When Hubert de Givenchy passed away descreetly on Saturday, March 10th, he was arguably one of the last great living post-war couturiers, who came onto the Paris fashion scene during haute couture’s golden age in the 1950s. Yet for many, too young to remember his final bow on the runway in 1995, he is something of an inigma at a time when luxury has more to do with branded handbags than the expert cut of an elegant suit. In his day, the fashion world was a much smaller place where a visionary designer could set the benchmark for impeccable elegance by cultivating a loyal clientel around him that included bold faced names such as the Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Jackie Kennedy, Princess Grace of Monaco and of course Audrey Hepburn; whom he dressed for both film and life.
Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy
Yet Monsieur Givenchy’s passing would also resonate across the Middle East and particularly the Arabian Gulf region where he had a following amongst elegant women from Riyadh to Kuwait and Dubai to Bahrain. Although movie stars and Western socialites such as Bunny Mellon and Gloria Guinness are often cited in press releases, the Gulf was the source of his largest block of clients by the 1970s. Each January and July, they would faithfully attend his intimate couture showings at his house at 3 Avenue George V, across the street from his mentor Cristóbal Balenciaga, whom he had first met in New York in 1953. Over the years the Spanish couturier would teach a young Givenchy how to breath life into the finest fabrics through expert dressmaking skills that transformed women into paragons of chic. When Balenciaga closed his house in 1968, not only did many of his talented tailors and seamstresses move to Givenchy, but so did his impressive list of clients.
1989 evening silk satin, feather embroidered and crystal accented mother-of-pearl dress by Hubert de Givenchy
“A well-made dress should follow and enhance a women’s elegant movements, not the other way around,” once noted the couturier in an interview to mark the opening of a retrospective of his work at the Calais Museum for Lace and Fashion in 2017. For his Middle Eastern clients, a beautifully tailored Givenchy suit had the power to impart elegance and confidence to the wearer, while his delicately embroidered ball gowns and ingeniously draped columns of chiffon could easily be spotted at weddings in Jeddah and Abu Dhabi. This was a world Givenchy was intimately familiar with, one which could be glimpsed towards the end of his couture shows when the designer would send out a series of evening dresses wrapped in floating, sheer silk coats. It was a moment his Gulf clients waited for expectantly, when the models would remove their coats to reveal luxuriously beaded dresses in mouthwatering shades that left the audience breathless.
Hubert de Givenchy backstage during the spring/summer 1952 show in Paris
Over the decades he would not only dress the region’s chicest women, but their daughters and granddaughters as well, to mark important events in their lives. Personally assisting at each of his clients’ fittings, a practice no longer followed at most major couture houses; he developed an understanding of their sartorial needs and tastes. Although he rendered them beautiful, to the women in the region who knew him personally, he will most likely be remembered for his elegant manners, a gentle demeanor and a disarming kindness that garnered him a loyal following till the day he retired.