Eternally Influential: The Life and Legacy of Hubert de Givenchy
Eternally Influential: The Life and Legacy of Hubert de Givenchy
- Words Eamon Levesque
- Date March 19, 2018
Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy, born 1927 in Beauvais, passed away on March 10, 2018. He leaves behind a legacy as a designer whose defining moments are not only integral to fashion, but are elements of world history.
Audrey Hepburn changed the representation of women in pop culture in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—while wearing Givenchy. Jacqueline Kennedy accompanied JFK to his campaign announcement, state visit to France, final trip to Dallas and to his funeral—in Givenchy each time. Hubert de Givenchy’s elegant, revolutionary approach to women’s tailoring attracted a legendary client list, which allowed his designs to appear in some of the 20th century’s most defining moments. Yet, while Hubert de Givenchy launched his menswear line, Givenchy Gentleman in 1969 (10 years after the house was founded), the house did not produce a men’s fashion “moment” during his tenure through 1995 that could match the scale and influence of the house’s generation-defining womenswear.
Perhaps it would be foolish to expect him to. Givenchy, like his contemporary Christian Dior, was a die-hard devotee of Cristóbal Balenciaga; he was quoted as saying “Since I'm a believer, for me there's Balenciaga and the good Lord.” And, like Balenciaga, De Givenchy envisioned his house as being of women’s couture first, all else second.
But the ongoing memorials to Givenchy (the man) are incomplete without recognition of what Givenchy (the house) brought to menswear. He may not have produced a powerful, iconic male equivalent to Givenchy women such as Jackie or Audrey, but the brand has brought us no shortage of innovation in menswear—both in the business of making it and in the business of selling it. These innovations laid the framework for Givenchy’s later menswear successes, and left an astonishing amount of impact on the industry at large.
Much of how men buy and wear fashion today stems from decisions made while Hubert helmed the legendary brand.
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Growing the Empire:
Hubert de Givenchy’s biggest impact on men’s fashion was not a design choice, but a business maneuver—one that came on the advice of Hubert de Givenchy’s haute couture mentor. Concerned that the artistic integrity of his couture house would be compromised by commercial interests, he acted on Cristóbal Balenciaga’s advice that Givenchy should allow licensing deals using their logo and brand identity. This choice first spawned Givenchy’s perfume line, using (of course) Audrey Hepburn as its figurehead. The men’s line, Givenchy Gentleman, followed shortly thereafter, as did Givenchy eyewear, jewelry, cosmetics, watches and, at the trend’s peak, a Givenchyed-out 1979 Lincoln Continental.
While the decision may have allowed Givenchy to continue his vision of a couture-led house into the mid-’90s (ready-to-wear took center stage under subsequent creative directors), the Givenchy blueprint has been followed “to the T” by every major fashion house since. Without Givenchy, there’s no Armani sunglasses, Burberry cologne or Gucci flip-flops.
Behind Every Great Woman:
Unsurprising given Givenchy’s passion for womenswear, the identity of the image of the Givenchy Man under Givenchy’s direction was supplementary to the Givenchy Woman. Ad campaigns for the brand during this era played with this idea. One shows a man completely blacked out by the product shot, except for an arm holding an umbrella over a gorgeous Givenchy Woman. Another shows a Givenchy Man (dressed formally in a crisp tuxedo, naturally) waiting at the bottom of a grand stairwell, observing the looming silhouette of a Givenchy Woman. If that wasn’t clear enough, an Italian TV ad from the ’80s shows a husband almost walking in on his wife with another man, finding the lover’s Givenchy tie and saying “thanks, honey, what a nice surprise.” The message to the reader is simple: The women who wear Givenchy are amazing. Maybe if you wear some, you’ll get a shot at them.
Givenchy’s focus on womenswear was monolithic. Consider the Kennedy funeral—Jackie’s black jacket and veil are among some of de Givenchy’s most famous creations. But hardly anyone will recognize that Bobby and Ted (to the left and right) are wearing morning suits of his design as well. Their outfits are exemplary of what Givenchy strove to convey in its menswear throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s; designs were crafted in elegant blacks and slim cuts, resulting in garments that were unassuming, but well executed. Regardless, one look at Jackie—and even in her clear, palpable grief—there’s no denying that Bobby and Ted are not the center of attention in this photo. The day was unmistakably Jackie’s, who chose a designer that focused on women for a day where every eye in the world was on her.
Givenchy’s retirement from his house in 1995 threw the brand into turmoil. Despite hiring incredible talents such as John Galliano in 1995 and Alexander McQueen in 1996, the house could retain neither of them long enough to make a lasting impact, both in terms of style and sales.
Certainly, neither of them were able to right the sinking ship that was the menswear brand. Givenchy Gentleman ambled along for several decades, but gradually, it became clear that the house would need to renew its focus on menswear and not simply rely on the recognition generated by the female offerings and legacy of the house.
The house appointed Ozwald Boateng, one of the biggest names in British tailoring at the time, as the house’s first dedicated menswear designer in 2004. A great deal of effort and money was poured into updating the Givenchy menswear image towards what passed for modern in the early-’00s. His arrival was announced by a Kill Bill-esque anime short in which Boateng tailors a full suit with a samurai sword and fights off decades of Givenchy styles on mannequins to win control of the house.
Reactions were mixed at the time, worse in hindsight. The high-testosterone metallic and pastel palettes favored by Boateng were a poor fit when shoved into the classic tailoring of Givenchy. Critical reviews were middling for the first season, scorching from there on out. But despite this, it’s extremely hard to deny that this aesthetic lived on in menswear for several years. The collections are exemplary of mainstream tailoring in the early to mid-2000s. They might not embody what we like about the decade, but they do embody it. Menswear has thankfully grown out of the Steve Harvey-core offerings from Boateng in those years. Fedoras are now a punchline, thankfully, and Demna Gvasalia’s appropriation of square-toed shoes might now be as well, depending on your tolerance of sartorial irony.
By 2007, de Givenchy himself was fed up enough to break a twelve-year silence with regard to commenting on the state of his namesake. “I suffer,” he told WWD. “What is happening doesn’t make me happy. After all, one is proud of one’s name.” Boateng was gone by the end of that year. Cruelly, his ghost continues to haunt the Mens’ Wearhouse design studio and of-the-era Facebook prom albums.
Salvation Under Tisci:
Boatang left the house in 2007, throughout 2008, Givenchy’s menswear was anonymously designed by the house’s design studio. Pieces from this era were inoffensive (a reaction to what had come before) but naturally lacked much of an identity—conservative proportions wrapped in muddy colors debuted in shows that didn’t bother to hire models.
Now truly desperate after several expensive experiments with A-list creative directors,
Givenchy hired the relative unknown Riccardo Tisci, a Central St. Martin’s graduate who gained attention for his Fall 2005 show, presented off-calendar. The show married embellished romanticism with respectful minimalism—adjectives that could easily be applied to de Givenchy’s earliest work. It’s unsurprising this collection caught the eye of the house; some looks like narrow double-breasted coats and tight, soft pink blazer look like Givenchy hallmarks with the tragedy and drama turned up. Tisci arrived just in time; later interviews with Tisci made it clear the great house was in dire straits when he found it. He told the Financial Times in 2014, “I had to cross the street to use the public photocopier because there wasn’t a working one in the Givenchy studio. We didn’t have the money.” Tisci’s first women’s ready-to-wear collection arrived on the Spring/Summer 2006 runway.
His success in restoring a sense of identity to the house was furthered in 2009 when, after 57 years, Tisci became the first sitting creative director to simultaneously have direct control over Givenchy’s menswear. The difference was night and day. Tisci’s Italian, Catholic influences were subversive and truly different from other designers at the time, a new take on dark sensuality.
Tisci succeeded where others had failed in building a cohesive visual language for the house’s menswear. Boldly, he cashed in on a half-century of the house’s conservative approach to men’s fashion and prominently began incorporating streetwise graphics that ranged from the simple (five-pointed stars) to the sensational (the screen-printed Rottweilers that became a trend all on their own).
The First Givenchy Man
Over time, critics and consumers saw Givenchy Menswear finally take on a life of its own, discrete from the given identity of its womenswear. With that sense of self restored, Tisci was given the chance to literally set a stage for a moment that could maybe rival the cultural impact of Audrey Hepburn singing Moon River in a black dress.
In 2011, Jay-Z and Kanye, the two biggest breathing rappers at the time, launched Watch The Throne, a joint album and accompanying tour. Kanye approached Tisci to design nearly every inch of it. Covers for the album and singles, related graphics, the video for the inescapable single “N****s in Paris”(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gG_dA32oH44) and even the tour merch were products of the Tisci collaboration. Set against the backdrop of a global economy still in austerity and recession, the album and tour blended perfectly with Tisci’s designs to provide much-needed escapism. Yes, wearing a $500 shark-emblazoned T-shirt and leather pants while screaming “Last week I was in my other other Benz” was ridiculous, but so were subprime mortgages.
From this tour, the defining image became Kanye wearing his Tisci-provided wardrobe of a massive black graphic tee with his own face on it, the then-unreleased Yeezy 2s, and a kilt. Hip-hop and fashion blogs alike debated the thing to death. It’s important to remember how far gender and sexuality have come since then; 2011 might not be that long ago, but no other mainstream male rapper would risk headlining his own tour (standing next to Jay-Z!) in what amounted to a skirt. By borrowing from the house’s renowned femininity, Tisci and Kanye brought Givenchy to amazing new heights for menswear, while simultaneously putting it at the peak of a streetwear-inflected luxury wave that wasn’t anywhere near cresting (yet). The Watch The Throne skirt/kilt solidified Tisci’s ability to innovate and challenge norms in front of a global audience, and he was rewarded with sales figures that pushed the brand into an exceptional level of global recognition.
After an incredible run, Tisci departed the house in February 2017 for different pursuits (he was announced as Burberry’s new chief creative officer about a year later). Givenchy himself would have the chance to meet one more creative director of the house: Clare Waight Keller, arriving as a veteran of six years at the helm of Chloé. Keller seems to be embracing the bravery Tisci returned menswear while returning some of the wearability. Thankfully, it seems she’s adamant that the collections will not slip into the frustrating stagnation they were in for years. Pieces she’s shown still show a daring nature, a “high risk, high reward” gamble of trying to pull off a grungy flannel adorned with ruffles or a bright orange firefighter’s coat.
Hubert de Givenchy’s passing at 91 leaves us his incredible legacy to piece through, and a lingering question of what exactly his approach to menswear would have been, had he wished to hold a tighter grasp on that element of his house. But hypotheticals are no good in the face of such a legacy. Givenchy—both the brand’s and the man’s—approach to the sexes has evolved with time, built on the unparalleled elegance and craftsmanship of its founder, and more importantly, those who have attempted to pick up his mantle and follow in his wake.