Vintage News | When Hubert Met Audrey

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Audrey Hepburn & Hubert Givenchy.


Editors Note: We stumbled across this article and even though it's from a few years ago we thought our readers might enjoy it! Grab a cup of coffee and get lost in the story of this fabulous pair!


On the subject of Audrey Hepburn, Cecil Beaton once tartly observed “Nobody ever looked like her before World War II. Now thousands of imitations have appeared. The woods are full of emaciated young ladies with rat-nibbled hair and moon pale faces.” Like mushrooms after rain, suddenly a whole new generation of Audrey clones has sprung up in the forest. Obsessed with the waifish actress, they aspire not only to look like her but to dress the part as well. Divining the trend early, the department store Barneys launched a collection inspired by Hepburn’s dresses, culled from her personal and cinematic wardrobes. Scores of fashion designers have since hopped aboard the Audrey bandwagon, peddling a head-to-heel neo-Hepburn look featuring fitted shifts and low, ladylike pumps. And this month Paramount Pictures is bringing out its remake of Billy Wilder’s 1954 Sabrina, the Cinderellaesque Hepburn classic which defined her image for the rest of her career.

All of this Audrey revivalism has been noted with extreme curiosity by the late actress’s close friend couturier Hubert de Givenchy, who first dressed the star in Sabrina and ended up creating her wardrobe for seven subsequent film roles, as well as for private life. Ironically, this renewed—adulation of le style Audrey Hepburn is peaking just as Givenchy is retiring from the house he founded in 1952. This month English wunderkind John Galliano will replace the veteran couturier, who in October showed the final collection of his 43-year career. 

Early one morning in his Paris studio, located just behind the Givenchy shop on Avenue George V, the master couturier sits, erect and silver-haired, at a table in a tiny conference area adjoining his workrooms. Dressed in his traditional uniform of an impeccable white linen smock, whose cuffs he has neatly rolled up, he embodies an old-world, gentlemanly ideal that is as rare today in the fashion world as a well-mounted sleeve. “The other day I was in Venice,” he recalls quietly. “And Egon von Fürstenberg showed me a picture in a magazine. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘all your work is now reappearing.’ Then this week Jeannette [who has worked with him since he opened] showed me another picture, in an Italian magazine. I first started noticing it myself a year or two ago, in American magazines. I began seeing Sabrina necklines,” he says, slowly tracing, with his long, large fingers, a wide horizontal above his collarbone. “And sleeves cut like this,” he adds, chopping the inside of his shoulder with the edge of his hand. “I have seen I don’t know how many young girls in little black dresses or little narrow trousers with black T-shirts. They seem to adore Audrey more for the clothes than the movies—maybe they don’t even know the movies. In fact, last weekend I was visiting a friend in Portugal, and her daughter, who is 14, asked if I had any of Audrey’s dresses. She wanted to see, to touch them.”

Givenchy could easily fill the girl’s request—shortly before she died of colon cancer in January 1993, Hepburn gave the designer more than 25 dresses he had made for her, which he keeps in his Paris apartment. “One by one” he is distributing them to museums around the world, though at this moment he has in the atelier a long, narrow, sleeveless pearl-embroidered tulle sheath in cream, circa 1960, which he is offering to the daughter of an Italian friend, Natalia Strozzi, to wear for her debut in Rome. Givenchy summons an assistant, who ceremoniously carries it out from the workroom. Tenderly, she releases the softly glittering gown onto the table, spreading it out before its maker like a precious treasure. A sumptuous but inanimate husk, it is as empty of life as a lovely shell abandoned long ago by the fantastic creature that once inhabited it.

Late in 1952, the 22-year-old neophyte actress Audrey Hepburn was preparing to embark on a national tour of her Broadway hit, Gigi. She had recently completed her first Hollywood picture with Paramount, Roman Holiday, for which she had been paid $12,500—a quantum leap from the meager $33.60-a-week salary she had commanded as a bit contract player with England’s Associated British Pictures Corporation. Though Roman Holiday had not yet premiered, expectations were high, and Paramount executives were fishing for an appropriate follow-up project for their promising ingenue. The studio sent to its pixieish protégée a script by Samuel Taylor of a play Paramount had just purchased, Sabrina Fair (a name taken from a work by Milton), a frothy comedy about a chauffeur’s daughter who returns from a trip to Paris so worldly and fetching that she ends up having her pick of her father’s millionaire boss’s two eligible sons, Linus and David Larrabee. Hepburn at once agreed to take on the title role, at a fee of $15,000. Her co-stars would be William Holden in the part of the rakish younger Larrabee boy and Humphrey Bogart as the sober older son who, despite his stuffy, unromantic nature, wins the girl. One of Hollywood’s most distinguished talents, the obstreperous immigrant genius Billy Wilder, would direct.

In the early summer of 1953, while Hepburn was performing in the San Francisco production of Gigi, Paramount’s autocratic wardrobe supervisor, Edith Head—who had designed the actress’s Princess Anne regalia for Roman Holiday—flew up for a costume meeting with Hepburn. As she wrote in the 1983 memoir Edith Head’s Hollywood, “Every designer wishes for the perfect picture in which he or she can really show off design magic. My one chance was in Sabrina. . . . It was the perfect setup. Three wonderful stars, and my leading lady looking like a Paris mannequin.”

Head’s dream of a “perfect setup,” however, was abruptly shattered when Wilder announced to the wardrobe diva that he was sending Hepburn overseas to buy Paris originals from a real French designer. Head’s services would be required only for a pre-Paris ragamuffin frock and two insignificant sportswear ensembles Sabrina would appear in after her return to the Larrabees’ luxurious Long Island home. Though Wilder—a man of sophisticated European tastes who fully appreciated the singular allure of French couture—was the one who informed Head of the change of plans, it was, the director says, Hepburn who had actually come up with the idea. For a clothes-mad actress with limited resources—an embroidered cotton blouse from Givenchy cost nearly $3,000 at the time—the chance to wear genuine Paris couture was a fantasy come to life. “Clothes are positively a passion with me,” Hepburn confided to a journalist on the set of Sabrina. “I love them to the point where it is practically a vice.”

Sometime later during that same summer of 1953, the lanky, aristocratic, 26-year-old Hubert de Givenchy, in the throes of preparing the fourth presentation of his career—an Oriental-themed winter collection, to be shown in late July—received an unexpected telephone call from his friend Gladys de Segonzac. Married to the Paris head of Paramount, Segonzac was also the directrice of Schiaparelli, where Givenchy had worked for four years before establishing his own business in 1952 on the Rue Alfred de Vigny. The reason for Segonzac’s call, Givenchy learned, was that “Miss Hepburn” had arrived in Paris and wanted to see him at once. Busy as he was, the young couturier’s interest was piqued—“I was thinking she meant Katharine Hepburn,” he now explains. Roman Holiday—which would win her a Time-magazine cover and an Oscar for best actress—hadn’t opened yet, and there was no reason for him to be familiar with the obscure newcomer who had recently created the title role in the Broadway production of Gigi. The actress was then merely, as Hepburn later put it, “a skinny little nobody”—dressed in an outrageously quirky manner for someone about to have her first encounter with the latest Parisian fashion sensation. Givenchy distinctly remembers greeting “this very thin person with beautiful eyes, short hair, thick eyebrows, very tiny trousers, ballerina shoes, and a little T-shirt. On her head was a straw gondolier’s hat with a red ribbon around it that said VENEZIA. I thought, This is too much!” Eccentric as Hepburn’s getup was, her appearance that day, recalls Dreda Mele, then the directrice of Givenchy (now Armani’s general manager for France), “was like the arrival of a summer flower. She was lumineuse—radiant, in both a physical and spiritual sense. I felt immediately how lovely she was, inside and out. Though she came to Givenchy out of the blue, there is no doubt that they were made to meet. Audrey was always very definite in her taste and look. She came to him because she was attracted by the image he could give her. And she entered that image totally. She entered into his dream, too. I repeat, they were made for each other.”

Hepburn respectfully explained to Givenchy that she was in pre-production for the movie Sabrina, a story which involved a young girl’s metamorphosis, after a two-year stint in Paris to attend cooking school, from a plain, pubescent servant’s daughter into a knowing, soignée siren. Though Hepburn didn’t mention it, Givenchy could easily have guessed that until this moment she had (as she told Vogue’s Paris-bureau chief Susan Train years later) “never even seen an haute couture dress, much less worn one.” (She claimed on another occasion that before she met Givenchy she had been wearing homemade clothes.) Though from the start Hepburn had favored Givenchy, who was then, as she told Train, “the newest, youngest, most exciting couturier,” Segonzac had initially tried to steer Hepburn to Balenciaga—but no one had had the temerity to disturb the reclusive master so close to collection time.

Captivated as he was by his unexpected caller, Givenchy demurred, explaining to Hepburn that it would be impossible to help her. “I told Audrey that I had very few workers and I needed all my hands to help me with my next collection, which I had to show very soon. But she insisted, ‘Please, please, there must be something I can try on.’” Givenchy finally relented, proposing that she try on some of the samples that were still hanging about the atelier from the previous season’s collection, spring/summer ’53.

Hepburn began by putting on what she later described as “that jazzy suit”—an Oxford-gray wool-ottoman tailleur with a cinch-waisted, double-breasted scoop-necked jacket and a slim, calf-length vented skirt. The sample, which the model Colette Cerf had worn in the show, fit nearly perfectly, Givenchy remembers. “They both had the same thin waistline.” Hepburn finished off the suit with the hat with which it had originally been presented, a saucy miniature turban of pleated pearl-gray chiffon, concocted by Givenchy’s in-house milliner. “The change from the little girl who arrived that morning was unbelievable,” Givenchy says. “The way she moved in the suit, she was so happy. She said that it was exactly what she wanted for the movie. She gave a life to the clothes—she had a way of installing herself in them that I have seen in no one else since, except maybe the model Dalma. The suit just adapted to her. Something magic happened. Suddenly she felt good—you could feel her excitement, her joy.”

Audrey next selected a white strapless ball gown, down whose svelte sides and back a detachable train cascaded, culminating in a spray of black ruffles. Above the ankles and as slim as a string bean in front, it was confected of organdy and embroidered with flowers of black silk thread and jet beads on the bodice, skirt, and train. Dreda Mele, who had previously borrowed the sample and worn it to a ball, grows ecstatic at the memory of her first sight of Hepburn in the snowdrift-white dance dress: “She was something unreal—a fairy tale!” Givenchy agrees: “It gave her a very flattering line, especially pretty when she turned to move or dance.”

Hepburn’s final choice was a black cocktail dress, fashioned from a ribbed cotton piqué woven by the venerable fabric house Abraham. Fastened by a tiny bow at each shoulder, the dress also buttoned down its deep V back before flaring out below the fitted waist into a full, flirtatious ballerina-length skirt. Its most dramatic features, however, were its deeply carved armholes and shallow, razor-sharp horizontal neckline. “What used to be called a décolleté bateau,” Givenchy says. “Afterward it was called the décolleté Sabrina.” Audrey loved this neckline, he says, because it hid her “skinny collarbone but emphasized her very good shoulders”—which were as broad and powerful as the rest of her was narrow and fragile.

Though Givenchy had not shown the black cocktail dress with a hat, Hepburn found a medieval-looking toque in his atelier that perfectly suited her face, the ensemble, and the requirements of the story. As snug as a bathing cap and paved with rhinestones, it covered most of her ears and, due to the serried peaks projecting from its circumference, gave her the illusion of wearing a storybook crown. Givenchy says, “Audrey always added a twist, something piquant, amusing, to the clothes. Though of course I advised her, she knew precisely what she wanted. She knew herself very well—for example, which is her good profile and which is her bad. She was very professional. No detail ever escaped her. Billy Wilder approved of everything she chose, and so I gave them the samples to use for the movie. Billy’s only concern was that the clothes adapt to the form of her face—they had to all correspond to the visage.”

As the Sabrina schedule allowed Hepburn to linger a few days in Paris, Givenchy invited his sprightly new acquaintance to dinner at a “bistro existentialiste” on the Rue de Grenelle. “Immediately we had a great sympathy,” the couturier recalls. “She told me about the beginning of her love affair with Mel Ferrer, and said, ‘You are like my big brother.’” Before long Hepburn was calling him up “just to tell me how much she loved me—and then she’d say bye-bye and hang up. She remained from that time on absolutely, unbelievably loyal to me and everyone here at the house. The entire staff adored her, everyone had enormous respect for her—she became part of the family here. I have always considered her my sister.

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