It has been more than 10 years since the fabled Hubert de Givenchy came to America with an haute couture collection. Late last month, when he brought his wares once again to the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, it was a smash. “I didn’t want to do just a fashion show,” said Le Grand Hubert, who is 6’6″ tall. “I wanted to praise la jeunesse, play with color, joy, freshness, flowers, dancing.”
More than 700 friends and admirers watched the designer unleash nearly all his spring collection at a benefit for New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery. Givenchy’s Social Register customers turned out in full force. Mrs. Paul (“Bunny”) Mellon brought up boxes of fresh dogwood, white lilac and calla lilies from Virginia. There was white Bordeaux to match. And to set off his luxurious fashions—from red pantsuits to billowing chiffon and organza evening clothes—Givenchy brought in a young dancer, Sterling St. Jacques, son of actor Raymond St. Jacques and an instructor at Manhattan’s Infinity disco. To a deafening disco beat, St. Jacques twirled the mannequins like so many silken scarves.
“Magnificent,” said socialite Nan Kempner. “The evening dresses were like a bouquet.” “Fabulous, so professionally staged,” agreed actress Paulette Goddard. “Perfect,” concluded chairwoman Mildred Hilson, who has worn Givenchy “ever since I could afford him.”
The acrobatics were more than just hard-sell razzle-dazzle, insists Givenchy, 49, who has been seen dancing the nights away at the best New York discos. His exuberant mood reflects his feelings about the Hospital for Special Surgery, which raised $55,000 from the affair. Five years ago “Giv” was all but immobilized with a bad back, and the hospital’s surgeons helped him. “All the dancing is a lesson about physical health, motion and the body,” says Givenchy, who volunteered to do the show to thank the hospital.
Givenchy’s youthful extravaganza may seem at odds with the grand tradition of Paris salon elegance. And although the designer’s daily uniform has become blue jeans and a polo shirt, he remains one of the few practitioners of haute couture still commissioned by women to dress them from tip to toe. (Audrey Hepburn was his most famous client in the ’60s, and now that she’s back in films she’s back with him.) The creator of such styles as the ’50s sack—and who has prospered to the extent that his homes include a 16th-century chateau in France’s Loire Valley—Givenchy proclaims, “I was born for the couture and I still believe in it. Of course, I do ready-to-wear as well. But couture is a laboratory—there is opportunity to experiment, to play, with no limitations at all, except your talent.”
Givenchy has certainly never lacked for customers, despite price tags ranging up to $4,500. After the New York show, matrons clustered around him to ask for appointments. Next morning even Jackie Onassis was at the Waldorf trying on original Givenchys before they were swept back into their trunks for the return trip to Paris. As the designer observes, “There are always rich people and poor people. There is always an opportunity to have a good couture customer—one who wants perfection.”