Ahead of an online sale at Christie's that bears witness to their unusually close and productive bond, Meredith Etherington-Smith traces the roots of a 40-year collaboration
Hubert de Givenchy, the couturier and renowned collector, died recently at the age of 91. For 40 years he and his most famous client, Audrey Hepburn, were friends and close collaborators on the supremely elegant clothes that she wore for her films and public appearances.
Their friendship started over a misunderstanding. Givenchy had just opened his tiny couture house in Paris after working at Schiaparelli, and was told that a Miss Hepburn was coming to take a look. Thinking that it was Katharine Hepburn whom he was going to meet, he was surprised by the arrival at his shop of a tiny sprite of a girl dressed in Capri pants, T-shirt and ballet flats. She had been sent to Paris by the director Billy Wilder to select couture for her role in his upcoming film, Sabrina.
‘I said I had no time,’ Givenchy remembered. ‘I was in the middle of designing my second collection and I didn’t have too many workers then, but we had dinner that night and at the end of dinner I told her, “I will do anything for you.”’ In the end, Givenchy gave her the run of samples already produced for his second show.
After dressing Hepburn for her star turn in Sabrina, Givenchy became a fixture in her increasingly successful career. He designed the clothes she would wear in almost all of her future films, including Funny Face, Love in the Afternoon, Two for the Road, Charade, and of course, Breakfast at Tiffany’s — a contract stipulation on which she insisted. The simple black frock she wore in the first scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s would become one of the most famous and frequently reproduced dresses of all time.
In 2017 a black satin cocktail dress made for Hepburn by Givenchy in 1968 sold for £60,000 in Christie’s dedicated sale of The Personal Collection of Audrey Hepburn.
Hepburn implicitly trusted Givenchy’s impeccable taste and the simplicity of his designs, which set off her dancer’s figure to perfection. For the duration of their friendship and collaboration, Hepburn would say that it was Givenchy’s designs that gave her the confidence to play her parts or step on stage before thousands of people to promote a charity. ‘When I first went to Givenchy in 1953, I was still in homemade dresses,’ she would later recall. ‘The beautiful dresses always seemed like costumes to me.’
When Hepburn died, in 1993, Givenchy was a pallbearer at her funeral. At the end of Givenchy’s final couture show, in 1995, Hepburn’s son Sean Ferrer presented the designer with a bouquet of roses from bushes Givenchy had gifted to Hepburn for her garden at Tolochenaz, in Switzerland.
From 2 to 9 May, a carefully curated selection of mementos bearing witness to this close and productive friendship will be offered in Audrey Hepburn: The Personal Collection Part III, an online sale at Christie’s. Among these are a gilt link-chain bracelet and earrings by Givenchy, together with a group of charming black-and-white couture ribbon, flower and bow hair ornaments.
Givenchy dresses and costumes in this online sale, which Hepburn loved and kept, include a black lace bustier top and scarlet knitted skirt, the top overlaid with lace and black ribbon flowers. There is a flirtatious navy-and-white polka-dot summer dress from Boutiques Givenchy, shirred at the hip, with full, short sleeves; and a long-sleeved cocktail gown of black silk, woven with a daisy motif.
Loved by Audrey and kept in her personal collection, these are tributes to a unique friendship that lasted a lifetime.