Givenchy, Audrey Hepburn and the lost art of the muse
Few couturiers today operate in the same classic relationships with their star clients as the late designer
“Perfection,” Hubert de Givenchy once said, “is not here in this beautifully made dress worn so well by the mannequin. Perfection is the dress as it will be made for a client who will wear the dress differently.”
It was a dictum he upheld his entire career. The client was centre and front of everything his house stood for. It helped, of course, that he had such elegant customers. This was a two-way affair. The 23-year-old Audrey Hepburn, whom he met when the director Billy Wilder sent her to Paris to work with a “real Parisian designer” on the costumes for Sabrina, already had a distinctive style and innate gracefulness (even if Cecil Beaton described it as “rat-nibbled”, “moon-faced” and “emaciated”). But with the aristocratic Givenchy, with whom she was to collaborate on a further seven films, this evolved into something unforgettably classic and yet modern. Almost 70 years on, for millions around the world, Givenchy’s Audrey remains the epitome of chic.The conversations that were so beneficial to both client and couturier continued with Jacqueline Bouvier, who first visited his salon when she was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris.
HdG scooped up another elegant trophy when the Duchess of Windsor began to patronise his house. When a nervous Wallis Simpson flew to London in 1972 for her husband’s funeral, and a long delayed meeting with the British royal family, Givenchy stayed up all night toiling on her outfits. He always wore a white technican’s lab coat when working, the same as his seamstress and tailors. It was an affectation perhaps (he was the scion of a rather grand dynasty of French protestants from Northern France) but also a demonstration of how seriously he took the craft and technique of his profession.Interestingly, when a rebellious Yves Saint Laurent kicked over the traces of the old way of doing business in the 1960s, announcing that couture was dead and from now on it was all about mass-produced ready-to-wear, he still chose to operate in a highly personalised way. His client-in-chief was Catherine Deneuve, another woman who already had a highly developed sense of herself and her style when she met YSL in 1965. Like Givenchy and Hepburn, Saint Laurent and Deneuve collaborated both on her film and personal wardrobes. This wasn’t an arrangement conceived purely for red-carpet moments, but for every aspect of a glamorous woman’s life – and as they had done at Givenchy, the results, or versions of them, were made available to any woman with the money to buy them.The couturier-client relationship has changed beyond all recognition, if it exists at all. Karl Lagerfeld, even a decade ago, did not attend fittings for his clients, nor would they expect it. The same is true of Giorgio Armani. No major designer today has time, given all the other demands on their energy, from the six or more collections a year that a designer who is also in charge of a couture line must produce, to the constant globe hopping for store openings and public appearances. Big, wealthy houses have official “faces” – Dior has Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman. Chanel has a rolling roster of marquee names, from Kiera Knightly to its latest signing, Margot Robbie. Louis Vuitton has Michelle Williams, Alicia Vikander and a gaggle of up-and-coming starlets.To say these are purely transactional partnerships isn’t entirely true. Creative directors might have some say in the choice of stars who represent their house. But not always. The impression the public is left with is that these deals are based largely on box office power rather than on the star’s innate sense of style and taste, as was once the case.
Perhaps the last time a designer had a significant personal relationship with a single client was Gianni Versace when, incongruously to all those who only knew him as a purveyor of bondage dresses and camp “Roman” prints, he began working closely with Princess Diana. It was after her 1996 divorce, and the princess was looking for ways to semaphore her new independence as well as underline her international status (she hoped for an official portfolio from the Blair government). Versace, another classicist at heart and a brilliant tailor who had spent the previous two decades disguising his skills beneath a weight of brash embellishment, had found his ideal partner. Conversely, it was with the flashy Italian that Diana entered her sleekest, most elegant era.Their relationship undoubtedly benefited them both. The same was true of Givenchy, who was propelled to global fame thanks to Hepburn. She, in turn, found a masterful designer who was also sensitive to her insecurities. She was extremely self-conscious about the hollows around her collarbones for instance, so Givenchy designed a series of dresses featuring what became one of his signatures – the bow. His other trademark was the boat-neck, a slashed line that sits just above the clavicle and accentuates the neck – or the Sabrina neckline as it became known after the first film Hepburn and Givenchy worked on together.The fashion industry no longer operates like this at the top level. There may be hundreds of small labels that collaborate closely with their clients, but at power-brands such as Saint Laurent, Gucci and Balenciaga, the creative director’s focus is firmly on the broader picture. Red carpets, catwalk statements and regular fireworks on Instagram are the modern designer’s means of communication. Inevitably that means a swerve away from the quiet and deceptively simple (Givenchy compared the work of a couturier with that of a plastic surgeon, erasing perfections and refining the silhouette) to something louder and arguably more outlandish.The exception in recent years has been Dolce & Gabbana, who, for the right sum, will personally fit their clients. They also socialise with them and cast them in their (private) shows. It’s probably no coincidence that their collections have, year after year, become reliable for a certain silhouette and cut rather than a dizzying rejection of everything that preceded. Phoebe Philo at Celine took a different tack, but one with similar effect. Her client/muse was herself: a working mother who wanted a luxurious wardrobe of functional but striking and timeless clothes. By focusing so closely on the specific, she hit on an aesthetic with universal appeal.
Not that Philo would have acknowledged the word muse, which has fallen from favour in recent years, and not without good reason. In the 1990s and early noughties it became a synonym for pampered airheads who didn’t do very much other than look perfect.At its best, Instagram has done away with perfection and replaced it with something that purports to be more real. Rather than working with specific celebrities or clients, Gucci, along with other brands, prefers to harness the promotional powers of millennial social media stars. It’s a far more ephemeral approach – last year’s Instagram hit is this year’s bore – but in the short term it undoubtedly works. Gucci and Balenciaga were the most searched-for names in fashion in 2017 – and also two of the most commercially successful. In the process, they’ve turned themselves into businesses heavily driven by trainers and street-inspired sportswear. One could argue that this is a loss to all those women seeking clothes that, as Givenchy put it, simplify grown up elegance. Or one might see it as a sign of their continued relevance.
The Daily Telegraph