Between 22 October 2014 and 18 January 2015 the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza will be presenting the first major retrospective on the work of the French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy, a key creative figure of the 20th century and a living legend in the history of haute couture. The exhibition, which marks the Museum’s first incursion into the world of fashion, is devised by M. de Givenchy himself and will thus offer an exceptional focus on his creations over the course of half a century, from the opening of Maison Givenchy in 1952 to his retirement in 1996. The designer has selected around one hundred of his finest creations, loaned from museums and private collections worldwide, many of them never previously displayed in public. They will now establish a dialogue in the Museum’s galleries with works from its collections.

Since he founded his own fashion house in Paris in 1952, Hubert de Givenchy’s collections have enjoyed continuous success. He is a declared admirer of the work of Cristóbal de Balenciaga, from whom he inherited his way of understanding fashion design, characterised by the purity of lines and volumes. Hubert de Givenchy was the first designer to present a luxury prêt-à-porter line in 1954 and his clothes have dressed some of the most iconic personalities of the 20th century, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Wallis Simpson, Caroline of Monaco and his great friend Audrey Hepburn.

The exhibition will devote a special section to their creative friendship and professional relationship, which began in 1953 and continued throughout Hepburn’s life. The actress wore Givenchy’s designs in some of her best known films, such as Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, stating that “Givenchy’s clothes are the only ones I feel myself in. He is more than a designer, he is a creator of personality.” Hepburn also lent her image for Maison Givenchy’s first perfume, L’interdit, which was launched in 1957. Hepburn’s image in the campaign was immortalised by Richard Avedon’s photographs.

As a collector of 17th- and 18th-century paintings and works by early 20th-century artists, M. de Givenchy has frequently acknowledged the influence of painting on his work. This is evident, for example, in the fact that his creations combine the classic elegance of haute couture with the innovative spirit of avant-garde art. This aspect, which has not always been easy to convey, will become evident through the dialogues established between his designs and the selection of works in the exhibition from the collections of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, including examples by Zurbarán, Rothko, Sargent, Miró, Robert and Sonia Delaunay and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Innovative creations and early successes

The exhibition opens with a section devoted to the start of Maison Givenchy in 1952, with outstanding examples from Givenchy’s first collection for his own couture house. Notable among them is the famous Bettina blouse, named after one of the most beautiful models of the day who was also a close friend of the designer’s. Made from men’s white shirting material, an inexpensive fabric, and with an open neck and sleeves embellished with broderie anglais, these blouses marked the designer’s first major success in his career and his first step towards international fame. The Bettina blouse was followed by other creations arising from Givenchy’s exceptionally innovative imagination, including loose evening dresses that could also be worn with a skirt or trousers; interchangeable elements that allowed the clients to apply their own style and preferences when mixing and matching them, hence the term “separates”.

An outstanding selection of short dresses, leather garments and delicate dresses in silk and lamé is displayed in the following rooms, revealing one of the principal lessons that Givenchy absorbed from his master Balenciaga, namely the importance of the fabrics. His work with different materials, combined with the chromatic approach that he applied, for example, to leather made Givenchy an innovative, ground-breaking designer but one who never lost sight of the elegance and simplicity that defined his particular talent. This section of the exhibition culminates in a display of dresses that combine black and white, introducing what would become one of the designer’s best known characteristics: his masterful use of black.

Major clients

The core of the exhibition focuses on creations made for some of Givenchy’s principal clients, key figures for establishing and maintaining a career marked by ongoing success over the course of a fashion designer’s lifetime. Notable among them are four iconic women in the history of fashion, who were also great friends of Hubert de Givenchy: the Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace of Monaco, Jacqueline Kennedy, and above all, the actress Audrey Hepburn, the designer’s muse and the ambassador for his maison since they first met in 1954. Many of the creations on display are part of the history of cinema and of the visual memory of the 20th century, such as the dress worn by Jackie Kennedy at the official reception given by General de Gaulle during President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s official visit to France in 1961; or Audrey Hepburn’s black dress worn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s from the same year. Together with other creations that Givenchy designed for numerous actresses and films, these dresses emphasise the importance for his career of the cinema, which offered him an outstanding platform for promoting his work internationally.

The exhibition then moves on through a series of dresses that make use of exquisite craft skills in their embroidery and gauzes and muslins, to be seen in garments such as the déshabillés, before focusing on another of Givenchy’s identifying traits, his elegant use of colour. In particular, this section reveals the influence on his work of the great painters of the past and the way he has been able to translate or transform what they expressed in specific works, such as the two by Sonia and Robert Delaunay on display here, making them his own and giving rise to some of his most exceptional creations. These connections are also to be seen in the following room, where a direct dialogue is established between paintings by Miró, Rothko, Ernst, Fontana and Van Doesburg and some of the designer’s most spectacular dresses.

Bridal and evening gowns

Two of the most important areas in which M. de Givenchy achieved the greatest international fame – bridal and evening gowns – are the stars of the next room. The former have always been a speciality of Maison Givenchy, defining the style of gowns of this type for decades. A selection of these remarkable bridal gowns from different periods, presented here in a particularly attractive display, once again allows visitors to appreciate the designer’s innovative and ground-breaking nature, always perfectly harmonised with the timeless beauty of classical elegance.

In contrast to the spotless white of the bridal gowns is another high point of Hubert de Givenchy’s achievements: his evening gowns, in which black, his key colour, stands out from among the other hues. It was Givenchy who first achieved a peerless mastery in the impeccable use of black with the culmination and popularization of the famous “little black dress”, a garment that became essential in any wardrobe from that date onwards. It is these apparently simple dresses that offer the best examples of the purity of lines and volumes with which Hubert de Givenchy imbued his creations, constantly indebted to the influence of Balenciaga.

Under the attentive gaze of top models of the 1980s, photographed by Joe Gaffney, the exhibition ends with some particularly glamorous pieces from that era, one of the last great moments in the recent history of fashion.

Hubert de Givenchy

Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy was born in 1927 into an aristocratic Protestant family in Beauvais, France. Brought up and educated by his mother and maternal grandmother following the death of his father, it was from them that he inherited his passion for cloth. He confirmed his vocation during the haute couture fashion presentations at the World Fair in 1937 and embarked on his studies at the School of Fine Arts in Paris in 1944. He subsequently went on to broaden and further his studies with designers such as Jacques Fath, Robert Piguet, Lucien Lelong and the avantgarde Elsa Schiaparelli. In 1952 he founded his own fashion house in Paris, Maison Givenchy, presenting a surprising and revolutionary collection that achieved immediate success due to its innovative nature in comparison to other more conservative designs of the period.

Soon after that date, M. de Givenchy met Cristóbal Balenciaga, his great friend and master, of whom he has always declared himself a profound admirer, acknowledging him as a source of inspiration. This special affection for Balenciaga represents one of the designer’s connections with Spain, a connection he has revealed on numerous occasions including his firm support for the creation of the Museo Cristóbal Balenciaga, for which he is also the president of its Foundation. In recognition of this commendable endeavour and other comparable ones, such as his donations to the Museo del Traje in Madrid, the Spanish government awarded Hubert de Givenchy the Order of Arts and Letters in 2011. Following decades of success and recognition, in 1988 the designer sold his firm to the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey group (LVMH), taking full retirement seven years later.