In an ornate old house in Morges, on the lush green shore of Lake Geneva, Hubert de Givenchy is remembering the day he met the young woman who shaped his life. In his elegant, old-fashioned French, he recalls how Audrey Hepburn visited his Paris studio to ask him to make the costumes for her new film Sabrina. She’d just starred in her first movie; he’d just founded his own fashion house. She was only 24, he was 26.
‘I told her I could not make her the dresses she asked for because I didn’t have the resources,’ he says. ‘She insisted. The more we talked, the more charmed I became.’ Like so many men (and women), he found her irresistible. He made all the dresses for Sabrina. In doing so he found his muse, the personification of his style: ‘Everything she tried on was perfect for her. She had a unique silhouette.’ A year later, when she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her first film, Roman Holiday, she wore Givenchy. She wore Givenchy for all her greatest roles, and all the great occasions in her life.
That was more than 60 years ago, but Hubert de Givenchy still looks suave and debonair — younger than his 90 years, while making no attempt to conceal them. He is 6ft 6in, with a fine mane of silver hair swept back off his smooth face, and is simply but smartly dressed in a navy blazer, charcoal trousers, plain white shirt and dark blue tie.
He’s here in Morges, the sleepy Swiss town where Hepburn made her home, to launch a lavish exhibition devoted to the dresses he made for her, and their lifelong (platonic) love affair. The show is spread across three venues: a sleek gallery on the high street, a medieval castle on the waterfront, and this Renaissance mansion where Givenchy meets me and a gaggle of continental reporters. (There are no other British hacks here, more fool them — have they no idea how lovely it is?) These three locations are a brief stroll apart, a languid promenade that takes you past the quaint little shops where Audrey went to buy her fruit and veg, and the historic town hall where she married Andrea Dotti in 1969. Her pink Givenchy wedding dress (a quirky creation only she could have worn) is one of the highlights of this exhibition, alongside treasures like the chic twin set she wore in Charade, with Cary Grant, and that little black dress from Breakfast At Tiffany’s, which inspired a million imitators.
‘We really understood each other — we never had a disagreement,’ says Givenchy. ‘I’ve dressed a lot of actresses but Audrey was special. She had a great simplicity. It was easy to work with her because she was happy. Her smile was everything.’
Her smile made others happy, but she had more than her fair share of hardship. Her parents divorced when she was small, she hardly knew her father, and she spent the second world war in Holland, enduring near–starvation during the German occupation.
Despite her early fame, her adult life was also marred by sadness. Her two marriages failed, and she was struck down by abdominal cancer, aged just 63. Her death in 1993 now seems an age ago, yet she was two years younger than Givenchy. Seeing him here today, you realise she could still be with us now. ‘The secret of elegance is to look like oneself,’ Givenchy has famously said in the past, and Audrey never lost that elegance, even when she was dying. Even when her face was lined and gaunt, that smile was still there.
The world regards her as an English rose, but despite her Home Counties accent, her British pedigree was actually rather shaky. Her mother was Dutch, her father was born in Bohemia and she acquired a British passport only on account of her father’s Irish parentage (a Nazi sympathiser, he was interned on the Isle of Man throughout the war). She was born in Brussels and even the name Hepburn was ersatz — her father’s real name was Ruston. She spent a few years in Kent before the war and a few more in London thereafter, but once she’d become a film star, in her early twenties, she spent hardly any time in Britain. Yet she never forsook her British passport, and like a lot of foreign concoctions (curry, fish and chips, the royal family) she remains an icon, a classic archetype of English grace and beauty.
Givenchy wanted to stage this show in Morges, where Audrey lived for 30 years — the entire second half of her brief life. ‘I thought it would be a homage to do the exhibition here in the place where she had the happiest memories,’ he says. ‘It’s good to come back here, to remember all the good times I had with her. I remember how welcoming she was. She always prepared something nice to eat.’
Audrey could have settled in Montreux or Lausanne, or any number of swanky resorts around the lake. That she chose to settle in this humdrum market town says a lot about her no-nonsense, down-to-earth nature. Givenchy was here for many of the landmark moments in her life. When she was ill, he filled her house with white lilies, her favourite flower. ‘I remember the birth of her son Luca,’ he says. ‘It was very emotional for me yesterday, when I went to see her house.’
Audrey’s old house is a few miles from Morges, in Tolochenaz, a quiet hamlet above the lake. It’s a big house, but it’s not grand — more of a farmhouse than a chateau. The garden runs down the hillside. There’s a modest plaque outside and a small monument (erected by her two sons) in the village square. A short walk away is the graveyard where she’s buried. Givenchy was one of the pallbearers. You can see the lake from here, and the snowcapped peaks beyond. There are fresh flowers on the grave.
Back on the waterfront, le tout Morges has descended on the castle for tonight’s grand opening. There are glamorous women in Givenchy, huge heaps of nibbles and endless champagne. It feels like a scene from a classic movie — an Audrey Hepburn movie, in fact. I rummage through my notebook and come across something Givenchy had said that morning: ‘It’s not only a fashion story — it’s more a story of friendship. It was a creative and important friendship, because to dress someone you love, who has such charm, and is always smiling, is very rare. I’ve dressed a lot of personalities, but no one had the personality of Audrey. For me, Audrey is still here — she’s with me now.’
So what was it about the two of them that made them such a good fit? Well, it was a confluence of personalities, of course but, above all, it was a confluence of styles. ‘Make it simple, make it pure,’ was Givenchy’s lifelong mantra, and Audrey Hepburn had a simplicity and purity no other actress could hope to share. ‘Success is like reaching an important birthday,’ she once remarked, reflecting on the sudden fame that transformed her life, though not her character. ‘You find you’re exactly the same.’
‘Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy: An Elegant Friendship’ is in Morges, Switzerland until 17 September. For more details, go to fondationbolle.ch •