Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy is unusually tall I was pleased to discover, a fact that, while perhaps not the most remarkable thing about him, I do feel is rather suitable for a man whose surname alone is iconic, and whose career as a designer has already gone down in history as one of the most distinguished and influential. Even sitting down he was quite intimidating.
Thankfully though, his stature was the most imposing thing about him, and in every other way he was just as you’d imagine an aristocratic 83 year-old Frenchman: charming, polite, heavily accented (you must frenchify every subsequent quotation in your head – nothing screams chic like a strong Parisian lilt), knowledgeable and slightly arrogant (but in a delightful and endearing way) and of course hugely elegant in an understated but perfectly fitted dark jacket, dark tie and pristine white shirt.
If you had to describe the Givenchy aesthetic in a word, it would probably be ‘elegance’, but what does this actually entail? ‘You must, if it is possible, be born with a kind of elegance’, I am told. Cripes. No hope for me then, and after that I was definitely too scared to ask him what he thought of my outfit (I admit I tried a little – alright a lot – harder that day than normal. Don’t judge me, you’d all do the same), especially as I had just spotted a glaring ketchup stain on my trousers. Thank goodness for the table between us.
Despite his glamourous reputation, however, he was surprisingly sensible and down to earth on the subject of fashion, which he described simply as ‘mon passion’. There was none of this precious talking about clothes as ‘garments’, and certainly no patience for the unwearable and unflattering styles that so often go down today’s catwalks and are hailed as genius. No, his mandates, with him since he started the house of Givenchy in 1952, at a mere 25 years old, are simple: ‘you must respect fabric, respect style and make pretty things and pretty dresses to embellish people, not to make people look ugly, because that, for me, is not my conception of fashion’.
Sounds straightforward enough, but as he points out, ‘the simple things are the most difficult, the little black dress for example’. So how does one go about mastering the art of dressmaking and becoming a great designer? Far from easy, I am warned, and great humility is required; ‘You must learn, you must look, you must understand, you must have someone as your master, an example to admire. And you must select the best if you want to be part of the best.’ For Givenchy, when he first came to Paris in the late 40s, this example was Balenciaga, ‘the most important designer at the time’, whose clothes were ‘architectural’ and ‘strong, modern, wonderful’. Though he never worked under Balenciaga, he did work for a time under Jaques Fath, something he is absolutely grateful for; ‘the best thing is to learn with a good atelier, a good cutter, a good fitter, this is the most important thing to start in fashion’. Basically, respect your elders people.
Although he professes that the reason why fashion is so wonderful is that it is constantly changing, and though at his prime he was radically modern in his aesthetic, today’s modernity is clearly not something he is at all interested in. My question about the impact of fashion blogging, for instance, is one I regret as soon as it’s uttered, though it gets a laugh, and the reply that the internet is ‘trop compliqué pour moi’. He also remains diplomatically vague on the subject of current trends, only cryptically repeating that ‘it is a different thing’.
Indeed, ask him about what he thinks of the Givenchy label now, and he becomes visibly uncomfortable, admitting that he found and still finds it difficult to watch the progress of a label which bears his name, but of which he is no longer master. (He sold Givenchy in 1995.) The most quiet he’s been throughout the interview, he confesses that nowadays he doesn’t look at its new collections; ‘I don’t think I have any interest in that any more. C’est mieux comme ca.’
The inevitability of change though is something that he has clearly accepted (and is apparently able to discuss at great length), but he does seem somewhat sad about it. ‘La vie change, les besoins changent, everything is so different, you must accept the reality, but you must be there and say yes, c’est la vie, c’est comme ca. We must just be happy that for many years we had wonderful times, wonderful things, beautiful fabric, beautiful people, beautiful memories. Voila.’
It is rather in talking about the past that he seems at ease, and he reminisces about his heyday, the age of real Hollywood glamour, with great fondness. ‘I don’t think now you ‘ave really great star as the other time… before you ‘ave Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn – these are movie stars, but now, you ‘ave star, but no one ‘ave the real caché, do you know what I mean?’ He reels off the names of the various movie stars he dressed: Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Kay Kendall, and is shocked when I don’t know who Kay Kendall is exactly. ‘You see?’, he says to the room (he has a fairly large entourage), ‘the jeunesse’. I giggle sillily, and even more so when he says ‘oui, mademoiselle!’ Oh dear. Was I trying to flirt? Or did I just wish I was his granddaughter listening, enraptured, to him talk about the good old days? Either way, I’m sure Freud would have something to say on the matter.
None of those starlets were as special to him as Audrey Hepburn though, and as soon as I ask about her, he is away, describing her as ‘so fresh, so unique, so loyal’, ‘full of joy’, and their relationship as a kind of ‘special love affair’. Givenchy dressed Hepburn for all of her contemporary films from Sabrina onwards, which he tells me is ‘proof of loyalty, and friendship of course. More and more we were together, more and more we understand each other and more and more we love each other. And from that day on when I meet Audrey in 1954 until she die is a friendship still’.
When I finally ask if he ever tires of fashion, or could ever have considered a different career, he seems taken aback, and answers with an incredulous ‘non, because this is my dream to be a dress designer. This is my joy and really my life. And it is a fabulous thing to be a dress designer, fabulous. To give life to fabric, to try to make beautiful things, make something move well, the harmony of colours, is absolutely fantastic. Everything gives you inspiration. You are very like a butterfly, you must have antennae and have good reception, and every moment the creativity is there, you must capture the little things to help you to create one thing, and this is why it is a wonderful career.’
What an epitome of a gentleman. A little rambling perhaps, and with a definite penchant for philosophising, tricolon and slightly eccentric similes, but I’ll put that down to age and the language barrier. Who can begrudge someone who is so fond of their ‘wonderful’ mother, is so impassioned by fashion after almost 60 years in the business, still looks super sharp and says things like, ‘this is my opinion, and I think I am right.’?