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What Givenchy knew before the rest of us about the power of a little black dress

Designer Hubert de Givenchy is applauded by his models after his last haute couture collection in 1995. (Reuters)
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Hubert de Givenchy was that rare designer whose work reached everyone from fashion aficionados to the casual observer. It defined an era. It helped to create the foundation for what it means to be a fashion icon. His work told the story of glamorous sophistication, female rebellion and the complexities of beauty and desire.

He achieved this remarkable feat with a single little black satin dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in the opening sequence of 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” From the front, the dress was simple enough: sleek and sleeveless with a flattering bateau neckline. From the back, it was dynamic, sexy and utterly sophisticated with its geometric cutouts and the alluring way it framed the nape of the neck.

[Hubert de Givenchy, French clothing designer who transformed Audrey Hepburn into a style legend, dies at 91]

That moment in that dress tells the audience a lot about Hepburn’s character, Holly Golightly. For one thing, it’s a cocktail dress — an evening dress — and there she is standing on the street peering into the store window with her breakfast. She has been out all night and she does not look wrecked. In fact, she looks splendid.

She has lived and partied and, perhaps, gotten up to no good. And she is none the worse for it.

The dress is not easy to wear. It follows the curves of the body. It reveals the arms. But it’s not a dress that constrains a woman. It requires effort but not sacrifice. The dress is special. It makes a woman want to slink about, controlled and teasing. It’s possible to envision it on all sorts of shapes — slim, like Hepburn, but also curvy. And it looks as perfect in 2018 as it did 50 years ago.

Givenchy didn’t invent the little black dress, but he gave it its enduring cachet. He infused it with meaning beyond the practical and versatile. The dress represented a lifestyle: glamorous, reckless, defiant, urbane. It was Holly Golightly’s dress. She was complicated and sad, confounding and charming. She was not Everywoman. She was exceptional, which is what every woman wants to be.  And her signature dress was wondrous.

Givenchy, who died March 10 at age 91, was born a count. He had an aristocratic bearing made even grander by his 6-foot-6 frame. He loved gardens and antiques. As a designer, he came of age during the 1950s and ’60s when haute couture dominated fashion and Paris was the center of it all. He apprenticed with Lucien Lelong and Elsa Schiaparelli, but his greatest influence was fashion’s most famous ascetic Cristobal Balenciaga, who was both a mentor and friend. And when Balenciaga closed his own atelier in 1968, he directed his heartbroken clients to Givenchy.

Givenchy dressed the grand dames of international society, ranging from France’s Marie-Hélène de Rothschild to Americans Bunny Mellon, Lee Radziwill and Jacqueline Kennedy. He didn’t just stitch up luncheon suits and evening gowns for them; he socialized with them and was part of their world. His relationship with Mellon was such that she once sent her private plane to fly him from Paris so that he could design uniforms for her entire household staff — all the way down to the gardeners.

His work was known for the quality of its lines. He was not the sort of designer who would try to dazzle the eye with elaborate embroidery or lavish beading. Instead, he focused on cut and proportion. His clothes exuded luxury but also restraint. He didn’t simply create clothes; he crafted a vocabulary of style. And it was that ability to seemingly build an entire world out of silk and satin that made his work with Hepburn both memorable and enduring — and allowed it to resonate with generations of women who envisioned themselves as gamines living fully and self-indulgently.

Givenchy’s initial meeting with Hepburn was famously disappointing, at least for him. He’d expected to meet Katharine Hepburn. It was 1953, and Audrey Hepburn had been cast in “Sabrina” as the daughter of an American chauffeur who goes to Paris and returns as a sophisticated young woman. Givenchy was charged with creating the Parisian wardrobe that would define her transformation.

The actress and the designer established a friendship. And she became both a muse and an ambassador for his work. She wore his clothes consistently, both on-screen and in her personal life. And today, Hepburn remains one of the most often-cited sources of inspiration for young designers striving to craft attire that feels both modern and timeless and for women aspiring to look effortlessly chic.

In 1973, Givenchy was one of five French designers to participate in a charity fundraiser at Versailles. The Frenchmen faced off against five Americans. The Americans incorporated popular music into their presentation at a time when it was not unusual for a collection to be presented in silence. Their designs were also worn by a critical mass of black models, who dominated the runway with their personality and theatrics. The experience made a lasting impression on Givenchy. Shortly afterward, he began using contemporary music during his shows. And he was so inspired by the work of the black models that he wanted to use them exclusively in his atelier, he said in an interview several years ago. He was met with resistance by some of his clients, who he said refused to wear the ensembles modeled by the black women. But he persisted.

[Hubert de Givenchy: The clothes of an era]

When Givenchy retired in 1995, he’d already sold his company to LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. With his departure, the creative reins were handed to the British designer John Galliano, who captured the feminine romanticism of the brand. Over the following decade, other designers cycled through, including Julien Macdonald and Alexander McQueen. But it was Riccardo Tisci, who spent more than a decade at Givenchy, who gave the brand its contemporary resonance — steering it away from its original focus on silhouette and a kind of enduring classicism to inject it with Gothic romance and draw inspiration from African and Latin cultures. He created designer sweatshirts and sneakers. He catered to Kardashians.

Today, Clare Waight Keller is the brand’s creative director. And she has her own ideas about what Givenchy means for customers in 2018, which include a nod toward Brutalist architecture.

But no matter the many divergent aesthetic points-of-view or the passage of time, Givenchy remains bound up in the collective cultural memory of a single black dress, the man who created it, the woman who wore it.  And the timeless desire for a bright, shiny life of glamour and ease.