(Wall Street Journal) Since retiring from haute couture in 1995, Hubert de Givenchy has led a mostly private life immersed not in fashion, but in the art world. (He’ll be showing a collection of his 17th and 18th-century bronze and marble sculptures at Christie’s during the upcoming Paris Biennale.) But in a recent interview with Speakeasy, he made time to discuss his friendship with style icon Audrey Hepburn, whom he met in 1953 on the set of “Sabrina.” Though he was expecting the more famous Katherine Hepburn instead, de Givenchy and Audrey sparked a close rapport until her death from cancer in 1993. Below, read an interview with de Givenchy on his first meeting with Hepburn, her work with Unicef, and his final memories of her.
WSJ: What was your first impression of Hepburn? You met her before she was famous.
Hubert de Givenchy: There are hundreds of memories. In 1953, they needed dresses for “Sabrina.” Audrey asked me to see her and she arrived in the studio. It’s not that I was disappointed [to not meet Katherine Hepburn]. She was ravishing. But she was dressed in a way that surprised me: small pants, ballerina flats. I asked myself ‘Who is this young lady?’ We liked each other immediately. I was in the middle of making the collection, so I couldn’t make dresses [for “Sabrina”] rapidly enough. I didn’t have the time. We spoke and I said “Unfortunately, I cannot do dresses for you. It’s not possible.” She said, “Can I see the dresses?” I said “Sure.” We showed them to her. There were fifteen or so dresses for her to try on very quickly. She saw the first and said, “This is exactly what I need.” We made the dresses. The film came out. It won an Oscar for the dresses but I didn’t get any credit. She was furious. She demanded “Each time I’m in a film, Givenchy dresses me.”
How did Hepburn handle the juxtaposition between a life of fame and luxury and her work for Unicef? She continued to advocate for them even while sick.
In the early 90s, Audrey fell sick with cancer. She had divorced. She was sharing her life with Robbie Wolders, a charming man. She did a lot of work for Unicef and wore my evening dresses when she was meeting President Bush—the first one. She was visiting countries like Bangladesh for Unicef and afterwards she was very tired. I think she was already sick. Each time she’d say “I’m coming back from hell, what I saw is unthinkable: children dying of AIDS, women who had nothing, men who were killing each other.” We lent her a dress or two for meetings with heads of state.
She had a side so professional and strong. When the president spoke, there were films from Unicef showing in the background. Everyone cried after seeing these horrible images. That’s when I found her so admirable. She took her breath with discretion, and she went to the microphone. After a deep breath she would explain what she saw: tragic things. After that everyone cried, upset by what she had told. One time, after doing this, she took my hand and told me that we should dance. I had no desire to dance. I just wanted to reflect on my emotions. Then she left for another voyage.
One time when we’d loaned her another dress for a similar event, she couldn’t get into her dress. She had gotten too swollen. We went to see her doctor in Los Angeles. We arrived in LA and he announced she had very bad cancer. Every day, the press was at the entrance and exit of the hospital.
One day her son called and said, “Yesterday was an awful moment because doctors had said she only had three or four months.” She said, “Great, finally I can spend time with my kids.”
How did you help her return from California to her home in Switzerland, where she passed away?
It came to be Christmas time. No one was making any decisions. I told her son, Sean, “She can’t stay here. Why not come back to Switzerland? All these reporters say she’s at the point of death.”
We had to figure out how to avoid reporters and then return in secret. We needed to find a plane. I asked different people who had planes. I asked Mrs. Bunny Mellon, as she had several planes. [Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, widow of Paul Mellon, is now 102 and lives in Virginia.] I wanted to know how to rent a plane from L.A. to Geneva directly that would leave very late to avoid reporters. Finally, Bunny said, “I have a captain of one of our planes.” She put me in touch. Finally the date arrived. Everyone was there for the plane. Someone waited for us in Geneva with a station wagon. Audrey came back without trouble to Switzerland, and said to me “Thank you for the magic carpet.”
She was wonderful. She was someone unique. She was real. She could do everything. She could do Shakespeare or other grand writers. She had it all. She was natural.