Hubert de Givenchy was that rare designer whose work reached everyone from fashion aficionados to the casual observer. It defined an era. It helped to create the foundation for what it means to be a fashion icon. His work told the story of glamorous sophistication, female rebellion and the complexities of beauty and desire.
He achieved this remarkable feat with a single little black satin dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in the opening sequence of 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” From the front, the dress was simple enough: sleek and sleeveless with a flattering bateau neckline. From the back, it was dynamic, sexy and utterly sophisticated with its geometric cutouts and the alluring way it framed the nape of the neck.
That moment in that dress tells the audience a lot about Hepburn’s character, Holly Golightly. For one thing, it’s an evening dress — and she’s standing on the street peering into a store window with her breakfast. She has been out all night and she still looks splendid.
She has lived and partied and, perhaps, gotten up to no good. And she is none the worse for it.
The dress is not easy to wear. It follows the curves of the body. It reveals the arms. But it’s not a dress that constrains a woman. It requires effort but not sacrifice. The dress is special. It makes a woman want to slink about, controlled and teasing. It’s possible to envision it on all sorts of shapes — slim like Hepburn, but also curvy. And it looks as perfect in 2018 as it did 50 years ago.
Givenchy didn’t invent the little black dress, but he gave it its enduring cachet. He infused it with meaning beyond the practical and versatile. The dress represented a lifestyle: glamorous, reckless, defiant, urbane. It was Holly Golightly’s dress. She was complicated and sad, confounding and charming. And her signature dress was wondrous.
Givenchy, who died March 10 at age 91, was born a count. He had an aristocratic bearing made even grander by his 6-foot-6 frame. He loved gardens and antiques. As a designer, he came of age during the 1950s and ’60s, when haute couture dominated fashion and Paris was the center of it all. He apprenticed with Lucien Lelong and Elsa Schiaparelli, but his greatest influence was fashion’s most famous ascetic Cristobal Balenciaga, who was both a mentor and friend. And when Balenciaga closed his own atelier in 1968, he directed his heartbroken clients to Givenchy.
Givenchy’s initial meeting with Hepburn was famously disappointing, at least for him. He’d expected to meet Katharine Hepburn. It was 1953 and Audrey Hepburn had been cast in “Sabrina” as the daughter of an American chauffeur who goes to Paris and returns as a sophisticated young woman. Givenchy was charged with creating the Parisian wardrobe that would define her transformation.
The actress and the designer established a friendship. And she became both a muse and an ambassador for his work. She wore his clothes consistently, both on screen and in her personal life. Hepburn remains one of the most often-cited sources of inspiration for young designers striving to craft attire that feels both modern and timeless and for women aspiring to look effortlessly chic.
No matter the many divergent aesthetic points of view or the passage of time, Givenchy remains bound up in the collective cultural memory of a single black dress, the man who created it, the woman who wore it. And the timeless desire for a bright, shiny life of glamour and ease.