One of the fashion world’s greatest platonic love stories almost never came to pass, when in the 1950s French couturier Hubert de Givenchy at first refused a request to design for Audrey Hepburn.
“When Audrey came to me and asked me to make her dresses for the film Sabrina, I didn’t know who she was. I was expecting Katharine Hepburn,” Givenchy said in an emotional press conference for the opening of a new exhibition of his creations in The Netherlands.
“She arrived looking so vulnerable, so graceful, so young and sparkling” dressed like “a young girl today” in cotton trousers, ballerina flats and T-shirt which showed off her belly-button, carrying a straw gondolier’s hat, the designer recalled.
“But I wasn’t really in any condition to make a major wardrobe for Sabrina and I told her, ‘No, Mademoiselle, I can’t dress you.’”
Luckily for fashionistas everywhere, Hepburn was not to be dissuaded and sweetly invited Givenchy to dinner. By the end of that meal in 1953, the aristocratic French designer had fallen under the spell of the petite actress. So began a creative friendship which lasted down the decades until the British film star died of cancer in 1993.
“She persuaded me, how lucky I was to have accepted,” Givenchy said.
Creator of personality
The retrospective of Givenchy’s designs for his friend and style icon entitled “To Audrey with Love” has just opened at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, and lasts until late March.
It is the designer’s homage to his muse and Givenchy has personally selected many of the 100 outfits featured in the collection, a few of which have never been seen in public before, in what he calls a “journey through her wardrobe”.
In the 1954 romantic comedy Sabrina, Hepburn appeared alongside then screen heart-throb Humphrey Bogart, and in one key screen wore a sophisticated, floating ivory ball dress edged in black with embroidered black flowers – a Givenchy creation.
The same year, she wore a delicate ivory lace Givenchy creation for the Oscars where she won the Best Actress award for Roman Holiday.
Givenchy was to remain by her side for many of her most iconic films such as the 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Charade in 1963 and some of his most memorable outfits from those films are on show.
Using everything from satin to tulle and silk, his imagination flourished as he designed for Hepburn both on and off-screen.
“Givenchy’s clothes are the only ones I feel myself in. He is more than a designer, he is a creator of personality,” she once said.
The exhibition has taken a year to put together, with Givenchy, now 89, overseeing every detail, and hoping to pay tribute to his muse’s “elegance and style.”
It also includes a collection of beautiful jewelry, accessories, scarves and hats, as well as sketches, drawings, photos and film stills.
Protected by silk
Imbued with a sense of nostalgia for the fashion of decades past, the collection nonetheless shows how the actress’s style has remained remarkably fresh and contemporary. Hepburn knew how to bring her clothes to life through “her beauty, personality and lightness of spirit,” Givenchy said.
In some ways it is also a homecoming, as Hepburn was the daughter of a British banker and a Dutch baroness, and had deep ties to The Netherlands.
After Hepburn was appointed in 1988 as a goodwill ambassador for the UN children’s agency UNICEF, she would often give interviews wearing a simple silk or satin T-shirt. She told Givenchy recounting the horrors of war she had seen that “thanks to this small piece of silk, I feel protected because you are close to me.”
At the end of her life, they were again united through a piece of material when he visited her at her home in Switzerland as she battled cancer.
Hepburn gave him a navy blue quilted coat urging him “when you are sad, wear this and it will give you courage.”
“From Geneva to Paris, I wept in the jacket she had given me,” he said, still overcome with emotion two decades after her death.
“Audrey will never go out of fashion. She is current. And her image continues to amaze us.”