In less than an hour, “Hubert de Givenchy: A Life in Haute Couture” serenely unfolds, revealing numerous milestones in the 89-year-old designer’s life. Within minutes, Givenchy lays bare his ethos, explaining, “I had this creativity always with this will for perfection, and I always said to myself, ‘Look for what’s best.’ ‘That’s your goal, your driving principle.’”
The designer offers a few clues about his life and career, such as losing his father at age two, how his younger self had the gumption to take a train and a few of his sketches to pay Cristóbal Balenciaga an unannounced visit, and how years later René Gruau connected him with Elsa Schiaparelli, who became one of his numerous storied employers. Underscoring his pursuits, Givenchy says in the film, “When you are a designer, what’s important is to be aware of things. Everything should lead to an idea, a line to follow, a movement.”
In director Eric Pellerin’s movie, Givenchy also notes how Christian Dior did not hold a grudge and they became great friends after Givenchy turned down a job offer from Dior in order to open his own house at the age of 24 in 1952. Detailing his “platonic love affair” with Audrey Hepburn, Givenchy laughed recalling how he initially tried to discourage her, when she was in search of designs for her 1954 role in “Sabrina.” The designer also recaptures Jacques Fath’s atelier pretty clearly, recalling how the designer often worked bare-chested and preferred to do the draping himself with a pin-wielding seamstress at the ready. At one point, Givenchy says Yves Saint Laurent was “the last leader.” And he later sizes up the current state of fashion: “We speak more than ever about luxury. There are more and more dresses but no direction. Bags with chains, almost unwearable shoes….If that’s luxury, it will pass,” he says.
Through the years, his take on the luxe life was defined by his professional involvement with Fath, Robert Piguet, Lucien Lelong and Schiaparelli. Inspired by Miro, Matisse, Rothko and other artists, Givenchy once created a dress reminiscent of Christian Bérard’s marble carvings. “What I actually liked was the fabric, the creation. You drew and drew and it was never enough,” he says in the film.
Friday’s screening at FIT will be part of the new Dean’s Dialogue series presented by the School of Art and Design. After the New York debut, the Horizon Pictures documentary will be shown Sunday at the International Art Film Festival in Montreal and then the Melbourne International Film Festival.
In a phone interview, Pellerin said he met his subject, when both were working on the Chateau de Haroué exhibition “Givenchy, Venet, Balenciaga.” A leisurely, highly conversational dinner only made Pellerin more curious about Givenchy’s life. “I wasn’t into fashion a lot, but I searched a bit and discovered there was nothing really important done about Mr. Givenchy except a biography that is quite interesting,” he said.
Pellerin was intrigued by the creative class that existed in Paris after World Wars I and II — where Givenchy mingled with the likes of Poulenc, Kochno, Cocteau and Coco Chanel, among others. The designer, he said, “was in this very bustling and creative city with all the dancers and amazing artists who really made the century.”
Even at 89, Givenchy remains active, preparing exhibitions, drawing, publishing books, sharing his passion for 18th and 16th century furniture and culture. With the help of Princess Minnie de Beauvau-Craon, his next project will be a Château d’Haroué exhibition dedicated to King Stanislas Leszczynski, Duke of Lorraine and King of Poland.
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 has a warmth that resonates with people, Pellerin said, “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 whether it’s flowers or a little toy for the daughter of a seamstress. He has been very kind to a lot of people. 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.”
As for the designer’s fondness for Hepburn, Pellerin said, “It was amazing to see how they shared their lives and brought so much to each other, obviously in terms of publicity. But first of all, I think it was really some kind of love. If it was a platonic love, it was so strong. Their friendship really lasted every step of their lives. They were very trustful of one another for all those years. It never stopped. It was pure, earnest and very lovely.
“He really found in Audrey what made him a pioneer — he found a muse,” Pellerin added. “He was the first to have a famous person represent a fragrance [L’interdit] in ads and commercials.”
The director added that Givenchy “is kind of the last witness of this amazing period in the Fifties in Paris where you felt that anything was possible. Probably today we always worry about money and we are reduced to a short perspective of life. Mr. Givenchy followed his dream since his childhood. He has no frustrations.”
However privileged visitors feel when walking into Givenchy’s Paris apartment, their eyes turn to “how beautiful the decor is and the mixture of modern art, paintings and drawings near chandeliers or chairs from Versailles or Buckingham Palace. You don’t feel as though you are in a museum but that you are in the home of a family,” Pellerin said. “There is a black Labrador, and Philippe Venet, who is Mr. Givenchy’s oldest friend. You’re not in a museum, not knowing where to sit or what to touch. There is art, books, animals — even if Mr. Givenchy is of a certain age, somehow you feel all the inspiration and creativity all around you. That’s alive. You see that somebody is living in it.”
Givenchy acknowledged as much in closing the documentary when he said, “There’s still a lot of happiness and a lot to discover, so I’m waiting.”