Le Grand's exit

Hubert de Givenchy shows his last couture collection this month. It is a poignant end to a remarkable era
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NEXT weekend, the fashion pack heads for the Paris Haute Couture shows. But the chatter in the Chunnel and over champagne at Le Ritz is unlikely to be about what Christian Lacroix might do with tulle or what Gianni Versace might do with Claudia Schiffer's cleavage. The hot gossip will be about who will get the top job at Givenchy.

The Givenchy Haute Couture show, at 10am on Tuesday 11 July, will be the last to have been designed by Hubert James Taffin de Givenchy, who opened his own couture house in 1952, after having worked at Jacques Fath and Elsa Schiaparelli. The man known as "Le Grand", a reference not just to his 6ft 6in stature, but also to his hauteur, will retire from the fashion business when his contract expires in December this year.

This means, in terms of his contract, that he will be required to produce one last ready-to-wear collection, to be shown in October. But Giv- enchy has always been considered as a couturier, a man who has done his finest work at the pinnacle of French fashion - and it is next week's couture show that will be taken as his swansong. By 10.45am a week on Tuesday, the career of the man who has dressed Audrey Hepburn, Babe Paley and Jac- kie Kennedy will, in effect, be over.

Thereafter, "Le Grand" will find himself in a strange position. By the time he puts the finishing touches to that final October ready-to-wear line, a new head designer will already be working on a couture collection - under Givenchy's name. While Given- chy works in his habitual silence within the premises that still bear his name above the door, it is possible that a ghetto blaster could simultaneously be pounding out rap or rock or Irish folk music - whatever it takes to inspire his successor. Likewise, while the obedient servants of the old guard will turn up punctually at 8am as usual, the team brought in by the new couturier could, conceivably, roll in long after midday, having been out partying until long after "Le Grand" was up and dressed in one of the freshly laundered, hand-made, couturier's coats he wears each day over his collar and tie.

In December, after the 68-year-old Givenchy retires from fashion completely, it is thought that he will devote himself to raising funds for the restoration of the King's vegetable garden at Versailles. He will also be involved with the planning of an exhibition to commemorate the work of Christobal Balenciaga, the couturier who died in 1972, an exhibition which will be staged at Le Palais Galliera, the same French museum which housed a celebration of Given- chy's 40 years in fashion in 1992. He is likely to spend his time between his huge home in Paris, where he has created an exquisitely attired home for his beloved dogs, and Le Jonchet, his chateau near Chartres, where his late labradors' tombstones have been made by Giacometti, and where he grows asparagus. In the meantime, he will, it is almost certain, be invited to a front row seat at what used to be his own show. For fear of overshadowing the new person, and in order not to be harangued for his views by reporters and television cameras, he is likely, very politely, to decline.

Already, the identity of the person who will take over in January 1996 is the subject of intense speculation. It is likely that the outgoing couturier will have been consulted about his successor - though merely as a courtesy - because no one has found themselves in this position before. Haute couturiers, including Chanel and Dior, used to have to die before someone stepped into their shoes.

Givenchy is not bowing out because he been failed by his creative powers - his recent homage to Madame Gres's Grecian evening gowns was breathtaking. Nor is he being sacked. Givenchy is retiring voluntarily. But it would be naive to believe that the whole reason for his retirement is that he wants to spend more time in his asparagus beds. Givenchy is clearly disillusioned.

When Givenchy's late friend and mentor, Balenciaga, lost his faith in fashion, it was because, he said, there was no one left to dress. After he made the decision to close his doors, one loyal customer, Mona Bismark, was so devastated that she took to her bedroom for a week. Givenchy, on the other hand, has no power to close the doors on Avenue Georges V, however disillusioned he might be, for his business is no longer in his own control.

Instead, it belongs, lock, stock and ballgown to a remarkably effective tactician who is generally regarded as France's most ruthless businessman: Bernard Arnault.

Givenchy had never set out to sell to Arnault. In 1988, 36 years after founding his own couture house (and 27 years after winning acclaim for the elegant dresses worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, as well as the severe gowns worn by Jackie Kennedy), Givenchy was keen to concentrate solely on his creative oeuvre. He wanted to off-load what had become financial burdens, and was delighted to sell out to an old- school businessman.

That man, a traditionalist like Givenchy himself, was Henry Raca- mier, the president of the luxury luggage company, Louis Vuitton. Given-chy was particularly delighted that the ensuing five-year contract also promised him a reported salary of one million French francs a month.

But things were to turn out rather less promisingly. Two years later, Racamier lost control to Bernard Arnault, who was by then at the helm of LVMH, a luxury goods conglomerate which had absorbed the Louis Vuitton business. LVMH also controlled champagne and cognac brands, and the fashion and fragrance labels Christian Dior, Christian Lacroix, Kenzo and Celine within its portfolio. Givenchy was engulfed by a ruthless style of management that couldn't have been further from its founder's principles.

Today, only Arnault and the Arnault-appointed Givenchy president, Richard Simonin, know for sure who the new designer at Givenchy will be. The contract for the new designer is allegedly drawn up but not signed. One possible theory is that signing is being deliberately delayed so that there will be no July announcement to divert from Hubert de Givenchy's precious last moments. Those who have followed Arnault's career say this is too charitable a reading. More likely, Arnault and the financial controller of the new designer are still haggling over the contract.

SO WHO is this dauphin, waiting to inherit one of the finest fashion names in the world? Names bandied about include that of Jean Paul Gaultier, the wickedly wild French ready-to-wear designer who started out at the couture house of Patou. But he is considered to be too Eurotrashy for Givenchy's established customer base of quietly wealthy ladies. More likely is Marc Audibet, a contracted designer at Hermes, and at time of writing, also under contract at the white-hot, ice-cool Italian label, Prada.

But the front runner is the British John Galliano, whose two most recent ready-to-wear collections took Paris by storm. His client base encompasses the septuagenerian millionairess, Sao Schlumberger, as well as Sharon Stone and Elizabeth Hurley. If couture is to survive in the modern world, it has to flourish in Hollywood without losing the faith of its ageing, established customer base. John Galliano is the one designer who can achieve this, especially when you consider the fact that the Givenchy business has always been bigger in America than in France. Galliano's backer, John Bult of Paine Weber, is based in New York, and Galliano is also highly thought of by Anna Wintour, the editor of Ameri-can Vogue and one of the most powerful people in the fashion firmament. The appointment of a Brit to a Paris couture house would be the first since Charles Frederick Worth crossed the Channel and founded the first haute couture salon in 1857.

Galliano is saying nothing. The Givenchy people are saying nothing, and Hubert de Givenchy is expected to say nothing, even when he takes his bow on the haute couture catwalk in the Grand Hotel for the last time.

Those expecting a dramatic and tearful farewell are likely to be disappointed. Givenchy's strength over his emotions is proven. Two-and-a-half years ago, just three days after he had seen his dearest friend, Audrey Hepburn, laid to rest in an alpine cemetery, Givenchy staged his haute couture show as usual. At its finale, he faced the wall of photographers' Nikons and the rolling TV cameras with ramrod straight bearing and just the glisten of a tear in his eye. His atelier's coat was, as always, impeccable. The only really visible sign of mourning for the woman he had loved so much was that he was wearing a black tie. On 11 July, there are unlikely to be theatricals or fireworks. At his final haute couture show, "Le Grand" will bow out gracefully. !

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