Hubert de Givenchy is sitting at his cluttered white desk in his bright white studio on a sunny summer afternoon, sketching. Hanging on a clothes rack to his left is a bubble-gum pink wool dress with a 12-inch-wide black velvet waistband and a matching jacket with a black velvet collar: No. 53 of the master couturier's final haute couture collection, which he had presented at the Grand Hotel to a standing ovation the day before.

"I'm correcting," the 68-year-old designer explains, as he slashes a black felt-tip pen across the white paper in front of him. Although his hair is thin and as white as his drawing paper, and his fair skin a bit blotchy, he is still terribly handsome. "That happens from time to time, things that were done too quickly, that we didn't have time to see, and I don't have a tranquil conscience if in my head it is not like I want."

There are a lot of things in Givenchy's head right now that may not be like he wants. In November he will leave the house he founded 43 years ago, officially under the guise of retirement. But it is well known in French fashion circles that he and Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton, the luxury-goods conglomerate that bought out Givenchy in 1988, have a strained rapport at best. And Givenchy, after decades of success, was nearly completely excluded from the process of finding his replacement. In fact, the man who defined simple elegance for a generation of women learned who was to become the successor to his world-famous fashion house at the same time as journalists -- after his July 11

haute couture show, via a release from his own press office. "I don't know the gentleman except through the newspapers and magazines," says Givenchy of his heir, 34-year-old British designer John Galliano, "and I don't look too much the magazines, so I haven't seen very much."

He pauses.

"Do you know the things by Galliano?" he asks. "What is it like?"

He is told that Galliano's designs are modern versions of postwar couture, with a clean, fitted line and an extremely feminine look.

"Oh," he says, with relief. "Well, then maybe it will be fine."

Givenchy and Galliano are opposites in every way, from their height (Givenchy is 6 foot 6 and Galliano is 5 foot 6) to their background (Givenchy is French aristocracy, Galliano is British working class) to their social and work habits (Givenchy is courtly and discreet, Galliano is flamboyant, an exhibitionist). Givenchy's discretion seems even more pronounced in light of his replacement's gay party-boy reputation, boosted by stories of reckless nights.

The only thing that seems to be even close to alike is the level of their talent.

Givenchy has long been a classicist, one of the last of the old school of haute couture, where gorgeous clothes were made for a woman to live in, not to decorate her, and design, however elaborate, always bowed to function. His clothes moved with a woman's body, rather than restricted it, and were extremely pared-down, often without cuffs, collars or lapels.

"Like in great painting and architecture, in couture to make clothes," Givenchy explains, "you must eliminate, eliminate, eliminate to obtain the true sense of a line. You see, the more you add, the more you load on, the more it's mad. You must try to have just the silhouette, which is an intelligence in clothes."

Galliano, on the other hand, creates fantasy, cinema, theater. Each show is a production worthy of Broadway, complete with sets and a script. His clothes are costumes. One year his collection revolved around a story about Russian aristocrats escaping the Bolsheviks, with models scurrying down the runway in belle epoque gowns as wolves bayed in the background.

When Marquis Hubert James Taffin de Givenchy opened his couture house in 1952, he was as much the toast of the fashion world as John Galliano is today.

He had come to Paris seven years earlier at the age of 17 with hopes of a job with his idol, Spanish-born couturier Cristobal Balenciaga, but he was turned away at the door by the nasty directrice, Mademoiselle Renee. Rather than go home defeated, Givenchy tried a few other couture houses, and was hired on the spot by Jacques Fath. After a year there, and four years at Elsa Schiaparelli, he decided to break out on his own.

Givenchy chose a 19th-century mansion overlooking the Parc Monceau for his headquarters -- far from the other couturiers, who were along the Avenue Montaigne and the Rue de la Paix. But the buyers, press and clients found their way there for his debut on Feb. 2, 1952.

"The applause at his premiere was loud, unqualified and long," American Vogue reported. Another journalist declared, "These dresses remind you of that first glass of champagne."

The clothes were primarily black and/or white. Givenchy introduced separates for evening wear, in what were then radical fabrics. He did blouses in billowy cotton poplin or jersey, paired with long skirts, and a sweeping cape in white percale.

The biggest hit was the "Bettina Blouse": a fitted white shirt, with senorita-style ruffled sleeves trimmed in black eyelet, worn by then-top model Bettina Graziani.

On the first day of sales, Givenchy rang up 7 million (old) francs, or $14,000 today. But his defining moment still lay ahead. Haute Hepburn

In 1953, a young actress named Audrey Hepburn, fresh from her debut success in "Roman Holiday," was cast in Billy Wilder's "Sabrina." Top Hollywood costumer Edith Head was in charge of dressing the cast, but Hepburn thought it would be much better if Sabrina, the daughter of a Long Island estate chauffeur, returned from her two-year Parisian cooking school in "real Paris clothes." Wilder and Head agreed. The first choice was Balenciaga, but he was too busy, so Hepburn suggested Givenchy.

When the waif in a bob, a T-shirt, gingham trousers and no makeup came by for her fitting, Givenchy was dumbfounded. He thought he would be receiving Katharine Hepburn! Nevertheless, he was charmed by Audrey. Although he didn't have time to create one-of-a-kind pieces for her role, he told her to pick whatever she liked from the existing collection.

She chose several chic ensembles, including the white organdy embroidered evening dress "with yards of skirt, and way off the shoulder" that lured a tanned, slick William Holden. Givenchy won the 1955 Oscar for Best Costumes.

"The dresses were divine," Hepburn recalled in an 1962 interview. "I felt as thought I had been born to wear them."

Givenchy went on to dress Hepburn in "Love in the Afternoon," "Funny Face," "Charade," "Paris When It Sizzles" and "How to Steal a Million." But the pinnacle came in 1961, when he was hired to do Hepburn's clothes for Blake Edwards's "Breakfast at Tiffany's." From the opening scene of Hepburn drifting along Fifth Avenue at dawn in a black Cleopatra-style gown, dreamily peering into the windows of Tiffany & Co., to the actress jumping into a swishy black shift dress and pumps -- "Black! Alligator!" -- in front of a gaga George Peppard, fashion history was being made.

"{Givenchy} creates quality clothes which combine simplicity and beauty," said the actress, who died in 1993. "I will probably remain faithful to him for the rest of my days."

She did.

In 1953, the same year he met Hepburn, Givenchy finally met his hero, Balenciaga, and they quickly became not only friends, but pupil and teacher.

"I saw Balenciaga every day," remembers Givenchy. "He was there" -- Givenchy points out the window of his Avenue George V headquarters, where he's been since 1959 -- "and when he saw a light on here, he'd call to say, What are you doing there still?' " He laughs.

"And then I'd go have a drink at his house. And listen. It was my education, you understand . . . each time I'd ask questions, and he would tell me his rec\ipes, if you will. He would tell me what he had seen. It was a fantastic enrichment."

Some press accused Givenchy of producing Balenciaga ripoffs, but that didn't drive the world's most elegant women away. If anything, it drew them closer.

"The marvelous thing was if you bought a jersey dress from Hubert, it was perfect under a Balenciaga coat," says Washingtonian Deeda Blair, who has been a client since she bought her first Givenchy -- a turquoise suit -- in 1956.

By the early '60s, his client list included the Duchess of Windsor, Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor, Gloria Guinness, Maria Callas, Marlene Dietrich, Princess Grace and baby Princess Caroline of Monaco, and, despite public declarations that she would no longer dress in French fashions, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who wore to the state dinner at Versailles a stunning white Givenchy empire waist evening gown that made President de Gaulle drool.

The Balenciaga-Givenchy dialogue ended when Balenciaga abruptly closed his house in 1968, in the face of the "youth quake." Balenciaga clients were distraught: Where could they go? The designer himself walked Washington's Bunny Mellon across the street to Givenchy -- the beginning of what both Mellon and Givenchy describe as a devoted friendship. He makes clothes for her -- including her gardening smocks -- and she gardens with him.

Meanwhile, Givenchy began to expand the business side of his house, with licenses in menswear, jewelry, handbags, scarves and home decor, with boutiques worldwide. And he designed interiors -- including Washington's Vista Hotel.

In 1988 he sold the fashion house to LVMH for $45 million, and he's been dutifully turning out six collections a year ever since. Until now. Galliano will take over next month and debut with a couture collection in January, followed by ready-to-wear in March. Givenchy's last show, ready-to-wear, is today. The Heir, Apparently

For more than a year, Paris has been buzzing about who would -- who could -- replace Hubert de Givenchy. Never before has a designer retired and left his house open for business. Not that there was ever a question of closing the house -- Givenchy perfume sales are way too successful, and in this business, the reputation of the fashion house sells the perfume.

So the search was on. Japanese designer and former Givenchy assistant Issey Miyake, Italian designer Giorgio Armani and French designers Jean-Paul Gaultier, Marc Audibet and Claude Montana, who did a short and very unsuccessful stint at Lanvin a few years ago, were all reportedly approached. Givenchy submitted a few names that were quickly rejected by the LVMH powers.

British designer John Galliano caught their attention in March 1994 with his 17-piece ready-to-wear collection of slinky slip dresses and mini silk kimonos with embroidered obi sashes. Negotiations went back and forth between Galliano and the Givenchy bosses for more than a year. When Galliano presented an electrifying collection of 1940s-inspired houndstooth suits and voluminous tulle party dresses last October, the fashion industry realized that if there were such a thing as a Givenchy heir, it was Galliano.

"I think he does fall very close to genius," says designer Jasper Conran, a longtime Galliano friend. "You can't often say that of somebody, but you could say that about him."

"He's really good on the dress," says French Vogue Editor Joan Buck, who's put Galliano outfits on the magazine cover twice in the past 12 months. "He's attacked The Dress with tremendous verve and excitement, so that it's not a thing for under a jacket. It's a thing in itself."

"I had a client in London who was very large and wanted to buy a Galliano dress," says European retailer Joseph Ettedgui, "and we said, Oh, no, the size is not right.' And she said, Oh I'm not buying it to wear it. I just want to frame it and put it in my house.' "

There was just one stumbling block to the Galliano ascension.

How could the Givenchy brass present this scraggly British party boy to their starched-shirt, bottom-line chairman?

Drag clubs and raucous parties are Galliano's milieu. "He is a party animal . . . always the life and soul, always the last person to leave," says Davina McCall, an MTV Europe veejay and former nightclub host in London in the late '80s and early '90s.

One of his favorite haunts back then was the club Subterania on Saturday nights. "That was really mad," says McCall. "We'd all be onstage, going completely berserk . . . completely wrecked. Up until God knows when. It was very childish."

In Paris, not long before the success of his kimono collection, Women's Wear Daily reported Galliano was booted from his apartment in the Marais because of frequent, loud parties.

Then there's his appearance.

A couple of years ago Galliano had white gook in his hair, which allowed him to shape it into devil's horns. Another time it was a mohawk. Now, it's in a half-dozen thick, two-foot long braids -- hair weaves. For his interview with The Post at his small Bastille atelier, these were tucked up into a bun.

And his clothes: On the day after the Givenchy announcement, he was in an 18th-century brocade waistcoat, a pair of men's blue-and-white striped pajama pants cut off at the knee, and a horse belt he picked up at the flea market. For one of his shows, he was running around backstage in an enormous moose-head-like fur hat, a Union Jack jacket and motorcycle pants.

"Ten years ago, a person who looked and dressed like John Galliano could not have gotten this job," admits fashion arbiter and Galliano pal Andre Leon Tally. "But the world has moved and moved fast, and the global marketplace is geared toward young people." A Lot of Spin Control'

Even so, there are some things young people may accept without a thought that could make a strait-laced European businessman looking to fill the top creative spot of a multimillion-dollar corporation think more than twice.

For years, there have been stories about Galliano's hedonistic lifestyle.

"His sense of balance just goes," says one source. "He loses it so totally and so publicly. John's going to require a lot of spin control."

When asked if Galliano has a drug habit, his best friend and show music coordinator, Jeremy Healy, said, "I think he goes on binges, but he's definitely not addicted to it."

It seems that the Givenchy executive team knows that the stories are out there, but does not give them much credence. "Listen," huffed Givenchy President Richard Simonin, over breakfast at the Plaza Athenee when asked about Galliano's wild lifestyle, "we don't know him from just yesterday. We haven't decided this in three months. We've heard a lot of things, and as far as I know and given the assurances that I got, it's not the case."

The designer did not respond to specific questions about these stories last week. In the earlier interview, he generally commented: "I'm young. And it's all a part of where my inspiration comes from. Being alive. . . . Sometimes I'm sketching until 5 o'\clock in the morning, sometimes I'm dancing until 5 o'clock in the morning. It's all inspiration. It's all being part of what I do."

The kind of behavior that would get you fired from a job in almost any other industry is tolerated in the fashion world -- sometimes even encouraged. "Artists" are supposed to be difficult.

Last spring, after a year of negotiations, Simonin introduced Galliano to Arnault.

"His main concern was how would I sustain the interest," says Galliano, sitting in his little office, puffing on a Marlboro. "And that it would be like asking Beethoven to play Mozart. Could I do it?" But Can He Sell?

The aesthetic arrows may all point directly to Galliano. But economics is a different matter. For although he's been creating beautiful clothes under his own name for almost 10 years, regularly dresses movie stars and socialites, and is a favorite of fashion editors, the average Visa-wielding shopper still doesn't know who John Galliano is -- and as a result, isn't buying his clothes. Even in his homeland, England. Women's Wear recently reported that Galliano's "sell-thru" -- the number of garments sold at the full retail price -- is among the lowest in the business there.

"We haven't had anyone walking in and asking for it, that's for sure," says Sue Li, Galliano buyer for Saks-Jandel in Chevy Chase, which began carrying the collection this season. "I just happen to show his clothes to them, and they say, Well, I've heard of him, but that's it.' "

The problem may be that Galliano retails from $2,000 for a satin blazer to $5,000 for a silk gown, which puts him in the same league of ready-to-wear prices as such big-name designers as Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent. And when it comes to spending that kind of money for such adventuresome clothes, as Bloomingdale's fashion director Kalman Ruttenstein explains, "Our customers need a name."

Givenchy pret-a-porter has been limping along for some time, and is considered by its executives to be the weakest part of the house. The hope is that Galliano can jazz it up, as Karl Lagerfeld has done with Chanel, without overshadowing the bankable Givenchy name. And meanwhile lure a whole new, younger clientele. The End of an Era?

So what will happen when Givenchy leaves?

"Nothing," says YSL President Pierre Berge. "Even fashion without Saint Laurent, nothing. Because they don't affect Banana Republic or Gap."

"Givenchy had a great influence on fashion in the '50s and '60s, most definitely," says Galliano friend Tally, "but now, people do and wear what they want. I don't think there is one person who could influence fashion anymore, and certainly not one designer."

There are worries that Givenchy's long-devoted, primarily American clientele won't be pleased with Galliano's bias-cut flamenco dresses or mini kimonos.

"I don't intend to please them," says Galliano. "I'm not going there to please them, and probably a lot of them will move away. I don't think that they could have hired anyone to please the existing Givenchy clientele."

What he intends to do, he says, is capture that "magical moment" of the Audrey Hepburn years, and Givenchy's "early stuff, the influence from Balenciaga . . . where he was trying to find that majestic line.

"Take away all the big shoes and the silly hats which were all too heavy," he says, "and there was a very strong, pure line there."

Meanwhile, it appears that Givenchy, the man who invented that line, has accepted the fact that his long and distinguished career as a fashion designer is about to come to an end. Someday soon he will finally meet Galliano and perhaps give him a tour of the house. As head of the French branch of the World Monuments Fund, Givenchy is overseeing the restoration of the King's Vegetable Garden at Versailles. He is also an active board member for the European School of Oncology. In November, he will jet off to America to open a Givenchy spa in Palm Springs, and receive a lifetime achievement award from the Costume Institute in Chicago. And then he will pack up his "photos, souvenirs, books and personal objects, put all of this in my car, will leave and I will not return."

"Et voila!" he says, cocking his head, and letting his large, thin hands hang in the air.

"That's it." CAPTION: Givenchy on his approach to haute couture: "Like in great painting and architecture... you must eliminate, eliminate, eliminate to obtain the true sense of a line." CAPTION: Givenchy's successor: Flamboyant John Galliano. CAPTION: An evening gown from the last Givenchy collection. CAPTION: Jacqueline Kennedy's Givenchy evening gown was a hit with President de Gaulle during a state visit to France in 1961.