Great taste never goes out of fashion: the eclectic vision of Hubert de Givenchy
The couturier’s huge collection of modern art, 18th-century furniture and decorative objects is the subject of a landmark three-part auction at Christie’s Paris
‘Les projets. Toujours les projets,’ was the principle by which Hubert de Givenchy organised his work, his homes and his life. Charles Cator, now Deputy Chairman of Christie’s International, recalls arriving at the couturier’s Parisian home in the summer of 1993 to spend two weeks cataloguing his collection of 18th-century furniture for an auction later that year. Givenchy would repeat those words again and again.
‘Visual flair is useful, but it is not enough,’ says Cator. ‘The greatest and most skilled collectors are curious, with a compulsion to understand what they are acquiring. Their collections, their homes and their lives become a kind of perpetual gesamtkunstwerk — a physical catalogue of mental preoccupations, diversions and creative stimuli. Think of the collections of Peggy Guggenheim, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or David Bowie — a shared approach that is the opposite of assembling a showroom. Givenchy’s tastes were nothing like theirs, but his approach was the same. We can learn much from him.’
Givenchy — or ‘Le Grand Hubert’ as he was known among the fashion cognoscenti, an affectionate reference to his 6ft 6in stature — was one of the greatest couturiers of the 20th century. But beyond fashion he was a ceaseless collector of art and antiques, and spent years restoring and decorating his grand houses. His taste was rigorous, eclectic and restrained, as if a lifetime dedicated only to couture would never be enough for his intellect and eye.
‘I like to describe it as a reaction like a camera lens,’ says Cator, who became a long-time friend and colleague of the designer. ‘His ability to zoom in on that one detail, and place it in a larger space. It was a knack he had.’
Givenchy’s collection will be auctioned with live sales at Christie’s Paris on 14 and 15-17 June, accompanied by an online sale from 8-23 June. Hubert de Givenchy — Collectionneur features more than 1,200 lots drawn from two of Givenchy’s homes: the Hôtel d’Orrouer on the Left Bank in Paris and the Château du Jonchet in the Loire Valley.
Hubert James Taffin de Givenchy, who died in 2018 aged 91, undoubtedly had a head start in life — he was a French-Venetian aristocrat and the youngest son of a marquis. His instinct for fine textiles came early on: Jules Badin, his maternal grandfather, was the director of the Beauvais and Gobelins tapestry factories.
Givenchy’s mother, Béatrice, wanted him to be a lawyer. When, aged 17, he told her he would prefer to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, she relented, telling him to do so if he must, only to do it well.
Eight years later, in 1952, he opened Maison de Givenchy, which he swiftly established as one of the most progressive couture houses of the post-war era alongside contemporaries such as Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain. His lengthy list of famous clients included the film stars Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, as well as the Duchess of Windsor and Jackie Kennedy Onassis. He would lead Maison de Givenchy for 43 years until his retirement in 1995.
Throughout these decades, working with his life partner Philippe Venet (1929-2021), Givenchy bought, renovated and remodelled several historic properties. Gardens were planned and laid out, and thousands of pieces of furniture, paintings and objects were acquired and displayed. Givenchy even commissioned paintings of the interiors he had created.
As a collector he had wide-ranging tastes. His favourite fine art was from the 20th century — Miró, Picasso, Rothko, Alberto and Diego Giacometti — but he also loved 18th-century furniture and the decorative arts. He saw no reason for them to be displayed separately, so modern art was mixed with the decorative, and ornament was no crime.
In 1975 Givenchy commissioned Diego (1902-85) — Alberto’s younger brother and himself an accomplished designer and sculptor — to make a door knocker in patinated bronze for his home. It would be the first work of art his visitors would encounter when arriving at the front door.
Modelled with expressive roughness, but tied with a stylised bow at the top, the circular knocker is a beguiling visual joke. Givenchy’s working relationship with Diego lasted for many years. The couturier credited the designer with elevating his understanding of symmetry and line, and they shared a love of the absurd.
The rose garden at Le Jonchet was designed by his lifelong friend and confidante Rachel Lambert ‘Bunny’ Mellon (1910-2014), the American horticulturist and collector whose design motto was ‘nothing should be noticed’ — by which she meant that design was about composition, not individual components. Each work should therefore occupy its place while quietly speaking of its quality, but at the same time remaining discreet.
Mellon also designed Jackie Kennedy’s rose garden at the White House in Washington, DC, since remodelled - somewhat controversially - under the instructions of Melania Trump. Givenchy and Mellon’s shared taste ran deep: her staff even wore uniforms designed by his atelier. They were so close that she had her own room at his seaside home, Le Clos Fiorentina in Cap Ferrat, and at Le Jonchet, as did he at her estate in the US.
Mellon informed the designer’s taste, introduced him to artists, and was instrumental in his acquisition in the 1970s of one of the highlights of the 14 June Paris auction: Alberto Giacometti’s bronze Femme qui marche, cast in 1955. Both collectors were friends of the great post-war sculptor, whose ability to reduce the human form to its core characteristics caught Givenchy’s eye again and again.
Among the other revealing lots in the sale are the modern paintings, particular a world-class trio of works by Joan Miró, Kurt Schwitters and Pablo Picasso that hint at his spiritual side. The Miró painting, Le Passage de l'oiseau-migrateur, was painted in 1968 and acquired by Givenchy in the 1970s. It is clearly visible in a photograph of the interior of the Paris apartment on rue Fabert where he lived between 1968 and 1981.
This was a period when he was rapidly expanding his collection, and which coincided with the height of his creative powers. The Miró is hung near an ornate Boulle cabinet, adjacent to modernist sofas and a table stacked with books — a typical Givenchy interior. The painting also hung in his bedroom and was the last work of art he saw at night and the first in the morning.
Für Tilly (1923), a colourful geometrical abstract by Schwitters, is less ethereal than the Miró. It was acquired by Givenchy at about the same time, as was the Picasso, Faune à la lance (1947), a drawing in black chalk of a smiling, seated horned figure.
Givenchy did not just collect modern art, as is clear from a pair of 18th-century ormolu stags, once owned by the Rothschild family and acquired by Givenchy at Christie’s in 2006. Stags were emblematic for the couturier: a row of sculpted stag heads by Alban Reybaz adorned the main façade at Jonchet, and a near-life-size bronze sculpture by François Pompon (1855-1933), once an assistant to Rodin, sat in one of its salons. St Hubert is, of course, the patron saint of hunters - a slight irony, as Hubert was not a hunter but rather a lover of all creatures great and small.
He was also devoted to his many dogs, and commissioned Diego Giacometti to make small sculptures of his favourites to mark their graves. Several of these bronzes are included in the day sale.
Givenchy’s greatest joy, however, was 18th-century furniture. There are about 440 chairs, as well as wonderful pieces by some of the most famous ébénistes and furniture makers of the time to be found in the sales. He would often choose the upholstery for the pieces he acquired, as he did with six rare Louis XV chairs by Claude Sené I, made in 1743. Givenchy commissioned their leather and suede upholstery with applied acanthus-leaf motif from his very own glove-makers. Charles Cator spoke of the fact that every piece of furniture carries a little of its past owner with it when it moves to a different collection. Here we see that in the literal sense, which is quite remarkable and rather unique.
Similarly, he had a pair of elegant, scroll-back cream-painted chauffeuses, made by Georges Jacob in 1785, upholstered in dark green velvet, his favourite colour, and a Louis XVI gilt and giltwood bergère upholstered in maison Le Manach tiger-print velvet - an example of Givenchy’s playful taste.
For Cator, the summer he spent working with Givenchy’s collections nearly 40 years ago was transformative. ‘He changed my working life,’ he says. ‘He was an incredibly generous figure.’ Photographs of the rooms he designed and the objects he collected throughout his life reflect his pursuit of order, and his thirst for visual stimulation. He was fearless in his pursuit, says Cator. ‘Givenchy was uninterested in “bargains” and unafraid to pay the right price. He eschewed trends and investments. He preferred to "put things together and live with them".'