Givenchy : For 36 years, He Has Reigned as a Prince of Fashion; an Unusual Retrospective in L.A. Will Show Why

Times Staff Writer

In the beginning, Hubert de Givenchy thought he would stage "a simple retrospective" in Los Angeles. Thirteen months later, struggling with last-minute details and literally knee-deep in dresses from his past, the man who memorably dressed Audrey Hepburn for movie escapades and the Duchess of Windsor for her graveside farewell to her husband conceded the event had grown beyond his expectations.

As he sat in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel on Wednesday, he apologized for keeping his suite off-limits. It was, he said, in a state of disarray--filled with boxes and tissue-stuffed ball gowns sent at the last minute from New York and Brazil by two adoring clients.

Keys to Trunks Lost

Over at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel--site of tonight's retrospective spanning his 36 years as a prince of haute couture--there were more clothes. They had come from Paris in trunks, but the keys had somehow gone astray and Givenchy and his aides spent much of the morning making frantic efforts "to liberate the dresses."

Guests attending this evening's gala, which will benefit the L.A. County High School for the Arts, will see the liberated dresses and dozens more sail down the runway to the tune of appropriate music with models coiffed, shod and accessorized as close to the style of the era represented as Givenchy could get. (Louis Vuitton, who will become the owner of the house of Givenchy on Nov. 4, is underwriting the event. And I. Magnin is sponsoring the fashion show.)

By the designer's own reckoning, he and his entourage arrived from Paris with 27 trunks filled with everything from hundreds and hundreds of pairs of shoes and myriad accessories down to ribbons and straight pins. "Crazy," he said. "I've never done anything like this."

As he worked on last-minute preparations, he asked for a 5-year-old model who could resemble the young Princess Caroline of Monaco as she stood in a photo with a dog. Givenchy had found a good dog, but not the right child. And there would only be a copy of the dress. The original, the princess had told him, "was somewhere in the palace but she couldn't find it." Among other copies in the retrospective, there is the "famous blue-and-white dress" the Duchess of Windsor--and, as it happened, 24 other women--wore for a"big soiree. The Duchess was a good sport," Givenchy says, smiling at the memory of 25 women in the same dress. "She took all of them on a tour of the ballroom."

Missing from the retrospective will be dresses from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ("They're in the Boston Museum"). Paramount and other studios, he says, would not lend any Givenchy costumes they had.

But Audrey Hepburn, his muse and friend, flew in from Ecuador to be by his side when he receives the first State of California Lifetime Achievement Award. She will be wearing a "fabulous red dress" that the designer took time to deliver--via taxi--on Wednesday. "He's sweet and thoughtful and not the least bit pompous," marveled Hepburn.

She first met tall, elegant Givenchy in Paris when he was "this young, barely started genius. I had done 'Roman Holiday' and was about to do 'Sabrina' for Billy Wilder. If you remember, the girl is sent to Paris and transformed by French couture.

"I was in Europe and I thought it would be lovely to come back with couture," she added. Edith Head, in charge of wardrobing for Paramount, said "yes" and Hepburn went looking for the much-talked-about Givenchy. "It was just before the collections, and the last thing he needed was this unknown actress walking in, asking 'Could I see your clothes for a movie?' But in his usual simple, unpretentious way, he said, 'Why not?' "

Dress Worn in "Sabrina"

He showed her the famous black-and-white embroidered evening gown she wore in "Sabrina," along with some suits, "and fixed them for me right then and there. We became great friends from that day."

After their first collaboration came Givenchy creations for films such as "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Funny Face," "Charade" and "Bloodline," in which Hepburn recalls there were 24 Givenchy costumes.

She has no favorites, but "Something I loved was the short black dress and wonderful lace mask-veil I wore in 'How to Steal a Million,' with Peter O'Toole. I was trying to be mysterious and the mask was such a pretty way to be incognito. Hubert always had a wonderful understanding of the scenes."

Leading a quiet life in Switzerland these days, Hepburn wears only jeans--or Givenchy: "I like unadorned simplicity . . . Somehow his clothes have always been right for me, for my body. It's never elegant and pompous. There's always that little bow or something that gives it a lightness."

The man himself, she said, "is like his clothes: simple with a sense of humor."

'Best in the World'

For Della Koenig, chairman of the retrospective fund-raiser, Givenchy is "the best designer in the whole world. He makes the most beautiful evening and cocktail clothes. They're exquisite but not flamboyant . . . He is, as they say in Paris, 'a grand signor.' "

It was last year, Koenig recalled, that she asked Givenchy if he would accept the Lifetime Achievement Award and do a retrospective in L.A. "He took both my hands," she said, "and told me, 'I want you to know I owe my successes to you American ladies. May I kiss you?' " When he kissed her on the cheek, Koenig "was a little flustered. He's the most dashing cavalier I've ever seen in my life."

Givenchy is indeed dashing, and at six-foot-six he's often the tallest man in the room, his impeccable frame made all the more outstanding by silver hair and vivid blue eyes. He grew up in an atmosphere of art and design (his grandfather was a director of the Beauvais Tapestry Works). "As a young boy," he recalled, "I always wanted to be a designer."

At 17, he became an apprentice-designer for Jacques Fath and subsequently worked with Robert Piguet and Elsa Schiaparelli, a woman he remembers as "not an easy person but fascinating." It was at the house of Schiaparelli that he met countless famous clients, including the Duchess of Windsor.

On His Own Since 1952

In 1952, he opened his own maison de couture , operating on a shoestring and creating his first collection entirely of white shirting fabric. He immediately became one of the most talked-about designers in Paris.

"I didn't have much money," he explained. "I showed the line with the intention that the shops could order in silk or more expensive fabrics." But the white cotton garments "were lovely and very young. I think that is why the press had so much enthusiasm. There was no comparison with any other collections in Paris at the time."

To this day, he loves "fresh cotton," linen and silk. But he is hardly a fabric snob. When Du Pont invented Orlon he designed the first sweaters in the synthetic yarn and even went into American department stores to promote the product. Years later he was seen on television extolling the beauty of the Lincoln Continentals for which he had chosen the interior colors.

Aside from his haute couture and ready-to-wear lines for women, there is a vast array of licensed designs including perfumes (among them L'Intedit created for Audrey Hepburn), menswear, luggage, home furnishing fabrics, sunglasses, jewelry and hosiery. Early next year a line of makeup will be introduced.

Among the more unusual Givenchy-licensed lines are Japanese wedding gowns and dresses for widows. There is also a collection of large-size clothing, made in Germany and carried locally in Bullock's, that began when Givenchy designed a dress for a friend who had complained she couldn't find anything to fit her.

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