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Owning a slice of de Givenchy's aura

Earning his spurs as Audrey Hepburn’s designer, Hubert de Givenchy had an impeccable eye for all things fine, as the record-breaking sale of his art and furniture collection in Paris recently showed

Owning a slice of de Givenchy’s aura
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Owning a slice of de Givenchy’s aura

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Known the world over as the founder of the eponymous haute couture fashion house Givenchy, that he founded in 1952 at the age of 25 in Paris, the designer (extremely good-looking, 6' 6") was the synonym for what is known as le grand gôut français — or the high French taste for all things fine

Last week, a very exciting set of six sales was held in Paris by the auction house Christie's that got the connoisseurs globally drooling. It was the sale of the personal belongings of Hubert de Givenchy (1927-2018), one of the most famous fashion designers of our times, who is known for several things, the most important being the Little Black Dress that he designed for his lifelong friend and Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn for her 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany's.

As the Indian art auction season mulls over the heat and lies low for a while with fewer sales, I felt it would be a good break for this column to talk about an interesting auction of art and collectibles from across the seven seas, and marvel at what a man of fine taste could collect.

Owning A Slice of de Givenchy's Aura

Known the world over as the founder of the eponymous haute couture fashion house Givenchy, that he founded in 1952 at the age of 25 in Paris, the designer (extremely good-looking, 6' 6") was the synonym for what is known as le grand gôut français - or the high French taste for all things fine - which was vastly evident in more than 1200 objects from his personal collection that went under the hammer at Christie's.

The lots comprised French and European furniture and works of art, including sculpture and paintings from Old Masters to Modern and Contemporary works, drawn from his Paris residence, Hôtel d'Orrouer, and his 16th-century Château du Jonchet in the Loire Valley in central France. According to a statement released by Christie's when the sale was announced in February, "Each object was chosen with Hubert de Givenchy's meticulous eye and reflects his exquisite taste."

The bouquet of Givenchy sales threw up a stunning record as well. A bronze sculpture by renowned Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Femme qui marche (made between 1932 and 1936), which occupied a place of pride at de Givenchy's Paris residence, achieved €27,169,500 ($28,419,297 or approx. ₹223 crore). This is the highest price achieved by any artwork sold in France this year.

It is one of the four numbered casts made during the artist's lifetime and displays Giacometti's fascination with ancient Egyptian art with his own distinctive vision.

Other sale highlights included: Le Passage de l'oiseau-migrateur, a minimalist blue abstract work by Spanish master artist Joan Miró (1893-1983), fetched €6,845,750 (approx. Rs 56 crore); Für Tilly, a colour block oil on panel work by German modernist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), fetched €1,962,000 (about Rs 16 crore); a pair of monumental late Louix XVI ormolu and patinated-bronze twelve-light girandoles, circa 1790-1800, realised a price of €4,956,500 (approx. Rs 40 crore); a Louis XVI ormolu-mounted mahogany mechanical cylinder desk, circa 1780, by David Roentgen (1743-1807) and François Remond (1745-1812), achieved a world record price for the duo at €2,142,00 (Rs 18 crore); Pablo Picasso's Faune à la lance, a Pierre Noire pencil work on paper, was acquired for €4,242,000 (approx. Rs 35 crore); and another Giacometti work, titled Oiseau (1937), in plaster, realised a price of €4,242,000 (approx. Rs 35 crore).

The price achieved by the top lot must give an idea of how spectacular the entire sale must have been. Quoting the figures released by Christie's, the decorative and fine arts section of the entire auction saw 100 per cent sales, setting the second highest record for a private collection at Christie's France. As many as 17 lots sold above €1 million each (approx. Rs 8.21 crore). It is interesting to note that buying by lot came 46 per cent from EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa), 30 per cent from APAC (Asia-Pacific), and 24 per cent from the Americas.

Even though the sale has elicited exclamations from all those interested globally, it also marks the end of a collection that was put together with great precision by one of the greatest connoisseurs of the 20th century.

Knowing Hubert de Givenchy

The highly sophisticated French designer was born on 20 February 1927 in an aristocratic family in Beauvais, France. His father passed away when he was two years old. His ancestors included some well-regarded artists and designers, while his maternal grandfather was an artist and the owner of the historic Gobelins Manufactory and Beauvais tapestry factories.

De Givenchy shifted to Paris at the age of 17 to study at the renowned École des Beaux-Arts (where some of India's top visual artists also studied, including Amrita Sher-Gil, S. H. Raza, Akkitham Narayanan, Anjolie Ela Menon, to name a few). In his initial years as a designer, he worked alongside Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior, who would go on to become world-renowned designers in their own right subsequently. He also spent four years training under another influential and avantgarde designer Elsa Schiaparelli before setting up his own label in 1952. The next year, he met Hepburn for her film Sabrina (1954) and would go on to form a lifelong friendship with the legendary actress, who would also play a seminal role in advancing de Givenchy's career across the Atlantic in the Americas. When de Givenchy added perfumes to his label, in 1957, he launched the first perfume, L'Interdit, for Hepburn.

He would soon also meet his idol for the first time, the Spanish great Cristóbal Balenciaga, who was called by Dior as "the master of us all".

Apart from Hepburn, the famous women of his times de Givenchy dressed included US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy (later Onassis), actresses Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelley and Sophia Loren to name a few, besides several other wealthy women of the times, including wives of various heads of state.

Besides his designs for the well-heeled of Paris, London, New York and elswhere, de Givenchy also came to be known for his impeccable taste in all things fine, which reflected in the collectibles he amassed from all over the world for his residences.

The designer retired from fashion in 1995, when the brand was acquired by the luxury conglomerate LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy). The designer passed away on 10 March 2018, and following the death of his long-time partner, Philippe Venet in 2021, de Givenchy's nephews, Olivier and James Taffin de Givenchy asked Christie's to disperse his vast collection, the pieces of which will now be owned by different individuals globally. But de Givenchy's glamour and aura live on.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist, editor and arts consultant. She blogs at www.archanakhareghose.com)

Archana Khare-Ghose
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