The 1990s now seem like a far-off fashion land, where aesthetic revolutions took place every season, and London designers led the charge. Much Paris couture looked like it hadn’t moved on from the power dressing of the 1980s, and the great Hubert du Givenchy was one of those designers stuck in a groove, creating looks for a loyal, chic, but staid clientele with a fondness for pussycat bows, puffed satin sleeves, and the chunkiest of clip-on earrings. Monsieur Givenchy had brought a new look to fashion with his first couture show 70 years ago. His wasp waists, tailored pants and billowing white blouses were fresh. He reinforced that modernity for decades, dressing Audrey Hepburn for her life on and off the screen, but “The Last Show” in autumn 1995, presented during couture week to a remarkable front row of Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, Valentino, Issey Miyake, Emanuel Ungaro, Paco Rabanne, Claude Montana, Kenzō Takada and Oscar de la Renta, rolled out a staid aesthetic that was light years from London’s contemporary firebrands.
The year before, Alexander McQueen had made his London Fashion Week debut, and John Galliano – the South London-raised iconoclast – had been rescued from the financial wilderness by Anna Wintour, André Leon Talley and São Schlumberger to show 17 outfits, in Paris, that would rocket him back to stardom. He would move, a year later, to the city permanently, taking over mission control at Givenchy – a sign that the house which LVMH had bought in 1988 was going to be rebuilt. “There was kicking and screaming,” said Galliano of his arrival there, in conversation with Colin McDowell a few years later. “It had become quite dusty. It needed a new energy to be relevant today, because couture, as that generation knew it, was dead.” After two seasons, he would move to Dior, and McQueen would start making the Eurostar commute to take over at Hubert’s maison. “I’m saving a sinking ship,” McQueen told David Bowie in an interview for Dazed & Confused.
The London influence on the House of Givenchy was instant and radical, although initially accessories played a relatively minor role in the overhaul. When Galliano moved to Dior, he generated fortunes for the brand through his image-making, heavily reliant on beauty and jewellery. The Maasai-inspired chokers that embraced the wearer’s throat and draped beads down across gowns were indicative of a bold new aesthetic, and Galliano’s nomadic eye. But at Givenchy the Londoner focused on cut, creating a fantastical template for what couture would be in the 21st century. There were few adornments. For his Spring 1996 debut, there was no jewellery apart from the classic pearl drop earrings that had long been a staple at the house. Galliano is a master at storytelling, and the sparse jewellery drew a line between the past and the future.
Alexander McQueen succeeded Galliano in 1996, and his tenure at Givenchy lasted until 2001, his work getting stronger with each season. Most critics – and the late McQueen himself – agreed his first show, full of Ancient Greek white drapery and gold wing motifs, was lacklustre. The problem was a Pygmalion one – McQueen was used to conjuring up operatic drama on a shoestring. At Givenchy, he sprayed things metallic gold. In Paris, you don’t do that, you use the real thing. But the potential of the house soon fed his imagination, as was made obvious by the jewellery that his long-time collaborator Shaun Leane created.
“The beautiful thing about the Givenchy shows was that the budgets were higher,” says Leane. “I had more time for each piece. I could explore scale, concept, and fantasy, and had the resources to revisit my original roots as a classical goldsmith and introduce finer materials such as pure silver and gemstones.” The “Silver Rose Corset” that Leane created for McQueen at Givenchy in 2000 is one of the most extraordinary things ever to appear on a catwalk. It is ravishing body armour. “It was hand crafted in silver and remains one of the works I’m most proud of,” he says. “In the early 1990s, Lee and I were two craftsmen, him from Savile Row training and me from Hatton Garden training with a respect from our craft and heritage, we wanted to use those trainings to create new forms and silhouettes. Working with Givenchy allowed us both to elevate in our craft whilst giving us a platform to showcase some of the finest couture and jewellery.” It’s interesting that while Leane produced bold and avant-garde runway pieces, Givenchy’s costume jewellery from the 1990s remained classic – graphic and bright cut crystal pieces and substantial layers of chains.
‘Working with Givenchy allowed us both to elevate in our craft whilst giving us a platform to showcase some of the finest couture and jewellery’
McQueen’s narratives at Givenchy were wild – from his “Eclect Dissect” collection, based on the idea of a mad scientist who cut up and spliced women together, to his “Blade Runner” show that replicated the Rachael character from the film, in look after look. When McQueen and Leane left Givenchy, their radical approach remained embedded. Riccardo Tisci’s jewellery for the house included spinal-column motifs, similar to a lot of Leane’s work, most notably the vertebrae corset for McQueen’s Spring 1998 “Untitled” show, and Leane’s own subsequent “Serpent’s Trace” collection. From his silver rose thorns to the “Sabre” collection, many of Leane’s designs from the McQueen era remain in production.
While Galliano and McQueen are still the most famous London designers to take on Givenchy, the story continued with three years of Julien Macdonald at the helm (2001-2004). Macdonald was absorbed into the mainstream, via QVC and Freemans, but at the start of his career he was regarded as a visionary. He cut his teeth creating extraordinary knits at Chanel, and then created runway pieces for McQueen under the moniker Brother Julien. Macdonald’s stint at Givenchy would see many interesting moments – in autumn 2003 he created variations on the LBD, trimmed with crystals as a reference to the Duchess of Windsor’s Van Cleef & Arpels diamonds. And his Autumn-Winter 2003/2004 Haute Couture show, saw models wearing chokers made from giant black baubles – chic and witty, and not unlike what Monsieur Givenchy was doing before he left, but now with ironic distance.
Today, Givenchy is under the creative direction of American Matthew Willliams, but before his arrival in 2020, the house was headed by Londoner Clare Waight Keller, the first of the Brits to take on jewellery as a serious part of her commercial remit. In 2018 she designed Meghan Markle’s wedding dress, while also launching the “Zodiac” collection, incorporating each star sign as a ring or earrings. Each came with a length of black grosgrain ribbon so it could be turned into a simple pendant. While the pieces were costume jewellery, this was Waight Keller turning the Givenchy legacy into gold for yet another generation, fascinated by spirituality and fate.
As for where the house of Givenchy goes next, that’s up to Williams, and whoever inevitably succeeds him. But radical changes have been made by a succession of foreigners and saved the legacy of its founder. As Givenchy once said himself: “Life is like a book: one has to know when to turn the page.”
Main image: Alexander McQueen and Shaun Leane with the ‘Silver Rose Corset’. Photograph by Ann Ray, courtesy of Shaun Leane