Sporting capri pants,a little white t-shirt, ballet slippers and a gondolier hat she had picked up in Italy shooting Roman Holiday, Audrey stood for a moment in front of the stunning neo-Gothic mansion at 8 Rue Alfred de Vigny, opposite the Parc Monceau. She wanted to be precisely on time for Monsieur Givenchy; after all, she knew from her mother, the Baroness, that it was almost as ill-mannered to arrive too early for an appointment, as too late.
It was the summer of 1953 and Audrey had just been cast in her second major movie, Sabrina with William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, where she plays a newly chic chauffeur's daughter caught between two feuding brothers. The director, Billy Wilder, sent her to Paris to pick out some designer originals to wear when Sabrina returns to America after her year abroad. She couldn't believe she was here. Audrey tilted her head back to study the ornate sandstone facade that had previously been owned by Meunier, the chocolate king. She smiled to herself--she was about to meet Hubert de Givenchy, the aristocratic 6'6" devotee of Balenciaga who had opened his own design studio a year and a half ago, and was already drawing raves for his understated, supremely elegant designs. Audrey knew of Givenchy's reputation--she followed fashion with the same intensity that some sport fans devote to baseball. In fact, Hubert had first come to her attention two years earlier when he was still an apprentice at the house of Schiaparelli, and she was in the South of France filming the slight European comedy, Monte Carlo Baby.
Her heart raced. Eight years ago, in Holland during the war, she had been wearing homemade clothes, and now she was about to enter the rarified world of haute couture, where an embroidered blouse cost $3,000.00. It was almost too much to imagine.
It was time. Audrey was nervous about meeting Givenchy, but forced herself past her fear. She straightened her shoulders and lifted her head, pulling herself up from the base of her spine as she learned in ballet, making herself appear taller than her slim five foot seven inches. A doorman pushed open the heavy glass door to the atelier, "Mademoiselle?" Roman Holiday would not be released in America for a month, so Audrey could walk the streets of Paris--or anywhere, for that matter, unrecognized. She smiled at the doorman and stepped inside. The air was hushed, calm with the fragrance of fullblown white lilies, surely nothing bad could ever happen here.
"I'm here to see M. Givenchy, please."
"Oui, Mademoiselle," and motioned for her to go upstairs. With a short skip, Audrey took the steps two at a time.
Darting up the marble stairs, Audrey had no way of knowing that this seemingly fated fashion meeting with Givenchy almost didn't take place. At first, she had considered Cristobal Balenciaga to design her French costumes for Sabrina, but no one, least of all Gladys de Segonzac, married to the head of Paramount's Paris office, who arranged Audrey's trip to Paris had the audacity to disturb him so close to the showing of his collection. Indeed, the loyalty of Balenciaga's followers was so absolute that Mrs. Paul Mellon took to her bed for two weeks, literally, when he announced he was closing his studio in 1968.
Then, Audrey suggested, what about Hubert de Givenchy? Mme. de Segonzac smiled, an excellent idea! It turned out she was a good friend of Hubert's, and offered to make the introduction. Segonzac then called Givenchy and implored him to meet with the young actress. Although he was rushing to prepare his own collection, Givenchy agreed. "One day, someone told me that Miss Hepburn was coming to Paris to select some clothes for her new film. At the time I had never heard of Audrey Hepburn. I only knew of Katharine Hepburn. Of course, I was happy to receive Katharine Hepburn," he remembers. When introduced to Audrey, Givenchy graciously hid his disappointment. "My first impression of her was that she was like a very fragile animal. She had such beautiful eyes and she was so skinny, so thin . . . And no make-up. She was charming."
Hubert was twenty-six years old when they met, Audrey less than two years younger. Like brother and sister, they developed a friendship that would last the rest of her life. They had similar personalities--Hubert habitually rose at seven, Jeannette, his faithful secretary was at her desk by eight, with his models made up, coiffed and ready by nine. It was, he said, merely "a matter of discipline" to behave so conscientiously. Working fourteen hours a day, sketching, conducting fittings and inspecting fabric, Givenchy had tremendous physical energy and intelligence, as well as Gallic refinement. Dreda Mele, the directrice of Givenchy, remembers how similar Audrey and Hubert were: rigorous, well organized, concentrated on their work, and "behaving so well at every moment of life."
In Audrey, Hubert met someone who loved clothes (and, as they would discover, gardens) almost as much as he did. A schoolboy in France, where his family owned the Gobelin and Beauvais tapestry factories, his grandmother had rewarded his good grades by showing him her treasures--entire cabinets full of every kind of fabric that left him dazzled. As a grown man, now, a designer, he knew that fabric was where it all began, "the preamble to inspiration," as he put it. From his master, Balenciaga, Givenchy further learned "never work against the fabric, which has a life of its own." For Givenchy, the rich material of his craft had as much sensual appeal as a delicious meal or fine wine to a gourmand. "The allure, the odor of silk, the feel of a velvet, the crackle of a satin duchesse--what intoxication! The colors, the sheen of a faille, the iridescent side of a shot taffeta, the strength of a brocade, the caress of a velvet panel--what bliss! What extraordinary sensuality!"