Understanding Givenchy is a mammoth task. By no means the oldest of Paris’ iconic couture houses, the influence it has on contemporary fashion and culture can’t be underestimated. While best known for the collaborative relationship with Audrey Hepburn, through the 71-year history of the brand, the maison has evolved with each creative director, including John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Julien Macdonald, Riccardo Tisci, Clare Waight Keller, and now Matthew Williams who have reimagined the couturier’s vision in distinct ways. Of course, having such varied voices take on the iconic house has left the brand’s founder something of an enigma. That is until now.
The latest Thames & Hudson fashion textbook, Givenchy Catwalk covers the entire history of the maison through its catwalk collections. Still, it’s the extensive exploration of the Hubert de Givenchy years that’s sure to be a source of enlightenment for hardcore fashion fans and the casually curious alike. ‘He has a relationship with women that was very honest,’ co-author Alexandre Samson tells me. ‘He always tried to follow fashion, sometimes anticipating it, but he never created ‘costumes’ for women.
Along with fashion critic Anders Christian Madsen, the duo tag teamed the brand’s immense history with Samson covering Givenchy’s beginnings up until the end of Alexander McQueen’s tenure in 2001. A fashion historian, Samson is a curator at Palais Galliera, his recent exhibition ‘1997 Fashion Big Bang’ received much fanfare among critics for its engaging exploration of one of modern fashion’s most significant years.
The book’s early chapters are rooted in Samson’s historical exploration of the brand, with the author not shying away from other influential figures in fashion to create context for the world Givenchy created within. This includes looking at where Givenchy stood among his contemporaries like Yves Saint Laurent and the wave of space-age talents like André Courrèges, and his years-long friendship with Cristóbal Balenciaga.
‘It’s understanding the mood of the time, the ‘ère du temps’ we say in French,’ he tells me about Hubert de Givenchy. Admittedly, much of my knowledge prior to Givenchy Catwalk walk revolved around the designer’s friendship with Audrey Hepburn and the creation of ‘the little black dress’ as we know it. Though Samson doesn’t deny that very large part in Givenchy’s story, his portrait of the designer pulls focus on other aspects of his design language that have long been footnotes in his iconic career.
‘Sense of cut, asymmetrical silhouettes. Playing with the women’s body without constraints. Easy-going clothes that might look theatrical in appearance, but are really wearable. I think that Matthew Williams has archived the same thing,’ he tells me. Typically defined as a purveyor of classic ‘good taste’, Samson delights in the courtier's collections that veer towards the witty. Throughout the 70s Givenchy experimented with humorous prints of fruits, vegetables, and even an 18th-century chandelier motif. ‘It’s whimsical, it’s incredible!’ Samson says.
Documenting Givenchy’s history from its inception to today, at the core of Thames & Hudson’s latest catwalk book is about showing the nuance of Hubert de Givenchy’s design language. It’s a way of presenting the maison’s story that feels wholly different from how we consume information in the digital age. ‘With social media, sometimes I get really shocked seeing people talk about the historic subject of fashion very deeply with such conviction’.
Samson’s historical approach to examining Givenchy’s career isn't the easily digestible tale summed up in a click-bait worthy headline that many demand today. Rather, it paints a portrait of Givenchy that's more true to life, filled with anecdotes and oft ignored references. ‘It requires too much work. It takes too much time. And we don’t have time. You need to make a story, to get likes and to gain followers.' For Samson, the truth trumps fictions, with his chapters expertly explaining the root of inspiration for collections and how they were perceived by couture clients and the press.
As we traverse the pages of Givenchy Catwalk, the legacy of Hubert de Givenchy emerges as a vibrant tapestry, intricately woven with wit, whimsy, and an unwavering commitment to the artistry of fashion. From his historical perspective, Samson meticulously examines Givenchy's early years, his insightful perspective unveils all the nuance that made the designer beloved among his clients and his contemporaries. One of which is Givenchy’s friendship and creative relationship with couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, which Samson describes as much more than a simple story of ‘master and student’. Here’s hoping that book comes next.
In the meantime head to SHOWstudio's TikTok channel to catch up on our SHOW AND TELL series where collector Henry Wilkinson discusses pieces in his archive by Hubert de Givenchy.