The couturier’s huge collection of modern art, 18th-century furniture and decorative objects is the subject of a landmark three-part auction at Christie’s Paris
‘Les projets. Toujours les projets,’ was the principle by which
Hubert de Givenchy organised his work, his homes and his life. Charles Cator,
now Deputy Chairman of Christie’s International, recalls arriving at the
couturier’s Parisian home in the summer of 1993 to spend two weeks cataloguing his
collection of 18th-century furniture for an auction later that year. Givenchy
would repeat those words again and again.
‘Visual flair is useful, but it is not enough,’ says Cator. ‘The greatest and most skilled collectors are curious, with a compulsion to
understand what they are acquiring. Their collections, their homes and their
lives become a kind of perpetual gesamtkunstwerk — a physical
catalogue of mental preoccupations, diversions and creative stimuli. Think of
the collections of Peggy Guggenheim, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or David Bowie
— a shared approach that is the opposite of assembling a showroom. Givenchy’s
tastes were nothing like theirs, but his approach was the same. We can learn
much from him.’
Givenchy — or ‘Le Grand Hubert’ as he was known
among the fashion cognoscenti, an affectionate reference to his 6ft 6in stature
— was one of the greatest couturiers of the 20th century. But beyond fashion
he was a ceaseless collector of art and antiques, and spent years restoring and
decorating his grand houses. His taste was rigorous, eclectic and restrained,
as if a lifetime dedicated only to couture would never be enough for his
intellect and eye.
‘I like to describe it as a reaction like a
camera lens,’ says Cator, who became a long-time friend and colleague of the
designer. ‘His ability to zoom in on that one detail, and place it in a larger
space. It was a knack he had.’
Givenchy’s collection will be auctioned with live sales at Christie’s Paris on 14 and 15-17 June, accompanied by an online sale from 8-23 June. Hubert de Givenchy — Collectionneur features more than 1,200 lots drawn from two of Givenchy’s homes: the Hôtel d’Orrouer on the Left Bank in Paris and the Château du Jonchet in the Loire Valley.
Hubert de Givenchy
and his beloved dogs at his home, the Château du Jonchet, October 1995. Photo:
Hubert James Taffin de Givenchy, who died in 2018 aged 91,
undoubtedly had a head start in life — he was a French-Venetian aristocrat and
the youngest son of a marquis. His instinct for fine textiles came early on:
Jules Badin, his maternal grandfather, was the director of the Beauvais and
Gobelins tapestry factories.
Givenchy’s mother, Béatrice, wanted him to be a lawyer. When, aged
17, he told her he would prefer to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris,
she relented, telling him to do so if he must, only to do it well.
Eight years later, in 1952, he opened Maison de Givenchy, which he
swiftly established as one of the most progressive couture houses of the
post-war era alongside contemporaries such as Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain.
His lengthy list of famous clients included the film stars Audrey Hepburn and
Grace Kelly, as well as the Duchess of Windsor and Jackie Kennedy Onassis. He
would lead Maison de Givenchy for 43 years until his retirement in 1995.
Throughout these decades, working with his life partner Philippe
Venet (1929-2021), Givenchy bought, renovated and remodelled several historic
properties. Gardens were planned and laid out, and thousands of pieces of
furniture, paintings and objects were acquired and displayed. Givenchy even
commissioned paintings of the interiors he had created.
As a collector he had wide-ranging tastes. His favourite fine art
was from the 20th century — Miró, Picasso, Rothko, Alberto and Diego Giacometti —
but he also loved 18th-century furniture and the decorative arts. He saw no
reason for them to be displayed separately, so modern art was mixed with the
decorative, and ornament was no crime.
In 1975 Givenchy commissioned Diego (1902-85) — Alberto’s younger
brother and himself an accomplished designer and sculptor — to make a door knocker in
patinated bronze for his home. It would be the first work of art his visitors
would encounter when arriving at the front door.
The rose garden at Le Jonchet was designed by his lifelong friend
and confidante Rachel Lambert ‘Bunny’ Mellon (1910-2014), the American
horticulturist and collector whose design motto was ‘nothing should be noticed’
— by which she meant that design was about composition, not individual
components. Each work should therefore occupy its place while quietly speaking
of its quality, but at the same time remaining discreet.
Mellon also designed Jackie Kennedy’s rose garden at the White
House in Washington, DC, since remodelled - somewhat controversially - under
the instructions of Melania Trump. Givenchy and Mellon’s shared taste ran deep:
her staff even wore uniforms designed by his atelier. They were so close that
she had her own room at his seaside home, Le Clos Fiorentina in Cap Ferrat, and
at Le Jonchet, as did he at her estate in the US.
Mellon informed the designer’s taste, introduced him to artists,
and was instrumental in his acquisition in the 1970s of one of the highlights
of the 14 June Paris auction: Alberto Giacometti’s bronze Femme qui marche,
cast in 1955. Both collectors were friends of the great post-war sculptor,
whose ability to reduce the human form to its core characteristics caught
Givenchy’s eye again and again.
This was a period when he was rapidly expanding his collection, and
which coincided with the height of his creative powers. The Miró is hung near
an ornate Boulle cabinet, adjacent to modernist sofas and a table stacked with
books — a typical Givenchy interior. The painting also hung in his bedroom and
was the last work of art he saw at night and the first in the morning.
Für Tilly (1923), a colourful geometrical abstract by
Schwitters, is less ethereal than the Miró. It was acquired by Givenchy at about
the same time, as was the Picasso, Faune à la lance (1947), a drawing in black
chalk of a smiling, seated horned figure.
Givenchy did not just collect modern art, as is clear from a pair
of 18th-century ormolu stags, once owned by the Rothschild family and acquired
by Givenchy at Christie’s in 2006. Stags were emblematic for the couturier: a
row of sculpted stag heads by Alban Reybaz adorned the main façade at Jonchet,
and a near-life-size bronze sculpture by François Pompon (1855-1933), once an
assistant to Rodin, sat in one of its salons. St Hubert is, of course, the
patron saint of hunters - a slight irony, as Hubert was not a hunter but rather
a lover of all creatures great and small.
He was also devoted to his many dogs, and commissioned Diego
Giacometti to make small sculptures of his favourites to mark their graves. Several of these bronzes are included in the day sale.
Givenchy’s greatest joy, however, was
18th-century furniture. There are about 440 chairs, as well as wonderful pieces
by some of the most famous ébénistes and furniture makers of the time to be
found in the sales. He would often choose the upholstery for the pieces he
acquired, as he did with six rare Louis XV chairs by Claude Sené I, made in
1743. Givenchy commissioned their leather and suede upholstery with applied
acanthus-leaf motif from his very own glove-makers. Charles Cator spoke of the
fact that every piece of furniture carries a little of its past owner with it
when it moves to a different collection. Here we see that in the literal sense, which is quite remarkable
and rather unique.
Similarly, he had a pair of elegant, scroll-back cream-painted
chauffeuses, made by Georges Jacob in
1785, upholstered in dark green velvet, his favourite colour, and a Louis XVI
gilt and giltwood bergère upholstered in maison Le Manach tiger-print velvet -
an example of Givenchy’s playful taste.
For Cator, the summer he spent working with Givenchy’s collections
nearly 40 years ago was transformative. ‘He changed my working life,’ he says.
‘He was an incredibly generous figure.’ Photographs of the rooms he designed
and the objects he collected throughout his life reflect his pursuit of order,
and his thirst for visual stimulation. He was fearless in his pursuit, says
Cator. ‘Givenchy was uninterested in “bargains” and unafraid to pay the right
price. He eschewed trends and investments. He preferred to "put things
together and live with them".'