Hubert de Givenchy: 'It was always my dream to be a dress designer'

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Hubert de Givenchy is one of the last great masters of haute couture. In a rare interview, he tells Carola Long about craftsmanship – and his muse, Audrey Hepburn

There's something rather sweet about the scene inside the Oxford University Union, where Hubert de Givenchy has come to give a talk.

Unsurprisingly, the audience is almost entirely comprised of female students, and many have made a serious effort with their outfits. There's a girl in a lace prom dress, another in a pink cocktail shift and killer heels, while an ethereal brunette in a floor-length maxi wafts in fashionably late. There might be a gap of over 60 years between most of the students here and Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy, who is now 83, but his first-hand experience of the grand patrons and Cinderella ball gowns of couture's golden age clearly appeals to every generation.

Although Givenchy has lived through – and helped define – an era where elegance reigned over edginess, he doesn't seem anachronistic, rather a distinguished ambassador of a lost refinement. Seated in a wood-panelled room inside the Oxford Union after his talk, the impressively tall Frenchman cuts a debonair figure in his finely tailored navy suit, and apologises for his "terrible English" in that way that accomplished people have of dismissing something that isn't totally flawless.

If anyone can offer advice on how to be elegant it's Hubert de Givenchy, but his opening tip isn't entirely encouraging, and lacks the anything-is-achievable democracy that we've come to expect from fashion. "You must, if it's possible, be born with a kind of elegance. It is a part of you, of yourself," he says. Fortunately he also has some more practical hints, saying that "you must keep it simple". He notes that when he goes out in Paris it's the young people who dress in the simplest way who look the best; "and the more pretty you look, the more love affairs you will have," he laughs.

In the half-century since he founded his couture house in Paris, in 1952, the designer has accentuated the natural elegance of some of the prettiest – indeed some of the most beautiful – women of the 20th century, including Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy and of course Audrey Hepburn. Givenchy designed the black sheath dress that the actress wore in Breakfast at Tiffany's, as well as the costumes for the films Sabrina, Charade and Funny Face, and clothes for the gamine actress's off-screen life.

The pair met when Givenchy received a phone call saying Miss Hepburn would be coming to see him about the costumes for the 1954 film Sabrina. He assumed the actress would be Katharine Hepburn, because he "did not know who is Audrey Hepburn, because I did not see the first movies". However, when Audrey Hepburn turned up dressed in a knotted T-shirt, flat sandals and a gondolier's hat they had an instant rapport which led to lifelong friendship and her becoming his muse. Initially Givenchy told the actress that "it would be impossible to make the clothes because I have only eight workers and to make 15 or 20 dresses in such a short time is not possible for me". In response "she said, very nicely, 'I want to see your collection, right now,'" he recalls. "It was still in preparation but I showed her and she said, 'this is right for the scene in the station' and so on, and finally we made it possible for me to dress her. From that day on, until she died – too early for me – the friendship was really like a special love affair." The depth of his affection for the actress is quite moving, especially when he gestures skyward and says, not melodramatically, but tenderly, "She is there. Up there."

Givenchy was clearly platonically besotted with the "fresh, unique, loyal, wonderful" Hepburn, but it's not hard to see what a charming friend he would have made in return. His manners are quietly impeccable – he lingers thoughtfully over his inscription in the Oxford Union's visitors book – and he has a way of making fashion – and life – seem like a dreamily beautiful, eternally charming affair, without lapsing into saccharine sentimentality. Of course, Givenchy's life, born to a prosperous family and becoming one of the most celebrated designers of all time, is more gilded than most – positively-24 carat – but this rapturous passion is infectious. Perhaps it's the optimism of someone who fulfilled his dream. He says, "It was always my dream to be a dress designer and that my mother accepted this decision. You are like a butterfly, in every moment you must have good reception [he mimes antennae]; in every moment you must be attentive and notice the little things to be creative. It's a fabulous thing, to give life to fabric, to make something move well, the harmony of colour."

The starting point for Givenchy's creations was always the cloth. "Fabric is the most extraordinary thing, it has life. You must respect the fabric," he insists. His aesthetic was classical, pure and sometimes slightly severe; with an occasional surprising flourish such as the cutaway, crescent-shaped detail on the back of the dress Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany's. He says today that "the little black dress is the hardest thing to realise, because you must keep it simple."

Born in Beauvais, north of Paris, in 1927, Givenchy arrived in the capital at the age of 17. He started his career working for the dynamic Jacques Fath, moving on to the more classic Robert Piguet, Lucien Lelong and then Schiaparelli. He remains convinced of the values of learning first-hand, from "a master, an example, a great creator – like with painting. You never finish learning in life." In 1952 he opened his own couture house, and in February that year presented his debut collection featuring the iconic 'Bettina' blouse. Named after his PR director and model of the day Bettina Graziani, it was made from the raw cotton "shirting" previously only used for couture fittings. It wasn't long before Givenchy was attracting stellar clients and working with the best models, and achieved his long-cherished aim of befriending his hero, Cristobal Balenciaga, whom he considered, "a great architect", because "all the proportions of Balenciaga are strong, modern, wonderful".

As well as for Audrey Hepburn, Givenchy designed dresses for Grace Kelly, who wore an emerald-green day dress and bolero jacket on a visit to Washington in 1961. He created the wardrobe for Jackie Kennedy's state visit to France in the same year, launched one of fashion's first ready-to-wear collections in 1968, and in 1972 the Duchess of Windsor wore a black coat by Givenchy to her husband's funeral. Along with bridging Paris couture and Hollywood cinema, and presaging the move towards celebrity endorsement when he made Hepburn the face of his fragrance L'Interdit, Givenchy was one of the first designers to sell his house to a big corporation. In 1988 he sold it to LVMH, and in 1995 he retired. He was succeeded, in womenswear, first by John Galliano, for a year before he went to Dior, then by Alexander McQueen, who was unhappy at the label, and Julien Macdonald, who was replaced by the current, feted designer Riccardo Tisci in 2005. Asked what he thinks of the Givenchy collections now, the founder is tactfully evasive. He starts by saying, "I think when you sell your company, and are no longer the master of driving it, it's quite difficult," then explains that he is concentrating on working with Christie's, and following his interest in "beautiful things, books, silver, furniture". Too busy to look at Givenchy collections, he says, "I don't think I have any interest any more. It's better like that."

It's clear from his Union lecture that the designer isn't exactly enthralled by the modern fashion world. He doesn't believe that actresses at Cannes have the "great style" of silver-screen legends such as Carole Lombard or Judy Garland, dismisses some collections as just there to sell bags and shoes, and considers many designers out of touch with reality; showing "impossible, crazy clothes" rather than "thinking about the life of a woman". In our interview afterwards, however, he is careful not to slip into the cliché of a retired elder statesman of haute couture, at odds with the modern milieu.

Instead he is philosophical. "Every epoch is different, and you must accept the reality," he smiles, "C'est la vie. Happily, for many years we had a wonderful time. Beautiful fabric, beautiful people, beautiful memories." In that order it seems. For Hubert de Givenchy, everything starts with the fabric.

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