5 Stories that Make Givenchy One of the Greats
After organizing exhibits in Hague and Madrid, the famous French couturier Hubert de Givenchy chose Morges as the third city to ever show his work. Now, Morges is a quaint and rather small village on Lake Geneva in Western Switzerland – roughly sixteen thousand people live there. It’s mostly known for its Military Museum, the Morges Castle, and its single main street. It’s also known as a skiing destination in the winter, sailing and small welcoming terraces in the summer. What Morges is definitely not known for is hosting prestigious events featuring legendary fashion designers.
Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn
Yet this summer, several museums in this little Swiss town have been hosting Givenchy’s retrospective Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy: An Elegant Friendship, in which he retraces his eternal friendship with the actress through the many dresses he designed for her. Givenchy and Hepburn first met and worked together in 1954, during the filming of Sabrina. They almost immediately became the closest of friends and throughout the years, also became an iconic collaborative design duo that has since become part of fashion’s history. Givenchy, the actress’ favorite designer and longtime collaborator, dressed Hepburn for most of her career on the silver screen – in Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade, and My Fair Lady, among other films – but also designed her personal wardrobe and, as we learn in the retrospective, even created a perfume for her. This adds all the more meaningfulness to the retrospective as Givenchy was not just sharing his designs but also shedding light on what he openly describes as one of the most important friendships in his life. So why Morges?
On one hand, it makes sense because the region and town were dear to Hepburn. The actress spent the last three decades of her life there, was embraced by the local community as one of their own, and is greatly missed. So symbolically and historically, it made sense that such an important exhibition would take place in this modest corner of Switzerland. On the other hand, it seemed unlikely that Morges would be able to host such a prestigious event. It has no large or nationally recognized museum, a rather small infrastructure, is not obvious to get to, and has no cosmopolitan hype per se. In short, this place is not Madrid, Paris, New York, London, or even Geneva. But Morges has something that other cities do not: Salvatore Gervasi, head curator of the Bolle Foundation. Although initially unbeknownst to him, as the whole thing started with a joke over dinner, Salvatore and his team would save the day, and the event might have never happened without them. The curator not only charmed Hubert de Givenchy into hosting his retrospective in Morges, but eventually convinced him that such an ambitious and challenging (and to some, even a crazy) project was possible. Salvatore achieved this, mostly through sheer enthusiasm and faith, even if, naturally, some circumstantial luck and much dedicated hard work came into play as well. In the process of putting together the retrospective, Salvatore and Givenchy became friends and a complicity inherent to an effort like this one formed along the way as well. In retrospect, it’s clear they were meant to collaborate together; both Givenchy’s faith in Salvatore and Salvatore’s brave venture into the unknown territory of high fashion paid off. The retrospective has been a success, attracting close to 350 visitors a day since it’s opening, some of whom come from the four corners of the world, and at this point has been visited by Givenchy’s peers, from the executives of Yves Saint Laurent to the directors of the most prominent European museums.
Salvatore kindly took a moment of his (now more than ever) busy schedule to share some of his favorite stories and moments with Givenchy, shedding light not just on how this improbable event came to be but also on those more subtle traits that make Givenchy one of Fashion’s greats.
On his patience and perfect timing
“Back in 2012, we organized a small exhibition to pay tribute to Audrey Hepburn and it was quite successful. At the end of the exhibition, we all went out for dinner to celebrate everything going so well. An acquaintance of Hubert Givenchy, who I had met during the exhibition, was there with us. While we chatted, I joked in passing and said, "If you happen to see Hubert, tell him that if he ever wants to do an expo in Morges with us that would be great!" It was a joke; I wasn’t being serious at all. We do not have the space and I did not have a national museum to offer him. It was unthinkable and was truly something I had jokingly said in passing. I mean, the next day I had completely forgotten about that conversation. Then, one fine day in April of last year, Mr. Givenchy calls me and tells me that he is ready to work with us on an exhibition! He calls me four years later, out of the blue! Since he did not have my phone number, he had taken the time to hunt down the lady I had spoken to that evening over dinner, and had called her to ask for my contact information. At that time he did not know me and yet he still agreed to collaborate with us for the retrospective. With Mr. Givenchy, there was never any signed document or contract, we just shook hands on everything ... so before we officially agreed to work together, he insisted we meet. He invited me to his home in Paris so that we could discuss things in person. I remember, he said to me "Come to Paris, we can talk and most of all, we can spend time in each other’s company."
On his discipline and work ethos
“Once Mr. Givenchy and I decided to work on the retrospective together, we started with the idea of using fifteen dresses, some photographs, and about thirty original sketches that he would lend us. And that would be it, we’d stop there. All this happened in June and then, since he was leaving Paris and going on vacation for two months, we agreed that he would visit the museum rooms in September, before giving me his definitive yes. This shortened my deadlines even more because we hoped to have a final decision by July so as to plan everything before the end of the summer! It became a very, very short timeline to work with. Summer passed, he came in September as planned, took a look at the space and all we had been working on. He liked it so much that we even took the decision to expand the exhibit – we went from showing 10 or 15 dresses to more than 50! He also arrived with a yellow envelope that day. It was a little spotted with jam and not in very good condition. He gave it to me like that, as if he was giving me an envelope with a contract or an official document in it, and he said: "Mr. Gervasi, you have made me work a lot for you this summer, you know? You made me work for you every day!" At first, I was so confused, I had no idea what he was talking about. (laughs) He opened the envelope and pulled out seventy seven new sketches that he had drawn from memory during the previous two months. He had drawn every day since our last talk in June! He told me he had less strength than usual and so that the first thing he did every day after eating breakfast was to work on these drawings. He even specified that there was no need for us to return these sketches after the exhibit was done, that we could keep them. How amazing is that?! They are all signed originals and are now part of the foundation’s patrimony.”
On his straightforward tenacity
“Three or four weeks before the opening of the exhibition – and normally at that point an exhibition is completed, logistics are set in stone, budgets are closed, and so on – I get a phone call from Mr. Givenchy in the middle of the afternoon and he tells me that he really wants the dress from Breakfast at Tiffany's to be included in the exhibition. He had already called the Spanish Ministry of Culture because the dress is part of the Spanish heritage. It’s actually the real dress that is featured in the film and the only original that exists. For us, however, it wasn’t necessarily a welcome gift. It would mean building very specific display cases, setting up a new security system just for the dress, not to mention changing all of our insurance policies. Among other complicated things for instance, the dress had to be transported by truck from Madrid, opened before witnesses with a representative of the Spanish Ministry of Culture as well as the curator of the Museo del Traje in Madrid… So initially, I rejected his offer. (laughs) Mr. Givenchy called me, surprised by my reply, not all that content about it, and he insisted. "Any museum would surely accept if I offered them to feature this dress, now we have also obtained the Spanish Ministry’s permission to transport the dress out of Spain, which is no small matter, and suddenly you do not want it?" I explained to him that it was because we didn’t necessarily have the means and why. I don’t think he realized that as a small foundation and town, we were limited in means and resources. He replied that the reasons I was giving him weren’t good enough, that he had personally made a commitment to the Spanish Ministry, spent all afternoon on the phone with the Spanish authorities, and that everyone was in agreement except for me! In the end I accepted, of course. After all, he is Hubert Givenchy! (laughs) Despite the difficulties and in retrospect, I could not be happier that the Breakfast at Tiffany’s dress was included in the retrospective and that he insisted the way he did. This dress was a highlight and culminating point of this exhibition.”
Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn
On his golden touch and selective attention to detail
“Whether in Madrid or Hague, he changed many more things in those exhibits than he did in ours. And keep in mind this was Givenchy’s third exhibit ever in the world! It should also be noted that compared to other exhibitions, we really had to do things very quickly because we only had six months to prepare the entire retrospective. So we said, "You know what? The faster we go, the more mannequins we get done and the more rooms we finish, the closer we get to a completion point and then maybe Mr. Givenchy will bring some changes to it." Truth is we weren’t sure about how that would go either. (laughs) He finally came to Morges, visited the exhibition halls, inspected the way in which we had organized the retrospective, and basically told us that there wasn’t much that he wanted to change, which was amazing! Mr. Givenchy is a great perfectionist and he usually changes dresses around, re-arranges the order of the photos, or replaces the mannequins. Here at Morges he made only two improvements: he switched out a pair of earrings on a mannequin, and he added a red scarf-like piece of fabric. As we were walking towards the back of one of the museum rooms he told me, "There is too much dark there," and asked one of the seamstresses to bring him a piece of red fabric. He stood about a meter and a half away from the mannequin and threw it on the mannequin’s hand. Since then, the red scarf has been exactly in the same place, exactly how it landed after he tossed it ... because he did not prepare it nor did he arrange it, he just threw it! A touch of red that makes all the difference in the room, that’s Mr. Givenchy for you! After we visited the rest of the retrospective, I asked him what he thought and I can clearly remember him saying: "Madrid was perfect, Morges is sublime!” That really touched me.”
On his distinctive intuition and risk taking
“One of the things that most impressed me about Mr. Givenchy was that he showed genuine interest in me even though I was a complete stranger, that he trusted me from the get go even though we didn’t know each other at all. Today, in hindsight, if these were my dresses and my sketches, and I was in his place, it’s unlikely I would have decided things the way he did. I honestly believe that almost anyone in Mr. Givenchy’s position would have not done what he did for me and for Morges. Somehow, he trusted in us completely without even knowing us. I think he felt I was passionate and that if I said yes, I was not going to drop it or cheapen the effort. To agree to work with a museum that does not necessarily have the means to come through and has limited space, because we are not New York or Madrid; that your name is Givenchy and that you’ve designed dresses for Jackie Kennedy or Grace of Monaco; and still want to work with us and to trust us with a retrospective like this one ... It's as if the sun was interested in a tiny asteroid that doesn’t matter! (laughs) But we did it and today I am very proud of our achievement and of the end result. All in all, if I had to sum him up, that is how I would characterize Mr. Givenchy: a humble, generous, and trusting man.”