FASHION / Going lightly: Audrey Hepburn was dressed by Givenchy for nearly 40 years. Marion Hume describes more than a professional relationship

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Audrey Hepburn's white oak coffin was carried to the grave by the men in her life: her brother, her two sons, her second husband, her partner Robert Wolders and her friend of 40 years, Hubert de Givenchy.

Theirs had been much more than a relationship between dressmaker and client; it was one of mutual support, appreciation and, often, mutual benefit. A famous fashion exchange in the 1950s went: 'Just think what Givenchy has done for Audrey Hepburn . . .' 'No, just

think what Audrey Hepburn has done for Givenchy.' Together they were always to

be a class act.

She wore his designs over many years, but never more memorably than as the ingenue bookworm learning how to be lovely in Funny Face, and the streetwise kitten needing no lessons in anything in Breakfast at Tiffany's. It

was Givenchy who persuaded Hollywood's favourite starlet into a glamorous grown-up satin gown in Funny Face, and she dashed down the steps of the Louvre breathing life into it with every step. For Breakfast at Tiffany's he offered her a severe black evening column, trimmed only with a necklet of pearls, and she gave it lightness and vitality.

There is no doubt that theirs was a sort of love affair. Givenchy created a perfume inspired by Hepburn which was called L'Interdit because, initially, nobody else but she could have it. (The first celebrity fragrance, it went on sale in 1957). In return, she was his delightful muse, the screen star who promoted his name every time she dressed up.

BARON Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn were born two years apart, he in 1927, she in 1929. His was a life of privilege; hers had been a charmed childhood turned upside- down by the war. But by 1953, she was a Hollywood star and he, as the hot new couturier, the toast of Paris. All the same, he never expected to meet her. In fact he had never heard of her, and was anxiously waiting for Miss Katharine Hepburn to stride into his salon in slacks and sensible shoes, when a doe-eyed gamine, the star of Roman Holiday, yet to be released in France, whirled in instead. He was enchanted. So this was the Madamoiselle Hepburn he was to dress for the 1954 film, Sabrina. Yes, this was the Madamoiselle Hepburn, who would put a towering, taciturn young man - who has always looked more like a Harley Street dentist than a couturier - on the international map.

Givenchy is now so much the great couturier that Women's Wear Daily, the US's fashion trade bible, habitually refers to him just as 'le Grand'. But back then, he was very much 'le Petit': because Cristobal Balenciaga, the master of couture, was still in business.

Givenchy idolised Balenciaga. The joke around Paris was that if the two couturiers - one burly, short and Spanish; the other tall, French and fair - did accept an invitation, they would spend the whole evening huddled together discussing the precise fit of a sleeve. When Balenciaga refused an invitation and Givenchy ventured out alone, he would take along his needlework to allay boredom in case talk turned from fashion. And when Balen-

ciaga finally closed his house, declaring his 'a dog's life', he himself took Bunny Mellon, the only woman he considered still elegant enough to require couture, across the street to the House of Givenchy.

Givenchy is, and always been, deeply serious. Like Balenciaga, and distinctly unlike most other fashion designers, he has never sought to be part of the jet-set. That is not to say that he doesn't share their enjoyment of a luxurious life - he recently bought the apartment beneath his own on the Left Bank to keep out unwelcome neighbours and to provide a suitable habitat, done out in toile and straw, for his labradors.

But what Hepburn brought him, from the day they first met, was a lightness of touch. The way she wore his rigorous designs was to change completely his status in the international fashion world. It is also probably because of her that his predominantly quiet couture, soout of step with the high-voltage offerings elsewhere, has survived.

Their close friendship led to rumours of impropriety. While she was married to Mel Ferrer in the Fifties, the Baron and the movie star were photographed sneaking out of a building under a 'Flat to Let' sign. The papers said Hollywood's darling was leaving her husband for the Frenchman. It turned out she was helping him find a pied-a-terre in Rome.

Later there were rumours of a falling out. Audrey's close friend, Doris Brynner, wife of the late Yul Brynner, had become the promotioniste mondaine for a competitive Italian couturier, Valentino, and brought Audrey to his salon. She posed wearing Valentino for American Vogue in 1969 and in 1971. But rumblings about a rift between her and Givenchy remained unconfirmed.

In later years, she would occasionally turn up for Givenchy couture shows, which kept the papers turning up, too. 'The Audrey factor' may also have helped to raise the purchase price when Givenchy sold his business in 1987 for Fr225 m ( pounds 28 m), plus a guaranteed personal salary of Fr1 m a year.

But then Hubert helped Audrey in return. When she inauguarated a celebration of 40 years of Givenchy creations at a Paris museum two years ago, she spoke of her debt to clothes that had always given her confidence. In her role as an ambassador for Unicef, she admitted she was always terrified before public fuctions - until she changed into 'those wonderful garments that Hubert has made me. When I wear them they always take away all my insecurity, all my shyness . . . so I can talk in front of 800 people.' And, dressed in Givenchy, she could charm the wealthy into giving much- needed funds.

When it became clear that Audrey Hepburn's illness was terminal, Givenchy's response was typically generous. When her first son was born, he had travelled to Switzerland with a hand-embroidered christening gown; on her 60th birthday, he had delivered 60 white rose bushes, then planted the same variety among the strict topiary of his own town garden in tribute. So when she was dying, it was Givenchy who enabled her to return from California to Switzerland. He chartered a jet, had it flown from New York to the West Coast to bring Audrey, her family, her nurse and her dogs home. Waiting for her there was a simple sprig of lily of the valley, her favourite flower, sent with his love.

Three days after the funeral, there was a Givenchy couture show in Paris. Perhaps the audience was expecting the re-issue of famous dresses, black-edged programmes or a weeping couturier. But there was none of that. Instead, Hubert de Givenchy appeared, ram-rod straight, in his white linen work-jacket, one of the many hand-made for him in his atelier, to take his bow. The only sign of mourning was a slight, but significant, break with tradition; beneath the jacket he was wearing not his habitual pale tie, but a black one.