectionneur” hits the market at Christie’s in Paris, with an exhibition beginning on June 8, an online auction from June 8 to 23, and live auctions from June 14 to 17. There are more than 1,200 lots of paintings, sculptures, furniture, and objects, including contents from two of Givenchy’s most remarkable houses: the Hôtel d’Orrouer, in Paris, and the Château du Jonchet, in the Loire Valley.

The exterior of Hôtel d’Orrouer, on Rue de Grenelle.

In the house’s courtyard salon, Picasso’s Faun With a Spear, 1947, is flanked by Antoni Tàpies’s Sans Titre, 1977 (bottom right), and Picasso’s Faunes et Tête de Femme, 1946 (bottom left).

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The sale is also a testament to the shared taste of an impressive couple. Givenchy and his partner, fellow couturier Philippe Venet, had known each other since the early 1950s, when both were working at Schiaparelli. Their relationship lasted more than 65 years (Givenchy died in 2018, and Venet last year). “You can’t disassociate them,” says Suzi de Givenchy, the widow of the designer’s nephew, also named Hubert de Givenchy. “You just always thought of them together—Uncle Hubert and Uncle Philippe.”

Suzi de Givenchy lives around the corner from the designer’s grand house on Rue de Grenelle and visited the couple for most of her life. “You came past the front door and into a walkway, with the whole courtyard giving you a view of his apartments and the very, very tall windows,” she recalls. “It was just magnificent. And then there were laurel trees with little white stones around them. They would be raked often, so you wouldn’t even want to walk on the stones because you didn’t want to disturb the lines—it was like a Zen garden.”

The Hôtel d’Orrouer, also known as the Hôtel de Bauffremont, was built in 1732 in the high Regency style, and has been a French national monument since 1926. Before owning it, Givenchy had long had his eye on it. In 1986, his close friend Susan Gutfreund offered to sell him the second floor. He snapped it up, spent seven years restoring it, and then acquired the ground floor too. With its massive garden and cobblestone courtyard, the Hôtel d’Orrouer is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular private homes in Paris, hidden from the street by an imposing carved limestone wall and an oversize double door.

Hôtel d’Orrouer’s Red Bedroom.

The first-floor landing.

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“Even the facade was so Hubert,” says Charles Cator, deputy chairman of Christie’s International, who is a cohead of the sale and was a close friend of Givenchy’s. “The huge immaculate door is dark green, because green was his favorite color. In the hall, you were greeted by Paul, the incredibly nice maître d’hôtel. And then you went into that first room and saw a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, and your heart sort of leapt.” For Cator, the house’s entrance alone was a master class in Givenchy’s approach to interiors. “It was very contemporary, with simple wood paneling, painted, and no gilding,” he explains. “And contemporary pictures, the Giacometti bronze, and some modern sofas and chairs; some 18th-century objects as well, but very controlled. Then he had Regency armoires, which had a monumentality—I think he had a fantastic understanding of scale.”

Givenchy’s house in the Loire Valley, southwest of Paris, was, if possible, even more imposing. It was a great Renaissance château, dating from the 16th century, surrounded by a moat and looking onto gardens and the Aigre River. “Growing up in America, one never really saw something like that,” recalls Suzi de Givenchy, who was born in Hong Kong and raised in the United States. “It was really quite overwhelming the first time you went. But even though it was grand because of the size and the way they planned out the gardens, the whole atmosphere was very comfortable. Still, I often felt, I can’t believe I get to sleep in a place like this, because it is so like a fairy tale.”

The drawing room, overlooking the garden.

Olivier de Givenchy is the son of Jean-Claude, the elder brother of Hubert, who directed the couture house for decades. “I remember the first time we were there,” he says of the château. “My twin brother, James, and I were 13, so it was in 1977, and the house had just been finished. What I can remember is seeing the courtyard and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this is just beautiful!’ Inside, there were always candles—it smelled like orange blossom, or a mix of lily of the valley and citrus. Our bedroom was all the way at the top of the tower, with sculptures on the way that were lit from below—you felt you were in a theater, in some ways. The light was always perfect. The fires were lit.”

Cator feels that, paradoxically, Givenchy’s aesthetic also had a certain modesty. “It was this very clever mix of grandeur, strength, and simplicity,” he explains. “Jonchet had a sort of fantastic serenity. It had these big rooms, big volumes, with windows on two sides, and then this quite strong furniture, Louis XIII and early Louis XIV, but with linen covers, and big sofas—all incredibly comfortable.” When asked what he thinks drove Givenchy as a collector, Cator is quick to answer: “Harmony. And creating wonderful places for him and Philippe and for their friends. He had this sense of balance from his work in fashion—he was a creator in the fullest sense of the word.”

The grand living room at the 16th-century Château du Jonchet, in the Loire Valley.

Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy was born in 1927, in Beauvais, north of Paris. His family was Protestant, which, in France, can denote a certain asceticism. One of his first fascinations was with the military uniforms collected by his maternal grandfather, Jules Badin, an artist and the director of the Beauvais and Gobelins tapestry concerns. “Uncle Hubert used to say that if he did well in school, as a present, he was allowed into his grandfather’s studio, which was a kind of magical world,” Olivier de Givenchy remembers. “It had everything from armors from the Middle Ages to 14th-century tapestries from Beauvais. He went and he touched fabrics—that was his reward. Through that, he began to create his own world, defining what beauty meant to him, and he then refined it over the years.”

Givenchy moved to Paris and began his career in fashion working for Jacques Fath, Robert Piguet, Lucien Lelong, and Elsa Schiaparelli, and then started his own house in 1952. One year after the house opened, he had an encounter that would prove revolutionary. “Uncle Hubert always spoke of Audrey Hepburn with a lot of tenderness and warmth,” explains Suzi de Givenchy. “He liked to tell the story about the first time they met. She came to the atelier, and he thought that he was going to be meeting Katharine Hepburn. Instead, it was this beautiful little young woman, and the start of this love story.”

Château du Jonchet’s dining room.

He ended up designing for Hepburn personally, and for such iconic films as Sabrina, Funny Face, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The two were lifelong friends. “More than a designer, he is a creator of personality,” she once said. He called her “a doe-eyed angel,” and framed photos of her dotted his house in Paris. Olivier de Givenchy remembers one poignant example of their closeness: a note that she wrote in 1960, on a flight from Paris to Los Angeles, on the back of an Air France envelope. “ ‘This is why I love you,’ she started in French, before switching into English and listing in two pages exactly why she loved him. That, on its own, tells the story of their relationship.”

Other women were important in his life—particularly Bunny Mellon, the art collector, patron, and garden designer. She had a dedicated room at Jonchet, and she and Givenchy worked together on the design of the gardens. According to Meryl Gordon, author of Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend, Givenchy and Mellon met when Balenciaga closed his couture house, in 1968. The Spanish couturier walked her across the street to Givenchy’s studio and said, “Now, Bunny, this is a place where you must be dressed because I cannot dress you anymore.”

The château’s first-floor bathroom.

After Givenchy retired, in 1995, from the house he had founded, he focused on his other great loves: art and design. He became the chairman of the supervisory board of Christie’s France—a role facilitated by his impeccable taste—at a time when the French market was opening to international auction houses. A painting by Mark Rothko that Givenchy bought with Mellon on a visit to the artist’s New York studio, Untitled (Red-Brown, Black, Green, Red), 1962, is now in the collection of the Fondation Beyeler; a massive painting by Joan Miró, Bleu I, 1961, which is part of a triptych, has joined its matching canvases in the collection of the Centre Pompidou.

Christie’s will offer no less impressive pieces, including the large Giacometti sculpture that Cator remembers from the entrance of the Paris house, titled Woman Walking, 1955; a large Miró, The Passage of the Migratory Bird, 1968; a male bronze attributed to François Girardon, circa 1700; and a large chalk drawing by Pablo Picasso, Faun With a Spear, 1947. “One that we have seen throughout his homes is that big Picasso drawing,” says Olivier de Givenchy. “It’s a faun, but it is really the devil with a mask on—it is just magnificent.”

A view of the stately gardens.

The decorative objects are also extraordinary, including gilded 18th-century tables, a Louis XV bureau, and a monumental, late-18th-century cylinder desk by David Roentgen; one of the latter was made for Louis XVI, and another for his brother, the Count of Provence. “This cylinder bureau sort of sums up the style of Hubert,” Cator says. “It is unbelievably beautifully made in a fantastic mahogany, and it does all sorts of mechanical things. It was always in his bedroom in Paris—it’s a complete work of art.”

It was le Grand Hubert who may have best summarized the connection between his art, his furniture, and his designs. “He had this expression that he used all the time,” Cator recalls. “ ‘Noble simplicity.’ ”

Givenchy, at Jonchet, in the December 1979 issue of W.

© Christie’s images limited, François Halard (6). François Halard (3). Marc Bulka, W Magazine, December 1979.