The dramatic setting of the Givenchy’s Spring/Summer 2016 show at Pier 21, New York
The New York Times hailed him as “King of Fashion Week”. In the world of American fashion, where haute couture is conspicuously missing, Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci is perhaps the real royal in the city. For the first time, Givenchy would be on leave from Paris, showing its prêt-a-porter collection for Spring/Summer 2016 instead in a metropolis where women going topless on the streets won’t pose a legal problem. New York Fashion Week (NYFW) fans and the countless who wanted to but couldn’t attend were eager to tout the Givenchy show two Fridays ago as grand, possibly on par with the impending visit of Pope Francis. Americans know their royalty, religious or secular.
No American designer has been bestowed such kingly accolade, not even two of their acknowledged couturiers, Mainbocher and Ralph Rucci. Mr Tisci’s present eminence is due, in no small part, to his relationship with American customers and supporters—two of the most visible, the double Ks, Kanye and Kim, whose current maternity wardrobe is blessed by potential godfather, Riccardo Tisci. It was, therefore, to be expected that his NYFW debut at Pier 26, off Manhattan’s West Side Highway, was to be front-rowed by a Hollywood-meets-hip-hop crowd—when “glitzy” described the guest list, you’d know what kind of attendance the show enjoyed. It was, therefore, predictable—bordering on the banal—when the 41-year-old Italian was dubbed by the NY press as “a bona fide celebrity designer”.
Complimentary or not, many consider the original “celebrity designer” to be the founder of the house himself—Hubert de Givenchy. A master at spinning elegant clothes, Givenchy had an enviably long, wardrobe-supplying association with the actress Audrey Hepburn, from a year after the house’s founding in 1952 to 1993, when she died of colon cancer. His relationship with Hepburn was so close that he called her his “sister” and she considered him her “best friend”. They first met in 1953 when she, then 24, was in pre-production for the 1954 movie Sabrina. According to Hollywood lore (or legend, depending on who you ask), the fated and feted meeting came about when director Billy Wilder decided, as he was reported to have said, to act on Hepburn’s suggestion of having a real French designer supply “Paris originals” for the movie.
This being Hollywood, disgruntlement was to be expected. The official wardrobe supervisor was Edith Head, the legendary, star-in-her-own-right costume diva who had earlier conceived Hepburn’s outfits for Roman Holiday. With the actress bent on going to Paris, she was left with providing only three insignificant outfits for Sabrina. Head’s loss was Hepburn’s gain. After that first meeting at the Givenchy atelier, Hepburn became, as life imitated art, the film’s Sabrina Fairchild—a raw diamond polished. Monsieur Givenchy would continue to supply Hepburn’s next seven film roles, culminating in Holly Golightly wearing the iconic little black dress in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. If payback was destined, the score was settled when, ironically, Edith Head won the 1955 Oscar for Best Costume Design for her work on Sabrina, not Givenchy.
French couturiers’ relationships with movie stars were not unique to Givenchy. Two decades earlier, in 1931, Coco Chanel was invited by Samuel Goldwyn to design costumes for films put out by his production company United Studios. Despite what was seen at that time as a couture coup, the collaboration was short-lived. Chanel was involved in only three films—Palmy Days, Tonight or Never, and The Greeks Had a Word for Them—and all were such unpleasant experiences for her (including tension with the pregnant Gloria Swanson in Tonight or Never) that she had only one option: depart Hollywood. So willing to let her go was the studio that Goldwyn did not advise her against it. She would later describe Hollywood as a “capital of bad taste”.
Whatever the taste of Hollywood, the stars have always had a taste for French fashion, and French houses play to their whims. No matter how the stars may represent each label, it all boils down to what Christian Dior called in the late Forties “goddess of our age—Publicity”. And he, too, acknowledged that “the name America is synonymous with publicity.” Dior knew it then, so does Ricardo Tisci now. (Dior, too designed for Hollywood films, including Indiscretion of an American Wife, Man About Town, and, with Marlene Dietrich, Stage Fright.) In fact, Mr Tisci is keeping to the publicity tradition of Givenchy more so than sticking to the house codes in his designs. For French labels, no French celebrity, no French actress—not even Juliette Binoche, Marrion Cotillard, or Audrey Tautou—could bring the kind of publicity the likes of Jennifer Lawrence could and does, even, perhaps especially, when falling on the steps during an Academy Awards presentation. Hollywood stars are walking and stumbling, constantly generating, publicity machines. No one, however, did as much for a fashion brand as Audrey Hepburn. According to her biographer Alexander Walker in Audrey: Her Real Story, she “never received money for the way she promoted the house of Givenchy”.
While it is hyperbolic to say Kim Kardashian is a modern-day Audrey Hepburn, Mrs West, too, did her bit or, as Jessica Simpson would have said, “a lot of bit”. It is not clear if she stands to gain financially (apart from custom-made clothes she could have received without paying for them), but she has no qualms declaring her preference for Givenchy and her love for its creative director. As she told CNN Style, “Riccardo is the first designer that took a chance on me. I’m so grateful that he saw a vision and was willing to dress me.” So BFF was the relationship that she did not hesitate to appear on the cover of the fall issue of Sorbet—incidentally called The BFF Issue, holding on to Mr Tisci like a chum she never had. The affection is understandable: Givenchy was the first label to put her on its front row at a time when most cognoscenti shunned her. She was only a reality-television star and in her show, Keeping with the Kardashians, she did little than screamed at her siblings. To Mr Tisci, however, reality-television star is still a star, and she could one day be bigger.
Today, on Instagram alone, Kim Kardiashian has 47.3 million followers, a big that’s close to the population of Ukraine. Even Time considered her massive and listed her as one of this year’s 100 most influential people. In a world driven by digital content and the front row being very much a part of it, Ms Kardashian’s every move remains as compelling as the 2003 sex tape involving her and then boyfriend Ray J, leaked in 2007. It is not surprising that there are so many willing to clutch the skirt of—to paraphrase Christian Dior—the goddess of publicity. No one is certain if Ms Kardashian moves products, but, following her style rehabilitation in the wake of her marriage to Kanye West, she helps draw attention to the barely-there clothes that she loves to wears. Pre-Givenchy, in a reveal to CNN, she said, “I thought I had the best style… I look back at outfits, and I’m, like, mortified.”
She credits her husband for her transformation. “I really think that my relationship with my husband Kanye really changed everything.” It may not be easy to imagine Kanye West as Professor Henry Higgins, but the rap-artiste-turned-fashion-designer has been hard-selling his wife even when they were just dating. In that infamous cover story for Vogue (April 2014), he said, “Kim is like a fantasy, period. She’s like a dream girl and I think a dream girl should live in a dream world.” That dream world is mostly dreamed up by Kanye and Kim. Combined, the couple is a perpetually powered vehicle for hype—Givenchy’s publicity machine like no other. They are a part of the intimate coterie of stars that Mr Tisci banks on to push his strikingly ornate dresses, from the catwalk to the red carpet.
Some observers blame designers’ obsession with celebrity on magazine covers’ fixation with stars. Anna Wintour, to many, is culpable. Until she took over American Vogue in 1998, the magazine’s covers featured mostly models, some not at all household names. In the 1990s, Ms Wintour featured a few starlets here and there, but by 2000, big-name stars were fronting Vogue. No matter who she picks, however, each must abide by her standards. Oprah Winfrey, for example, was reportedly told to lose weight before she would be allowed to grace Vogue’s October 1998 cover. By presenting what she sees as perfection, Anna Wintour asserts tremendous power over what constitutes impeccable style. It is, however, unknown if what she promotes actually moves on the selling floor. But, it is no secret that she has a soft spot for French labels (particularly Chanel), and has championed Parisian designers within her pages. Kim Kardashian wore a Lanvin wedding dress on that cover of Vogue.
The editors (of American fashion magazine) who love French couture, in fact, go back to the Forties. Two of the most noted were Bettina Ballard of Vogue and Carmel Snow of Harper’s Bazaar. Among the two, Snow would go down the annals of fashion history as the astute editor who exclaimed, at Christian Dior’s debut collection (originally called Corolle), “It’s such a new look”. And the silhouette of a nipped-in waist and generously full skirt would, in the end, go by an American’s exclamation rather than its French moniker. Snow, who adored Paris, was known to be ardently loyal to haute couture; her devotion matched by Ballard’s determination to let American editorials rave, and, consequently, promote it. American Vogue in the Forties wasn’t what it is today. Then, the Paris office chose for New York what fashions were to be published. Ballard decided that she would put herself in charge of the two annual editions given over to the collections. This might have appeared to be turning her nose at the French, but what Ballard did was, in fact, a reflection of America’s rising clout as consumer of expensive European clothes. Ballard, probably unaware then, set a precedent that was to be followed later by the legendary Diana Vreeland.
Perhaps, as a result of these women’s contribution to popular magazines, Americans are predisposed to adoring French fashion. Kim Kardashian, too, can be seen as carrying on with a tradition, picking up where Audrey Hepburn stopped. Her role, however, is less an arbiter of style than a mannequin of clothes, especially since she mostly allows her husband and designers such as Riccardo Tisci to decide what she wears. Ms Kardashian’s rise and omnipresence coincided with the arrogation of the front row by celebrities and stars not remotely connected to fashion. A fashion show is now as much a celebrity show. It is reported that 20 percent of photographers in the pit at the end of the runway are interested only in the seats right in front of the catwalk. This figure does not include the horde of the star-struck with smart phones and action cams.
Givenchy Spring/Summer 2016 show opened by Italian model Mariacarla Boscono
Under such a glare, it is unsurprising Riccardo Tisci would want to participate in NYFW, considered to be the most circus-like of all fashion weeks. No matter the tableau, this was no Robert Doisneau’s portrait of a city. Yet, however manic, whatever the spectacle, America has always played a pivotal role in the consumption and spread of European fashion, a part that goes back to the post-war years of the Fifties. It is an important market for European luxury brands that predated Asia’s voracious appetite of the Eighties and Nineties. In fashion, there’s no such thing as sovereign style. There may be what is perceived to be a French aesthetic, just as there is an Italian one or English, but fashion goes to where it is most in demand. Americans, too, play a part in the diminishing elitism of fashion. These days, the demand isn’t just at retail level; it’s at celebrity level, and social-media level (which is the most significant leveler of all, removing the class divide that once defined fashion). Nowhere is the multi-platform demand more evident than in America. One of the earliest to realise this is Hedi Slimane, who, upon accepting the appointment as Saint Laurent’s new design head in 2012, moved the atelier to Los Angeles, not the most obvious choice, but clearly where the multi-platform action is.
Furthermore, designers these days are both couturiers and vendeuses. They design and they sell, often by highly visible association with the highly visible. Few marketing programs work as well as the designer promoting his collection next to a wearer with star billing, completely outfitted in his clothes. For the celebrities and stars, all they have to do is show up and take their seat. That’s hardly saturated with effort. If the designer shows for the first time in that city, that’s even better. Ricardo Tisci’s pre- and post-show appearances and television interviews amounted to thousands of dollars worth of air time (CNN Style has a five-part video special on him!). Even NYFW heavyweights such as Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang can’t top that.
Does Givenchy showing in New York mean the importance or influence of Paris is waning? We seriously doubt it.