Saturday, February 20, 2010

Happy Birthday Hubert de Givenchy!

Happy Birthday to the artist-ocratic Hubert de Givenchy!

In a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose, Hubert de Givenchy said, “Current fashion is ugly,” and went on to specifically mention heavy shoes, an excess of black, and the importance of being clean, suggesting that some people appear to need a bath. For a man who created such beauty, the hard edges and negative aspect of much street inspired, rock and roll fashion of today must be an anathema.

This unassuming but courtly gentleman who was born in Beauvais, France, turned 83 this February.

Givenchy retired in 1995, and was succeeded by a then unpolished John Galliano and a creative but shockingly edgy Alexander McQueen. This drastic change in artistic direction caught the French establishment off guard. It was somewhat like being forced to listen to the Sex Pistols when your favourite music is Mozart. Who can understand the logic of those who want to re-brand venerable houses in a way that makes them unrecognizable and does not acknowledge their rich, historic, and creative past? Change can be refreshing and positive, but obliterating the past is reminiscent of dictatorships. Perhaps in the future we can look forward to some creative re-interpretations of classic Givenchy designs, much the way that current designers have done at Balenciaga, Chanel, Hermes, and Dior.

While many designers have fashions that shout defiantly, Givenchy’s designs spoke gently, clearly and succinctly. He was a disciple of Balenciaga, and that pure, rigorous aesthetic was evident in his designs. The clothes were comfortable, but not loose. They suggested the contours of a woman’s body, but were never tight, clingy or vulgar. Prominent patrons of Givenchy couture were Audrey Hepburn, Bunny Mellon, the Duchess of Windsor, Mona Bismarck, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Jayne Wrightsman. Audrey Hepburn said that her friend Hubert’s clothes were a form of protection for her. Looking at a vintage Givenchy dress today does not convey the sense of beauty with which it was originally presented or seen. Many simple evening dresses were designed with restraint to set off important jewels clients owned. Formal gowns that are without sleeves would have been worn with long gloves, giving a less exposed look than is apparent. Day outfits were often punctuated with inventive hats, highly original and creative sculptures in their own right. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, look at Audrey Hepburn’s little black day dress that she wears with a wide brimmed hat and long organza band to understand how millinery was crucial to the total concept. Many fabrics that have large scale prints, or elaborate surface decoration and embroideries, were put on garments with very simple, uninterrupted lines in order to show the superb design, pattern, and quality of the material.

As a great connoisseur of the arts, Givenchy has collected superlative 20th century art by Giacometti (some of it specially commissioned) and other modern masters, but also collected the most magnificent 18th century furniture and decorative arts. With his infallible, acutely trained eye, his understanding of volume, proportion, colour and balance was skillfully exploited in his fashion designs. While every designer is best known for grandiose evening gowns, and Givenchy did those to perfection, his day clothes were also outstanding. His coats and suits were finely tailored and flattering, and more designers today need to devote more attention to day wear, as Givenchy did.

Wool day suit jacket with "Matisse" motifs, 1992

For a good snapshot of Givenchy designs, look at Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Givenchy’s flawless designs can be seen in cocktail dresses, evening gowns, day coats, and gorgeous hats that enhance ensembles. Incredibly, Edith Head won the Oscar award for best costume in Roman Holiday and in Sabrina, when Givenchy should have been recognized. I’ve written to the Academy of Motion Pictures more than once with regard to this oversight.

There are far fewer books on Givenchy than on Chanel or Dior, and this seems to add to his mystique. The ones that are available really don’t use illustrative examples of his designs to show any chronological progression for the more than four successive decades, and that is a shame, because the collections are sublime.

I’ve seen a few pieces from one of his spring/summer 1992 couture collection, with silk and wool patchwork and applique inspired by Matisse paper cut-outs, and they are incredibly beautiful. “Beautiful,” and “pretty” are words that one rarely hears in fashion anymore. Wouldn’t most women out of their teenage years rather be “beautiful” than “edgy.”? Certainly, if they are dressing for themselves or for men, beautiful is better, and Givenchy and his exclusive clientele thought so too.

Silk day dress with "Matisse" foliate motifs, spring'/summer 1992

Detail of silk floral embroidery on dress Jacqueline Kennedy wore to Versailles, 1961.

Hubert de Givenchy fashions are wonderful to wear. They are comfortable, flattering, elegant, modest, and never make the wearer feel conspicuous. They strike the perfect balance of simplicity and style, without being minimalist or dull. His "look" could be described as mid century, modern Paris, and that is a style that is now classic and eternally flattering. Consider the images of Audrey Hepburn and all will be understood.

For an interesting but rare glimpse of the aristocratic and discreet Hubert de Givenchy, see this 1998 Charlie Rose interview:

Apart from the unforgettable photographic and motion picture images, and existing archival garments that Hepburn wore, all a result of the Hepburn/ Givenchy alliance, the most wonderful thing of all is the legacy of philanthropy, and heightened awareness of the work of UNICEF that endures as testimony to Hepburn’s sensitivity and generosity, the aura within that made her all the more compelling on screen and in person. Givenchy, with his innate understanding of beauty, enhanced this and made it all the more apparent.

In the last decade, Givenchy has used his talent for philanthropic projects such as museum exhibits he has helped to organize, and restoration of the vegetable/ kitchen garden at Versailles. He has donated garments to be auctioned for charitable causes, and it was a delight to know that the proceeds of the extremely high realized prices were going to benefit the underprivileged and needy.

Garden motifs, spring 1961 Jackie's Givenchy Versailles dress

I doubt Givenchy misses the pressure of having to present new collections to legions of journalists looking for sensational changes to report. For Givenchy who loves gardens, plants and flowers so passionately, such philanthropy must be a most rewarding contribution to the disciplines of History, Horticulture and design, not to mention important social causes.

Thank you Monsieur Givenchy, and many happy returns!

Photos of white evening gown from "JACQUELINE KENNEDY; THE WHITE HOUSE YEARS Selections from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, Bulfinch Press/ Little, Brown and Co., 2001.

© 2010 Square With Flair™

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful tribute to a wonderful Human Being.

    One can see his eye for detail and a wonderful innate dynamic for fabrics, textures and design is reflected in everything Givenchy undertook.

    Wonderful tribute M. Square with reminded us of true calibre and class.