Obituaries

Hubert de Givenchy, 91; redefined fashion after WWII

Mr. Givenchy with his models after an haute couture fashion show in Paris in 1995.
Associated Press/file
Mr. Givenchy with his models after an haute couture fashion show in Paris in 1995.

PARIS — French couturier Hubert de Givenchy, a pioneer of ready-to-wear who designed Audrey Hepburn’s little black dress in ‘‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’’ died Saturday. He was 91.

The house of Givenchy paid homage to its founder in a statement as ‘‘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.’’

‘‘He revolutionized international fashion with the timelessly stylish looks he created for Audrey Hepburn, his great friend and muse for over 40 years,’’ the house of Givenchy said. ‘‘His work remains as relevant today as it was then.’’

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Along with Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and mentor Cristobal Balenciaga, Mr. Givenchy was part of the elite cadre of Paris-based designers who redefined fashion in the wake of World War II.

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A towering man of elegance and impeccable manners, he forged close friendships with his famous clients, from Hollywood screen sirens such as Liz Taylor and Lauren Bacall to women of state, including Jackie Kennedy and Princess Grace of Monaco.

Born into an aristocratic family in the provincial city of Beauvais, Mr. Givenchy struck out for Paris in his late teens.

Couturier Jacques Fath hired Mr. Givenchy on the strength of his sketches. He spent two years learning the basics of fashion design, from sketching to cutting and fitting haute couture styles.

After apprenticing with other top names, Mr. Givenchy founded his own house in 1952.

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His debut collection ushered in the concept of separates — tops and bottoms that could be mixed and matched, as opposed to head-to-toe looks that were the norm among Paris couture purveyors. Working on a tight budget, Mr. Givenchy served up the floor-length skirts and country chic blouses in raw white cotton materials normally reserved for fittings.

‘‘Le Grand Hubert,’’ as he was often called for his 6-foot-5-inch frame, became popular with privileged haute couture customers, and his label soon seduced the likes of Gloria Guinness, Wallis Simpson, and Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran.

But the client whose name would become almost synonymous with the house was Hepburn, whom he met in 1953, when he dressed her for the romantic comedy ‘‘Sabrina.’’

Legend has it that Mr. Givenchy — told only that Mademoiselle Hepburn would be coming in for a fitting — was expecting the grand Katharine Hepburn. Instead, the diminutive Audrey showed up, dressed in cigarette pants, a T-shirt, and sandals. Thus began a decades-long friendship that saw Mr. Givenchy dress the star in nearly a dozen films, including the 1961 hit ‘‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’’ The sleeveless black evening gown she wore in the movie, complete with rows of pearls, elbow-length gloves, and oversized shades, would end up becoming Mr. Givenchy’s most famous look.

Aiming to reach a wider market, Mr. Givenchy launched a line of upscale ready-to-wear and accessories in the 1960s. Its commercial success soon enabled him to buy out his backers, making him one of only a handful of Paris couturiers to own their own label outright.

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In 1988, he sold the house to French luxury conglomerate LVMH, the parent company of a stable of top fashion labels that now includes Dior, Celine, Marc Jacobs, Pucci, and Kenzo.

Mr. Givenchy leaves his companion, French couturier Philippe Venet.