PARIS — Seated in the stately salon of his hôtel particulier here, surrounded with artwork by Matisse, Picasso, Miró, Nicolas de Staël and Kurt Schwitters, Hubert de Givenchy lives up to every inch of his reputation as the epitome of the aristocratic couturier.
Coffee is served on a silver tray, the books on the table are arranged just so, and Givenchy, 80, a gray sweater draped over his shoulders, talks about his plans for vacation, which this summer include two months sequestered in his château, followed by a jaunt to the Mediterranean island of Sardinia and a yacht excursion in Turkey.
Even though the couturier retired in 1995, his agenda remains full.
"The good Lord doesn't want me yet," he joked, adding that he feels better after a couple of health issues earlier in the year.
Still energetic, Givenchy recently agreed to sit on a committee at the Château de Versailles that oversees acquisitions. He also joined a board at the Louvre museum to lend his eye to the renovation of its rooms for 18th-century furniture, a subject about which he has extensive knowledge, having built up his own collection of pieces, which he later sold at Christie's.
The project closest to Givenchy's heart, however, remains the Cristóbal Balenciaga Foundation, currently being built in Getaria, Spain, which he is overseeing, although a construction setback last year has delayed the opening.
"Balenciaga was my religion," offered Givenchy, explaining that he has assembled more than 1,000 dresses for the collection. "Since I'm a believer, for me there's Balenciaga and the good Lord.
"Balenciaga had a sense of the construction of clothes," continued Givenchy. "He did things that were intelligent, which isn't the case today. People are interested in glitz.
"Fashion's over. There are bags and shoes that are more and more ugly. That's all. There are perfumes and everyone talks of luxury. But for me, luxury is, in part, to be well dressed."
Though Givenchy protested several times that he didn't want to talk about fashion — "I'm too old for that" — he gravitated naturally to the subject, opining on everything from the accessories boom to the state of his former house, now owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton."I suffer," he lamented. "What is happening [at Givenchy] doesn't make me happy. After all, one is proud of one's name."
Since he retired in 1995, Givenchy, who dressed style icons like Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and Jackie Kennedy, said he felt his former house had failed to crystallize his style into a modern reality. John Galliano, who is now at Dior, was the first of a long line of designers who have attempted to bring Givenchy modern verve. Alexander McQueen, Julien Macdonald and, now, Italian Riccardo Tisci have followed.
"The error they've made at Givenchy?" mused Givenchy. "When the Wertheimers hired Karl Lagerfeld, for example, they asked him to do Chanel, and he did Chanel. There is always something of the Chanel spirit in what he does. That's why it worked.
"If at Givenchy, in the beginning, [management] would have told the designers to look into the archives, which are formidable — there are dresses for Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy. There's an enormous choice. Designers could take them and readapt them to today.
"But when the management tells a designer nothing, he wants to try to show his talent. He thinks he's going to become a great couturier and he ends up doing junk."
Givenchy said he recently met Tisci, whom he found charming as a person.
"The house asked if I would see him. It's a delicate position to be in. It's not for me to tell him [what to do]. He asked questions. I told him there are documents, films. Then when I see in the press what he does, there's no feeling of the house. I ask myself, 'What end does a conversation like that serve?'"
Even if he bemoans the direction the house has taken, Givenchy is wise enough to chalk it up to the changing world. "The era is different," he conceded. "There has been a general rupture.
"I was lucky enough to have worked when there were truly great couturiers: Madame Grès, Mr. Dior, Mr. Balmain, Mr. Balenciaga. Dresses were meant to make women beautiful."There used to be wonderful dresses in the windows at Dior. Now you see bathing suits and bags. How many bags can people buy? Maybe women don't want to get dressed up anymore."
Despite the distance he feels from the fashion operation of his old house, Givenchy said he entertains closer relations when it comes to the fragrance business. The division was built up by the designer and his elder brother, Jean-Claude, who served as president of Parfums Givenchy and whose son, James Taffin de Givenchy, is a jewelry designer in New York.
Alain Lorenzo, the current president and chief executive of Parfums Givenchy, meets regularly with Givenchy to solicit his opinion. "Alain Lorenzo wants my advice. I tell him, he listens, and then he does what he wants. It's a friendly relationship. I think there are nice things, and others that aren't so much my taste."
He admitted at times he considers how he would approach fashion today. "I'd do really chic separates," he said. "Clothes that women could wear, that is like a really luxurious ready-to-wear. But no one is asking me.
"I'm not preaching how to dress," he continued. "I just see that things are different. It hurts me because fashion is such a beautiful thing. One can do so many things to make a woman even more beautiful."
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