The upcoming FIFA (International Festival of Films on Art) in Montréal (March 15-25) will be presenting a great selection of art films, including Karim Zeriahen’s fashion documentary “Monsieur Hubert de Givenchy” (2011). The film tells the story of one of France’s leading couturiers who continually epitomized elegance and grace since the 1960s.
“Givenchy had worked under de Segonzac at Schiaparelli before leaving in December of 1951 to establish his own house at 8 Rue Alfred de Vigny. As a strident Balenciaga acolyte, Givenchy was the ideal runner-up. At Schiaparelli he discovered elegance, but it was Balenciaga who taught Givenchy to listen to the material, and to design for the person, not the design.” (Sam Wasson, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. – Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the modern Woman, 2010. p. 38)
Filmmaker Karim Zeriahen first presented his documentary film during Montréal Fashion Week at Musee McCord. The film also showed the designer’s collaboration with Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina (1954), and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). The filmmaker was very kind to answer my questions and reveal some more insights into his work with the now 85-year old designer.
Do you find that making a fashion documentary is in any way different from making other documentary films?
My interest in fashion is very little as I am drawn by human beings so I made the portrait of an aged man who looks back on his career and this man happens to be a fashion designer but my main subject was the man in all of his humble nature.
How did you first meet Hubert de Givenchy? What was your first impression?
I met him through my partner and my first impression was that I was moved by this extreme politeness and a certain kind of generosity that I was very sensitive to.
In the course of making the film, what have you learned on a personal level, in terms of fashion, and in terms of story telling?
First of all? I have learned that I should never direct and produce at the same time, It is 2 parts of the brain working in different directions with different rhythms. in terms of fashion, what Hubert is talking about is from another time where I guess it was nice to live and dress up for occasions, less commercial, less aggressive. About story telling, you should always be simple with biographic elements and outlines major moments like for example, his encounter with Balenciaga, who like a mentor, helped him a lot.
In North America, Givenchy is perhaps best known for his work with Audrey Hepburn. In your film you show it briefly, and mainly focus on the other aspects of his life and work. Was that a deliberate choice?
It was deliberate for many reasons including economic ones but I also worked with what Hubert gave me and to me it was out of question to dive into his personal life even if I know him quite well. This is private and belongs to him.
How would you compare the work of Givenchy to that of other designers (past or present)?
As I said before, There is no comparison as it is a totally different job nowadays. As for pas designers, Hubert’s work seems very orientated towards an accessible chic à la parisienne, giving maybe more freedom to the woman’s body.
You’ve had a chance to experience Montréal Fashion Week a few weeks ago, what were some of your impressions?
It was great ! My best friend Elsa Vecchi took me to shows and I was able to appreciate this boiling creativity and was quite astonished by this crochet designer called Lyn.
What projects are you working on next?
Nothing is signed yet but I have 3 new ones on the road and it is still about men in their 60s, 70s looking back at how the world evolved. New lessons to share…
According to designer Jeffrey Banks, “Givenchy and Audrey gave us a very realistic, very accessible kind of class. All of a sudden, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, chic was no longer this faraway thing only for the wealthy. Of course, part of that had to do with who Audrey was and the kind of person she represented to people, but it also had to do with Givenchy. Unlike Balenciaga, he was a naturalist. He was about showing off the body as it was, not reshaping or idealizing it. He felt you didn’t need to use a lot of accessories or embellishment and based his dressed on the shape of women as they were, not as he, or the culture, wanted them to be. That was a kind of first in fashion and it took glamour from the remote and unattainable and made it practical. After Tiffany’s, anyone, no matter what their financial situation, could be chic everyday and everywhere.” (Sam Wasson, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M., p.130)
“Givenchy was a master of understanding the backs of dresses. He knew how he wanted a woman to look as she’s walking away from you. If you look at the neckline of Audrey’s long black dress from the front, it looks just like a sleeveless dress, but if you look at the back, if you look at the way he cut in a sort of halter shape that followed the shape of the jewelry, you’ll see that it’s quite daring for its time.” (Sam Wasson, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M., p.131)