PARIS — The fashion world has lost a giant — figuratively and literally. Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy, the 6-foot, 6-inch French aristocrat who founded the house of Givenchy in 1952, died Saturday at age 91, his partner Philippe Venet said Monday.
Givenchy was best known to the general public as the creator of the film and personal wardrobes of his longtime muse, Audrey Hepburn, in movies including “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Funny Face.” The actress also inspired his first perfume, L’Interdit.
With his perfect manners and old-school discipline, the couturier had a distinguished presence that colored the fashion industry for more than 50 years. A consummate collector with an impeccable eye for objects as well as interior design, he leaves behind a fashion house that defined the very notions of refinement and elegance.
“I like to make beautiful things, to feel them in my hands. But I also love the pleasure of seeing a dress come alive on a woman. It’s a short-lived sensation, but there is nothing like it,” Givenchy said in 1982, when the Fashion Institute of Technology staged the “Givenchy: 30 Years” retrospective of his fashion house.
Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which acquired the fashion house in 1988, said he was “deeply saddened” by Givenchy’s death.
“He was among those designers who placed Paris firmly at the heart of world fashion post-1950 while creating a unique personality for his own fashion label. In both prestigious long dresses and daywear, Hubert de Givenchy has brought together two rare qualities: to be innovative and timeless,” Arnault said.
French President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement: “From his name, he created a label, with this label he built an emblem — that of French elegance, taking up the flame of the great, prewar couturiers (notably Jacques Fath, in whose workshop he cut his teeth), to carry it even further and even higher.”
Recounting the various influences on Givenchy’s life — from Christian Dior to model Bettina Graziani to Cristóbal Balenciaga and, finally, Audrey Hepburn — Macron said, “France has lost a master. A master of elegance, creation and invention, a master of his culture and ambassador of this spirit of liberty and audacity. It is through artists like this that France resonates in the world and there is no doubt that the figure of Hubert de Givenchy will continue to exist for a long while.”
Ralph Toledano, president of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, said aside from his strikingly elegant presence in his white work coat, Givenchy stood out for his forward-thinking approach.
“He was one of the first to make the leap into ready-to-wear with very wearable fabrics and styles,” Toledano noted. On top of this, Givenchy went on to a successful second career as honorary president of Christie’s France auction house between 1998 and 2002.
“What I found extraordinary was not so much his longevity as the way he managed to withdraw completely from fashion to enter a totally different field and have two separate careers,” Toledano said. “It’s very interesting and very impressive.”
“I remember meeting him at 17, when I was looking for a job in Paris and he was the hottest house,” reminisced Valentino Garavani, of Givenchy. “Unfortunately, he did not hire me, but I kept admiring his vision, his perfection of cut and elegance. Like me, he always respected the woman’s body, never inflicting what was cool but only what was flattering.”
“Hubert didn’t make any mistake in his choices,” said Emanuel Ungaro. “Schiaparelli — at the very start of his career path — illuminated [him with her] creative and contagious genius…linked to the poetic movements of her time, illuminated by freedom.
“His encounter with Cristóbal Balenciaga was decisive in the architecture of his creativity [and he retained] the major lessons of this genius,” continued Ungaro.
“Hubert de Givenchy epitomized the elegance of haute couture. His style was inspired by his personal vision and inherited values, a style driven by his own charisma and that of his long-standing muse and ambassador, Audrey Hepburn,” said François-Henri Pinault, ceo of Kering.
“Hubert Givenchy was the true gentleman of fashion,” said Ralph Lauren, who invited the designer to his Legion of Honor ceremony in Paris in 2010. “Beyond his talent and influence as a legendary couturier, he was a person of inestimable refinement and taste. During the memorable times I was with him I was always struck by his unassuming nature, his quiet dignity and, of course, our shared love of Audrey Hepburn. He brought such integrity to the world of design and though we will miss the man, his spirit will continue to inspire us.”
Akris creative director Albert Kriemler and his brother, Akris president Peter Kriemler, dined with Givenchy in Paris on March 5 at the designer’s beckoning.
“He invited us to lunch at home with Philippe to remember our father, who died in late November. Hubert worshipped our late mother [Ute, who died in 2012] and would always speak about her — also several times during that last lunch,” Albert Kriemler recalled. “He was in great spirits, full of ideas and excited to tell us about his next travel plans and projects of the next weeks, beside remembering moments we shared earlier in our lives.”
Givenchy worked closely with the elder Kriemlers in the Seventies, when the Swiss company’s ateliers produced and distributed the rtw collections Givenchy Nouvelle Boutique and Givenchy 5.
“As a teenager, I attended several fittings with Monsieur Givenchy in his studio,” Kriemler recalled. “He was a fundamental inspiration for my work in my entire life — a true friend and the grandest gentleman I have ever met in my life, a wonderful man and living expression of class, style and taste.”
Christian Lacroix said he was “more than sad” in learning about Givenchy’s passing. “We never were so close, but since the very beginning, Mr. de Givenchy was the perfect gentleman,” he said. “Since my beginning with Mr. Philippe Venet – (an exquisite man and so talented a couturier, too) – they were both very supportive when we opened the house of Lacroix.”
Lacroix said he is a fan of Givenchy’s early work – “everything from his own debut, in embroidered cotton, his fresh-spirited approach to couture, so French with a mixture of simplicity and a zip of daringness.
“He was devoted to his master Balenciaga, but had his own touch, with Audrey Hepburn as a muse,” continued Lacroix. “Thanks to him, I had the opportunity of meeting her at the opening of his Galliera museum exhibition. She was heavenly nice, and they both invented the icon of a certain Parisienne.”
Lacroix and Givenchy also met other times while the latter worked on exhibitions. Lacroix regrets having a “hand-written, charming and not answered” note from the designer.
Reminiscing further back in time, Lacroix said: “I was invited to his last couture show. [It was] very moving and high-style. He was so handsome, too!”
The house of Givenchy issued a statement paying homage to its founder, “a major personality of the world of French haute couture and a gentleman who symbolized Parisian chic and elegance for more than half a century.”
Givenchy championed the concept of separates with his first couture collection in 1952, and two years later became the first designer to launch a luxury rtw line, LVMH noted.
“And he revolutionized international fashion with the timelessly stylish looks he created for Audrey Hepburn, his great friend and muse for over 40 years. His work remains as relevant today as it was then. He will be greatly missed,” the house said.
Givenchy’s timeless, streamlined designs appealed to a broad swathe of prominent women, including Princess Grace of Monaco, Bunny Mellon, the Duchess of Windsor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Jane Fonda, Sao Schlumberger, Debo Devonshire and Deeda Blair, among others.
“I loved Hubert, such a great man,” said Linda Pinto, sister and longtime collaborator of the late interior designer Alberto Pinto. “I will not talk about his talent, which everyone knows. I will talk about his intelligence, his elegance, his refinement, his beauty, his magnificent memory.…I have known him for so many years. He made the dresses for my wedding in 1976, and thanks to him, I was told I was very elegant. Of course, I went to all his fashion shows, which were ravishingly elegant — femininity at its best — always making women beautiful. I will miss him. He will always be in my heart.”
Daphne Guinness said, “I first got to know him as a teenager via my grandmother Diana [Mitford] and my Aunt Deborah [Mitford, the late Duchess of Devonshire]. He dressed her and Debo, and was a man of such taste, manners and warmth — and he was so friendly. When I got married, he sent me so many flowers there was practically a whole tree waiting for me at home. I adored him and he was an early mentor of mine and even made me a couple of things early on. He was terribly kind, and I will miss him.”
Guinness added that his generosity knew no bounds. She said her grandmother had an elderly friend who didn’t have much money and was going on holiday to Italy. “Before the trip there was a knock on her door and the delivery of two suitcases filled with a full wardrobe that Hubert had made for my grandmother’s friend. That would never happen today. He was pure elegance.”
Susan Gutfreund, who lived next to Givenchy in Paris for decades, recalled, “We shared some wonderful moments at his house in Jonchet, staying with him there, meals in the Paris house. It was a very different side. What was extraordinary was his enormous sense of discipline in everything he did. The way he would set the table, everything was sheer perfection, porcelain, the way the one or two orchids may be on the table, but it was never about just the flowers. It was about the porcelain and the beautiful crystal and silver and the food, just perfection. Simple, but perfect.
“I found out that I was pregnant when I was staying at his house. It was freezing cold and I wasn’t feeling well and we thought I had the flu. That was in ’84 at the chateau. There are those hundreds of thoughts that go through your mind over things we shared over the years. Friends, we have mutual friends, Audrey, having spent some time with Audrey in Capucines with them quietly and privately with him. It was a lovely privilege to have had him as a friend and a neighbor,” added Gutfreund.
Yet Givenchy could be filled with contradictions — at times warm, funny and gracious, at others cold and imperious, using all of his height to intimidate. Immensely generous to some on the one hand, on the other he could be stingy even with his closest friends. And he could lose his temper, once throwing a punch at WWD’s then-Paris bureau chief Patrick McCarthy until publisher and editorial director John B. Fairchild intervened.
“Mine is one of the most beautiful professions in fashion: making others happy with an idea,” the designer said last year at the opening of the “Hubert de Givenchy” exhibition at the Museum of Lace and Fashion in Calais.
“I am happy because I did the job I dreamt of as a child,” he said at a press conference, where he offered recollections about his professional and personal relationships with some of his prominent clients, as well as the lifelong object of his admiration and respect, Cristóbal Balenciaga.
Givenchy sold his label, Givenchy Couture Group, to LVMH in 1988 for $45 million after 36 years of independence. He remained head of creative design for seven years before retiring in 1995.
In the following years, the house saw a revolving door of designers: John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Julien MacDonald. Riccardo Tisci took over the label in 2005, putting it back on the design map with his daring, Goth-tinged fashions during a stellar 12-year tenure.
Following Tisci’s departure in 2017, Clare Waight Keller became the brand’s first female artistic director. She has referenced Givenchy’s graphic designs with black-and-white advertising campaigns, and mined a masculine-feminine territory with coed fashion shows.
“I am deeply saddened by the loss of a great man and artist I have had the honor to meet and get to know since my appointment at Givenchy,” Waight Keller said.
“Not only was he one of the most influential fashion figures of our time, whose legacy still influences modern-day dressing, but he also was one of the chicest, most charming men I have ever met. The definition of a true gentleman, that will stay with me forever,” she added.
Waight Keller met Givenchy days before showing her debut collection for the label on Oct. 1. “I was just, like, trying to find the various senses of what he does. And he said, ‘Everything is from the shoulder for me,’” she told WWD last fall.
“He was asking me about how the sales are, who are the customers. He has an absolute passion for haute couture; he said that is the starting point of the house for him. That is the vision. He said, ‘For me, haute couture is everything,’” she said. “He’s extremely fascinated by fashion and what’s happening now.”
Marco Gobbetti, now chief executive officer of Burberry, recalled what a humbling experience it was to walk into Givenchy headquarters in 2004 when he had joined the French house after a long career at Moschino. (Gobbetti recruited Tisci a year later and remained at the management helm until 2008, when he moved to Céline.)
“I was very honored and lucky to have met him and to have worked for his brand. It was my first job in Paris. Walking into the building was an incredible feeling,” he recalled. “More than anything, I want to express my deep respect for Monsieur de Givenchy, what he has represented for fashion. He was an icon, not only of fashion, but of style.
“He was just elegant in everything he did,” he added.
Tisci called de Givenchy “a real gentlemen” and “the perfect combination of elegance, savoir faire and creativity.”
“He was the genuine couturier who has influenced his generation, and inspired the next ones, thanks to his taste, his knowledge and his love for beauty,” said Tisci, who started on Monday as creative director of Burberry.
He lauded the late couturier as “a real avant-gardist who has been capable to reshape not only the women’s silhouette, but also fashion and culture.”
MacDonald said, “I was very sad to read about the passing of Mr. Hubert de Givenchy today. Working at Givenchy was one of the greatest honors of my career.
“Mr. Givenchy was a man of flawless taste and style, he created an incredible legacy of elegance, beauty and timeless perfection and was a global inspiration that went beyond fashion and film. He will be sadly missed.”
Savile Row tailor Ozwald Boateng, who was named creative director at Givenchy Homme in 2003, emphasized the couturier’s emotional attachment to his brand. Boateng met with the designer to reassure him about plans for the house. “He was very touched,” recounted Boateng of the encounter.
“It’s always difficult for a designer when they move away from their brand, there’s always this strong emotional attachment, and he demonstrated that and spoke to me about it,” said Boateng, noting designers creating labels under their own names are faced with the challenge of ensuring longevity.
“The good news for him is his brand’s still alive, his name’s still alive. I think that’s a great thing,” added Boateng.
Born into a family of aristocratic stock in Beauvais, France, on Feb. 21, 1927, Givenchy was raised by his grandfather, an artist and tapestry maker, and was perpetually surrounded by his seamstress cousins. “It was always my dream to be a dress designer,” he once said.
While still studying at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Givenchy began an apprenticeship with the leading couturier of the time, Jacques Fath, in 1945. He worked briefly for Robert Piguet and Lucien Lelong before joining Elsa Schiaparelli, where he became artistic director of the Schiaparelli boutique on Place Vendôme.
By 1952, the designer’s gifts earned him financial backing, and he established his couture house on Rue Alfred de Vigny in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.
His debut collection of separates was dedicated to the model Bettina Graziani, who served as an early muse and press agent to the young designer and a close friend until the end of his life. Among his enduring designs is the puff-sleeved Bettina blouse.
Givenchy explained that a woman should be able to easily “suit her whims and immediate requirements of dress,” and his first collection exhibited many two-piece evening gowns with easily substituted pieces. He explained that he was “offering his client the pleasure of feeling herself a bit of a creator of her own style.”
In his fall 1957 couture collection, Givenchy launched the loose-fitting sack dress, causing outrage when it was adapted by Macy’s and Ohrbach’s for the American market.
As a designer, Givenchy was consummately discreet, never losing sight of the fact that, in the early part of his career, private clients were his bread-and-butter. “Fashion is such a beautiful thing, “ Givenchy told WWD in 2007. “One can do so many things to make a woman even more beautiful.”
He will perhaps be best remembered for his close friendship with Hepburn, which lasted until her 1993 death. The two met in 1953, when the actress approached Givenchy to design several outfits for the 1954 film “Sabrina,” a film that went on to win an Oscar for costume design for Edith Head.
“You all know the story of my meeting with Audrey,” he said last year, referencing the fact that he was expecting Katharine Hepburn and was surprised to find the casually dressed young actress. Givenchy initially said he was too busy designing his collection, but was won over during dinner with Hepburn.
“From the moment I met her to the moment she left us, we had a beautiful friendship, but we also worked with joy with an exceptional person,” he said.
Hepburn in turn had said: “Hubert de Givenchy is far more than a couturier: he creates personalities.” From that point onward, she had him written into her film contracts, though in the end it was just one outfit that mattered: the simple black dress from the opening scene of the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
“It isn’t just a black dress,” said Gobbetti, who was president and chief executive officer of Givenchy Couture between 2004 and 2008. “It’s the house’s biggest icon. It symbolizes the relationship between Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn and crystallizes the house’s style.”
In December 2006, the black satin dress sold at Christie’s South Kensington for $577,638 — well beyond the presale opening estimate of $63,310. At that time, the auction set a new world record for a dress made for a movie.
Hepburn can also be credited with inspiring the launch of Givenchy fragrances, an empire in its own right for more than 40 years, founded under Givenchy’s late brother, Jean-Claude.
In 1954, Givenchy created a custom floral scent for his friend and muse. When he informed her three years later that he planned to commercialize the scent, Hepburn allegedly declared, “I forbid you,” an assertion that gave birth to the name “L’Interdit” (“Forbidden,” in English) and started a fragrance legacy.
In 2002 and again in 2007, Givenchy rereleased the classic scent, supported by an ad campaign featuring Audrey Hepburn, reminding contemporary consumers of the historic and inextricable link between the designer and the icon.
“Ysatis is the first fragrance I ever created, which makes it very unique to my heart,” said International Flavors and Fragrances perfumer Dominique Ropion, referring to the Givenchy fragrance he created with the designer in 1984. “It was such an iconic French brand, which captured the essence of French feminine impertinence and elegance.
“All of the perfumes I later created for Givenchy — Amarige, Very Irresistible, Live Irresistible — were strongly influenced by this vision of femininity,” Ropion continued. “It was Hubert de Givenchy who created this unique and modern vision, which influenced all of my Givenchy creations, which spreads across many decades and is still alive today.”
Givenchy also found a profoundly loyal client in Onassis, designing the white silk bell-skirted Givenchy gown the first lady wore to Versailles during President John F. Kennedy’s state visit to France in 1961. “Versailles at last has a queen,” French papers read. Givenchy also designed the suit she wore for Kennedy’s funeral in 1963.
Givenchy considered Balenciaga, whom he met because of neighboring ateliers on Avenue George V, as his mentor until his death in 1972. “Balenciaga was my religion,” Givenchy said in 2007. “Since I’m a believer, for me there’s Balenciaga and the good Lord.”
Balenciaga not only guided Givenchy through the art of couture, but after closing his house in 1968, sent him his clientele. “Balenciaga had a sense of the construction of clothes,” said 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,” he opined.
A faithful protégé, Givenchy spent his life building an archive of more than 1,000 Balenciaga dresses. After retiring from designing in 1995, Givenchy devoted much of his time to keeping Balenciaga’s name alive, and a project especially close to his heart was the Cristóbal Balenciaga Foundation.
Givenchy served as curator for the Mona Bismarck Foundation’s 2006 show in Paris, “Bismarck and Balenciaga: Shared Perfection.”
It was Balenciaga’s advice that led Givenchy to launch licenses, and shortly after his mentor’s death, he diversified his house by including shoes, cosmetics, jewelry and, in 1976, a Givenchy edition Ford Lincoln Continental.
In 2010, Givenchy was the curator of a fashion exhibit at the Château de Haroué near Nancy, France, titled “Cristóbal Balenciaga, Venet, Givenchy at Château de Haroué.” The designer brought together 45 of what he considered “the most magical gowns ever made.” Bunny Mellon lent many of her Balenciaga gowns, and a Madrid Museum loaned dresses Givenchy made for Hepburn.
Givenchy was always looking for ways to grow and diversify his label. Though he had already created a luxury rtw line in 1954, Givenchy Université, he did not see real success in rtw until 1968, when he launched Givenchy Nouvelle Boutique, two years after his peer refined the concept with Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche.
In 1969, Givenchy translated the sophisticated elegance of his house to a men’s line, Gentleman Givenchy.
His final couture show in the summer of 1995 drew fellow designers Saint Laurent, Valentino, Christian Lacroix and Oscar de la Renta. WWD described it as “the kind of elegant collection Paris couture used to be about.” “It’s the end of an era,” remarked Lacroix at the time. “This marks a turning point in Paris fashion.”
“Givenchy was one of the key players in the revival of Paris haute couture after World War II,” said Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT. “Along with a somewhat older generation such as Dior and Balenciaga, Givenchy helped promote the image of Paris as the ultimate fashion city, creating clothes that employed all the artisanal genius of the craftspeople of Paris. With a light and feminine touch, he was never as famous as Dior or Balenciaga, but he was still up there with people like Jacques Fath, who really made Paris the center of the couture. And of course, being younger, he continued on after Balenciaga retired in 1968; Balenciaga passed his clients onto Givenchy. ‘Hubert will take care of you,’ he’d say.”
She described Givenchy’s aesthetic “as very feminine and somewhat younger than the old masters like Dior and Balenciaga.”
“He did try and create a younger aesthetic, and you see that with the Audrey Hepburn feeling that this was not just the ‘grande dame of Paris fashion.’ It was someone who was younger, perhaps slimmer. It was a more modern, younger aesthetic,” said Steele.
In 2016, FIT hosted the premiere of Eric Pellerin de Turckheim’s documentary, “Hubert de Givenchy: A Life in Haute Couture,” about the designer.
In an interview with WWD at the time, Pellerin said whether interviewing Givenchy in his Paris apartment, countryside home, at Madrid’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (while preparing his retrospective) or signing copies of “To Audrey With Love” at Christie’s, Givenchy had a warmth that resonated with people.
“If you are not on the same level, it is not a problem because he will see what he likes in you and he will be good to you. That comes from the great attention he gives to people — it’s flowers or a little toy for the daughter of a seamstress. He has been very kind to a lot of people,” he continued. “To his clients, obviously, he really took good care of them.…The work atmosphere was obviously very focused and professional, but at some point he knew how to thank you. And he was not the only center of his world.”
Long an avid collector of antiques — from Chinese to French and English — Givenchy amassed an impressive collection he used to furnish his apartment in Paris and his country estate. He also would advise couture customers on which antiques to buy, often introducing them to the dealers he knew in Paris and London.
In the years before his death, Givenchy remained active and engaged in the arts in Paris. Together with Mellon, he contributed to refurbishing the gardens at the Château de Versailles. He joined a committee to oversee the acquisitions of Versailles, and helped oversee the renovation of the Louvre museum’s rooms for 18th-century furniture.
In March 2017, records were again broken when 21 bespoke pieces by Diego Giacometti from Givenchy’s collection sold at Christie’s auction house in Paris for more than 32 million euros.
“I suppose you could call the way I live a grand style, but I don’t really think of it that way,” he said. “I don’t buy these places to give parties or impress people. I buy them because I like beautiful objects, and I want an appropriate setting for them. I love the idea of remaking something that was once of value, which will last not just through my lifetime but 50, perhaps 100, years after me.”
“After you’ve been to any of his houses, you feel like you live in a slum,” said his client Sheila de Rochambeau in 1991.
“Givenchy is one of the four brands that built French fashion,” Gobbetti once said, listing aristocracy, elegance, irony and romance as key characteristics of the house.
“I see that things are different,” de Givenchy said several years ago. Always thinking about a woman’s life before designing for her, he maintained in the years before his death that if designing today, he would still do “really chic separates. Clothes that women could wear.”
Givenchy is survived by Venet, his nieces and nephews, and their children. His family plans a private funeral and requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Unicef in his name.