Hubert de Givenchy’s fashion fixation started early. As a child, he told W in October 1979, he would sketch wardrobe ideas for various heads of state, and “at nine, I made a little box which was a copy of what dresses [were] delivered in from a grand fashion house.”
The practice served him well. In 1952, after stints at Piguet and Elsa Schiaparelli, he founded his own label, and the Duchess of Windsor, Gloria Guinness and Audrey Hepburn became fans. Evidently, they were willing to suffer for style. In 1958 Givenchy admitted to Women’s Wear Daily, W’s sister publication, that he never thought about “whether the skirt is wide enough to walk in, how the wearer will look getting into and out of a taxi.… I consider the beauty and artistic value of a fashion, not its utility.”
It sounds like a philosophy straight out of the 19th century, but Givenchy always saw himself as a modernist. “I like youth,” he told W in 1979, “and I feel my work reflects this epoch.” The designer’s work also reflected that of Cristóbal Balenciaga, whom he considered a demigod. “Balenciaga was my religion,” Givenchy told Women’s Wear Daily last year. “Since I’m a believer…there’s Balenciaga and the good Lord.”
He owned his company for 36 years but professed no regrets after selling it to Louis Vuitton in 1988. When Bernard Arnault took the helm in 1990, however, Givenchy was less than pleased. “I would like to have more contact with Arnault so I could submit my ideas.… We have one director today, the next day another. It’s not easy,” the designer, who retired in 1995, complained to W in 1991.
The tension did not dampen Givenchy’s well-known joie de vivre, though. He took pleasure in a retrospective of his work being staged that year at the Palais Galleria in Paris—but he refused to call it what it was. “It’s not a retrospective; it’s 40 years,” the then 64-year-old insisted in the 1991 interview. “I refer to it that way because it sounds younger, as if I’m 40.”
Givenchy: Nick Machalaba/Fairchild archive