Every morning for 43 years, a tall, slender man with an aristocratic bearing strode through the Parisian dawn, stopping when he arrived at No. 3, Avenue Georges Cinq. He unlocked the ornate 18th century door and stepped into a haven of civility.
Hubert de Givenchy put on an immaculate white coat, then ran his fingers over bolts of fabric destined to be shaped into flawless dresses, austere but sophisticated creations that would make wealthy women look and feel very beautiful. In the silent workroom, he began to sketch, knowing the singing of the Portuguese workers who swept the atelier would soon intrude on his solitude.
From now on, the door to the House of Givenchy will be opened by someone else. If John Galliano, the wildly talented British showman chosen to succeed Givenchy, is also an early riser, perhaps he will wield the key. Givenchy will keep custody of his memories.
He was at the center of this century's golden age of couture, a time when no one would have thought to question the fate of haute fashion, as they do today. The legendary women of style whom he clothed and befriended, and the skilled artisans who executed his fantasies, are the focus of his nostalgia.
The showing of the designer's final collection in October had all the pomp of a state event. When Givenchy joined the models on the runway for a farewell bow, many in the audience of press, customers, loyal staff and fellow designers (including Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Lacroix) wiped away tears as they rose to deliver an ovation. The crowd wasn't just showing respect for the passing of a master. With the recent revival of the spare, luxe look Givenchy pioneered in the 1950s, his influence on contemporary fashion remains powerful.
In 1988, Givenchy sold his business and the rights to his name to the French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, which also owns the houses of Dior, Lacroix and Celine. Even in retirement, he has been involved in company ventures, visiting Los Angeles recently to promote the Givenchy Hotel and Spa, which will open in Palm Springs next year.
Reflecting on his first visit to Los Angeles, his eyes sparkle. He came as the guest of the original "Sabrina," Audrey Hepburn. (A remake starring Julia Ormond opens Friday.) They had just collaborated on the costumes for her role in the 1954 romantic comedy. As the oft-told story of their first meeting in Paris goes, Givenchy, having been told that Miss Hepburn wanted to wear his designs in a film, expected to meet Katharine Hepburn. Waiting in his design studio, the young Miss Hepburn would also encounter her second choice; she had hoped that Cristobal Balenciaga, then the reigning couturier, would accept the job. Neither was disappointed.
"Immediately, we had this great sympathy together," Givenchy says. "She was a dancer, and she knew perfectly how to walk and move. I remember how beautiful I thought her smile was. She was completely adorable that first time we met, and she never changed."
"Sabrina," and the way the 22-year-old actress looked in Givenchy's designs, helped make stars of them both, kindred spirits in perfectionism. After the film's release, Hepburn telephoned Givenchy. "Now I'm doing 'Funny Face,' " he recalls her saying, "and I need to have some more clothes. Why don't you come to Los Angeles? We'll have more time to work together here."
At night, the pair would dine with Hollywood royalty. The next morning, they would gossip over strong coffee. Hepburn went on to wear Givenchy's designs in seven movies, and even invited her friend to visit the sets of the period films in which she appeared. "I didn't do any designs for 'My Fair Lady,' " he recalls. "But she called me and told me to fly over to see the sets and all the costumes of Cecil Beaton.
"It was so exciting. When I visited her, we lived in a wonderful house near Sunset Boulevard. Audrey had to go to the studio early, so we would have breakfast at 5 a.m. She would go off to work and I'd go back to sleep. Then I would join her at 10 in Burbank. She helped me tremendously in my work, and her loyalty was fantastic. I designed things for other actresses, like Elizabeth Taylor, but no one was like Audrey. She really understood everything about how she should look. And we had a basis of friendship and love."
When Jacqueline Kennedy wanted new clothes for her husband's first state trip to Paris in 1961, she asked Givenchy to adapt the look Hepburn had popularized: the pillbox hat worn with a sleeveless, boat-neck dress and a straight, boxy coat. "I think all beautiful women have a clean look," the designer says. "They like things that are simple. People say I am a classic designer. I don't try to be classic, but I do try to be simple and elegant."