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Hubert de Givenchy: The man who took the sari to Hollywood

Many of Hubert de Givenchy's designs over the decades echo the sari's flowing drapes, worn most often by Audrey Hepburn, his friend, collaborator and muse

Hubert de Givenchy. Photo: AFP
Hubert de Givenchy. Photo: AFP

In a party sequence in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn stands out in a crowd of dresses wearing a pale cream sari. It is in reality a bedsheet, but the draped silhouette is unmistakable. The stark, graceful ensemble reinforces the fierce individuality exuded by the actor as Holly Golightly. Without any obvious references to India, this was one of the very first appearances of sari silhouettes in a major Hollywood movie.

As costume designer for Hepburn in the movie, Hubert de Givenchy created some of Hollywood’s most memorable looks, including the classic black satin dress from the opening sequence which had two versions, the second with a slit he introduced for ease of walking (Givenchy later donated an original copy of the outfit to writer Dominique Lapierre; it was auctioned to raise funds for charity initiatives in Kolkata).

But the French designer’s sartorial legacy goes far beyond creating “the most famous little black dress" of all time. Givenchy redefined womenswear in the years after World War II, dressing royalty and socialities in his new-age Parisian designs, and pioneered many contemporary styles like versatile separates and sack dresses. In his quest for pared-down silhouettes, Givenchy can also be credited with bringing a new inspiration to Hollywood, the sari.

Many of Givenchy’s designs over the decades echo the garment’s flowing drapes, worn most often by Hepburn, his friend, collaborator and muse. Like the black dress, it was perhaps the minimal elegance of the garment, its easy ability to flatter all ages and body types, which attracted the designer.

Audrey Hepburn. Photo: AFP
Audrey Hepburn. Photo: AFP

Givenchy returned to the sari in later years. In an editorial published in the May 1962 issue of LIFE magazine, Hepburn was photographed by Howell Conant wearing a yellow dress, its layered embellished fabric finishing in a long trail reminiscent of a sari. The outfit seemed tailored to testify its creator’s famous words, “The dress must follow the body of a woman, not the body following the shape of the dress."

Givenchy’s design, Hamish Bowles writes in Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, was a synthesis of his aesthetics and keen interest in the sari. The picture caught Jackie Kennedy’s eye; she commissioned American designer Oleg Cassini to recreate the outfit and wore it to a dinner honouring then Indian president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

When Hepburn attended the Academy Awards in 1986, she naturally turned to her favourite designer. Journalist and biographer Barry Paris writes about how the actor “stole the show in her stunning, pink, sari-type Givenchy gown, edged in sparkling gold".

“Not many have the ability to simplify style and design to its basic, yet celebratory and most sophisticated," says Delhi-based couturier Gaurav Gupta. “Givenchy’s love of cotton and his design philosophy of simplicity were pivotal in influencing the cycles of fashion at large. He never forgot the power and purity of understated elegance."

In his final years, Hubert de Givenchy spent his time away from the blinding lights of fashion, emerging rarely for events and interviews. As one of the world’s most eminent couturiers, however, the Frenchman, who died at age 91 on 12 March, isn’t one to be easily forgotten.

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