Givenchy, tower of French fashion and tailor to the stars, dies at 91

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French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy, an aristocrat who founded the house of Givenchy in the 1950s, becoming famous for dressing the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Grace Kelly, has died at the age of 91, the Givenchy label said on Monday.

A commanding presence in fashion from the moment he presented his first collection in Paris at the age of 24, Givenchy became synonymous with elegance and an insouciant glamor. He designed the black dress Audrey Hepburn wore in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.

His family — his father was the marquis of Givenchy — had hoped their son would become a lawyer but the young man, who stood 1.96 meters (6 feet 5 inches) tall, was drawn to fashion and design from a young age, moving to Paris to study at 17.

His hallmark creations, including balloon-sleeved blouses and calf-length trousers with flared hems, were hailed in their time as airy alternatives to the tight waists and artificial curves of the then-dominant “New Look” of Christian Dior.

His first collection — unveiled in 1952 — won recognition the day it was presented: Givenchy rang up 7 million francs (approximately 1 million euros) of orders, enough to allow him to pay off his backers and assume ownership himself.

His interest in fabric sprang from a childhood familiarity with fine textiles at the home of his maternal grandfather, who was an administrator for the Beauvais and Gobelin tapestry industries and a collector of quality fabrics.

The designer’s father died when Hubert, born in Beauvais, north of Paris, was two years old. He and his brother were brought up by their mother and her parents.

“Balenciaga sees no one”

The young Givenchy initially studied law but, in the atmosphere of liberation following World War Two, he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Fascinated by Spanish-born Cristobal Balenciaga, who was at that time the dean of Paris designers, Givenchy presented himself and his sketchbook at Balenciaga’s door, only to be turned away with a curt “Mr Balenciaga sees no one”.

Givenchy served apprenticeships with other designers — Jacques Fath, Robert Piguet and the exuberant, iconoclastic Elsa Schiaparelli — before venturing out on his own.

Of that first collection, a British fashion writer wrote: “These dresses remind you of that first, best, glass of champagne.”

After his phenomenal debut, Givenchy went to New York to capitalize on his popularity with Americans. It was there that he finally met the reclusive Balenciaga, and the two maintained a close friendship until the Spaniard’s death in 1972.

Givenchy often told interviewers: “Balenciaga taught me everything I know. He taught me to care for the details, that it was not necessary to sew on a button where it had no use, or to add a flower to make a dress beautiful ... no unnecessary detail.”

Among his American customers were Jacqueline Kennedy, who wore one of his designs to President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963, and movie goddess Grace Kelly, who became Princess of Monaco.

Perhaps his most loyal muse was Audrey Hepburn, who sported his dresses for three decades after they struck up a working relationship in 1963. It has been rumored that Givenchy first thought he was dealing with Katherine Hepburn when he was contacted about dressing Audrey for her movies.

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