Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn: A Love Story

  • January 15, 2018

The on-screen and off-screen collaborations of Herbert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn resulted not only to iconic pop culture moments, but revolutionized the fashion world’s idea of the modern woman

“Clothes are positively a passion with me. I love them to the point where it is practically a vice,” said a young Audrey Hepburn, on the set of her second feature film Sabrina in 1953. The young starlet became an instant fashion icon since appearing as Princess Anne in Roman Holiday just a few months prior. She was also a respected actress, walking away with the coveted Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in her first major screen performance. When people think of the Golden Age movie star today, she is far from forgotten. She has become so associated with the idea of ultimate elegance that she still resonates so much with technology-obsessed millennials. Her figure on the silver screen will always be that of a strong, free-spirited lady dressed in clean cut silhouettes created by the then-unknown couturier Hubert de Givenchy. It was this not-so-secret love affair that did two things to the fashion world. The first was to catapult Hepburn and Givenchy as stars of the scene, with the world watching their every move together. The second, was revolutionizing the fashion world’s idea of the modern woman. Though many men and woman still remember these timeless looks created by the two, we are digging deeper. Here, we present a history of this romance between artist and muse, muse and artist, and how their destined fashion romance endured the test of time.

Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy met during their 20s (Photo from Vogue Magazine)
Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy met during their 20s (Photo from Vogue Magazine)

Before the Icons Met

Paris was already the fashion capital of the world by the 1950s. It was the home of Coco Chanel, the revolutionary designer, popular for wearing her string of pearls with her perfectly tailored slacks (not a norm for woman during the early century). It was a hub for artists from all walks of life. An unknown designer named Hubert de Givenchy in his 20s had just finished working with an avant-garde designer named Elsa Schiaparelli, and was ready to set up his first solo maison. By 1952, he opened the doors to his first shop located at the Plaine Monceau in Paris. This was a special time in fashion, as his peers Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior were finding their feet in history as well. Little did he know that a year later, his life would change after meeting a girl named Audrey Hepburn.

Hubert de Givenchy was an unknown designer until he met Audrey Hepburn in 1953
Hubert de Givenchy was an unknown designer until he met Audrey Hepburn in 1953

Hepburn, fresh from the success of her hit film Roman Holiday, was on a journey to Paris in 1953. A native of Belgium, Hepburn was returning to Europe as a newly found movie star set for location shoots of her upcoming picture, Sabrina. Working closely with eight-time Oscar winner, costume designer Edith Head, Hepburn had taken it into her own to source gowns for the modern fairy tale. Sabrina told the tale of a chauffeur’s daughter who is in love with David, the pompous youngest son of the very wealthy East Coast Larrabee family. When Sabrina comes of age, she is sent to culinary school in Paris with plans that she is to be the family’s future cook. After being exposed to the thriving artistic city, Sabrina matures and returns to Long Island as an elegant, fashionable lady. Sabrina, who longs for a life better other than employment under the Larrabee’s has something else in mind: to win the heart of the man she’s loved for years. However, she is unaware that an arranged marriage is in the works. Not for her and David, but the daughter of another wealthy family that will prove financially beneficial to the family.

The Cinderella story was a star vehicle by Paramount Studios for their new star. Hepburn was the poster child for the post-war youth and was taking roles like this (and would for most of her career): glamourous, although complicated, strong women who have more to show than a pretty face and haute couture outfits. Sabrina even featured scenes beyond its time, including one in which Audrey’s character attempts suicide by filling the garage with car fuels in hopes that the toxins would lead to her eventual death. Off-screen, Audrey was the same. She was a woman of substance and didn’t settle for simply being a famous face of fashion and film, giving up most of her free time to become a spokesperson for UNICEF.

The white ball gown with black flower embroidery designed by Givenchy appeared in 1954's Sabrina
The white ball gown with black flower embroidery designed by Givenchy appeared in 1954’s Sabrina

The Start of a Beautiful Friendship

In Paris, Hepburn had heard of Givenchy’s modern designs. His clean cuts and silhouettes attracted the young lady. She soon scheduled a visit to his atelier. Givenchy would later admit that he did not know who Hepburn was initially. When he had heard that “Ms. Hepburn longed for an audience with him,” he inferred that he was to be meeting Katharine Hepburn, the prolific Hollywood legend. And yet, the lady that arrived at his atelier was a dainty 24-year-old girl wearing a plain stripped t-shirt and trousers. The presumptuous young lady then tried on a few samples, and asked him if he’d like to design her wardrobe for Sabrina. Unsure, Givenchy gave his regrets and said he was too busy.

Despite being shot down, Hepburn was an instant fan of Givenchy’s work and would not go down without a persistent fight. She invited him to dinner and he accepted her call. In a 2016 interview by Osman Ahmed for AnOtherm.com, who covered the Hepburn-Givenchy costume exhibit in Holland, Givenchy shared an anecdote about that day many years ago. He said, “I was busy preparing my next collection so I told her I wouldn’t be able to do it, but she was very persistent. She invited me to dinner, which was unusual for a woman to do back then, and it was at dinner that I realized she was an angel.” He was taken by her charm, and the beginning of their fruitful professional and lifelong personal friendship began.

A Splash in the Fashion World

Sabrina would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Costume Design at the Oscars the following year. Although Edith Head had one it (rules state that costumers win the award, and since Givenchy’s gowns were simply curated and not designed for the film, he could not be credited with a nomination), it was mostly due to the beautiful designs of Givenchy. Everything Hepburn had worn in the film was created in his studio, including the stunning white ball gown with black floral embroidery. Hepburn would soon negotiate in her contract that all her movie wardrobe be designed by the French designer for her next few films (save the work done by Cecil Beaton for the 1964 Best Picture winner My Fair Lady). This was the first contract of its kind.

In Ahmed’s 2016 article, he stated that this would be a turning point in “movie star-designer relationships” that has become a global business today. What differs with Hepburn and Givenchy’s relationship is their true love for one another. Givenchy was Hepburn’s muse, using her slender body, elegance, and movie star charisma as the inspiration for his designs. On the other hand, Hepburn was so enthralled and fascinated by Givenchy’s work that she kept loyal to him over the years, free of charge. She was his patron off-screen as well, with most of her casual wear designed by the Givenchy as well. Today, actors appearing in designer campaigns are paid an arm and a leg for their time. For Hepburn and Givenchy, they did it because of their mutual respect for each other, fueled by the two things they loved: fashion and the movies.

Funny Face (1957) - Hepburn in Givenchy's design
Funny Face (1957) – Hepburn in Givenchy’s design

Their follow-up project was Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon in 1956 which was a moderate hit. However, it was during the filming of this film that they became close friends. In Funny Face (1957) one year later, Hepburn played a young librarian, who is discovered by Fred Astaire as the next big face in fashion. Givenchy and Hepburn were a little more playful for the film, creating looks that set a standard in the fashion world. The red ball gown worn while strutting down the Paris Opera house may be the film’s most memorable look. However, the wedding dress Hepburn sports in the film is a true work of art. It was untraditional, featuring a poodle skirt attached to a skinny cream top. It looked functional. But more than anything—it looked modern. Givenchy was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Funny Face, alongside Edith Head, who designed the rest of the cast’s wardrobe.

Audrey in "the original little black dress" designed by Givenchy for Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
Audrey in “the original little black dress” designed by Givenchy for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

The duos most iconic work together would grace the silver screen in 1961. Breakfast at Tiffany’s had Hepburn playing Holly Golightly, a Manhattan party-girl looking to social climb her way to a rich husband. It was a departure from Hepburn’s good girl persona, although still had the architypes of the types of roles she would normally go for: an elegant but fearless and complicated woman. For her wardrobe, Givenchy designed an array of stylish dresses that would rock the 60s fashion scene and heled modernize the image of a sophisticated woman. 1950s poodle skirts were out, and sleek black dresses were in. The picture opened to the iconic scene in which Hepburn eats a croissant outside of Tiffany’s 5th Avenue branch. She wore a long black dress made out of Italian silk (dubbed as “the original little black dress”). The string of pearls she wore was by Roger Schemama, who designed jewelry for the Givenchy brand. The dress is said to be one of the most famous and influential pieces of clothing of the 21st century. It sold at auction at Christie’s in 2006 at a hefty price tag of $923,187.

Audrey was in disguise for this scene in How to Steal a Million (1966). Givenchy designed a lace cocktail dress with a matching mask.
Audrey was in disguise for this scene in How to Steal a Million (1966). Givenchy designed a lace cocktail dress with a matching mask.

The rest of the 1960s was fruitful for the designer and muse. Charade (1963), a murder mystery set in Paris, featured many colorful pea coats and fun fur hats. Paris When It Sizzles (1964) was a moderately good movie at best. But one cannot take away the work put into the wardrobe. Set in France during the summer, Hepburn wore many colorful sun dresses that would make any fashion lover swoon. The underrated How to Steal a Million (1966) was one film that truly showed off Givenchy’s irreplaceable talent. One piece done well would the tasteful lace dress Hepburn wore while conspiring with her co-star Peter O’Toole in a restaurant scene. Since she was in disguise for this particular part of the movie, Givenchy created a matching black lace mask that covered her eyes lightly. It was true Hollywood glamour captured on film.

To Audrey with Love

Now well into his 90s, Hubert de Givenchy continues to look back at his friendship with Audrey Hepburn. Though they both led very private personal lives, Givenchy has admitted that he and the actress had always remained close. When Hepburn learned of her Appendiceal cancer in 1992, her last wish was to return to her beloved home in Switzerland. Givenchy and another close friend named Bunny Mellon arranged for a private airplane for transport and a life support system to sustain her breathing till they arrived in Europe. When arriving at the small village of Tolochenaz, the friends spent one more Christmas together until Audrey passed away on January 20, 1993, at the age of 63. Givenchy was there till the end.

Audrey Hepburn and Hubert Givenchy stayed close friends until she passed away in January 1993
Audrey Hepburn and Hubert Givenchy stayed close friends until she passed away in January 1993

What remains today is a friendship that transcends through time, documented by gorgeous films and black-and-white candid photos that gives us a glimpse into their special relationship. In Givenchy’s book To Audrey with Love (which features stories and original sketches of their collaborations), the designer mentions his friendship with Hepburn felt like a marriage. He also states that Hepburn opened many doors for him. The exposure he received costuming her in her films did not only lead to awards recognition, but also calls from such prestigious clientele like Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Princess Grace of Monaco. Givenchy’s estimated net worth today is at approximately $200 million.

Is isn’t loverly to know that all this magic began when a 20-something year old girl found a 20-something year old boy in Paris? It may not be a traditional love story, but love may come in different shapes and forms. In this case, it’s in the form of a little black dress.

By Chino R. Hernandez