Givenchy: After the Royal Wedding Dress, It’s Back to the Future

With “Moon River” dipping and diving on the soundtrack as the models walked down grassy or reflective paths, the first Givenchy-minded haute couture show since the death of its founder was both grand and gracious. Yet this was not just a tribute to “Le Grand Hubert”, as he was affectionately known, but also to the glory that designer Clare Waight Keller has earned for the house with her Meghan Markle wedding dress.

All eyes were on the formal gardens of the Archives Nationales, its paths inset with mirrors, as photographers hustled to see what Meghan, now Duchess of Sussex, might wear next. The answer was: more of the same, as Waight Keller used the sweep of a compass or angular shapes to create an interplay between masculine and feminine.

On a day when France paid reverence at the Panthéon to Simone Veil, the French political activist, intellectual, and fierce champion of women’s rights, the noble Givenchy collection seemed apt – if a little formal.

While other couture houses might be looking to street style for relevance, it would be a very grand personality – male or female – who would choose to step out in silver or scarlet with fluffy textures that contrasted with the flat metallic materials. Even the many black outfits were showpieces.

“For me, it is always about the difference between masculine and feminine – and I think it was for Hubert as well. When I dig deep in the archives, he had a real masculine sense through the shoulders, and that is part of the language that I am developing,” said the designer, who brought out her white-coated hand-workers to take a bow before the audience, spread across the formal lawn.

Backstage inside the grandiose building, moodboards included Aubrey Hepburn in her various pencils-thin poses and images of metallic jewellery. “I wanted a clean modernity,” the designer said. “I really was searching a lot through the 60s and 70s, and that feeling of cleanness and sharpness felt very modern. And the futuristic moment felt right to tap into now.”

So once again, with feeling, it is back to the future. Making haute couture relevant in a fashion era of urban trends is not easy. Many of the Givenchy outfits – a dress mingling glitter-golden pleats and pure white, or one of those Meghan sweeping bateau necklines – made quite a statement. Such gowns, often with covered-up areas or swooping lines, would make a new look for the red carpet.

But the day clothes, unlike Waight Keller’s own white top and slim black leather skirt, seemed preternaturally bold. That is not meant as a criticism, rather more of a question mark about exactly who would make dressing-up such a strong statement. For example, the metallic collars and silvered headpieces were all fit, perhaps, for a queen.

The real difficulty for successors to Hubert de Givenchy is that he never had a powerful personal vision; rather, a desire to make his clients feel good – which is not such a modest endeavour. The original designer had followed two great mentors, first Balenciaga and then Yves Saint Laurent.

In this new couture show, the noble grandeur in liquid fabrics made a statement – one that apparently came directly from the company’s founder, who met Waight Keller before he died in March this year.

“Mr Givenchy said that I should be ‘really strong and have something that felt very pure’,” the current couturier revealed. “He believed in elegance and chic and I wanted to do something that I felt was respectful to him.”

Unlike Givenchy’s previous creative directors, including John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Riccardo Tisci, Waight Keller has made a direct effort to follow in the founder’s footsteps.

But who is today’s couture customer? Royalty from the 21st-century makes a good starting point. And maybe this Givenchy designer can link her vision more firmly to modernity. But, again, perhaps this is a moment when change is less meaningful in couture than it is in fast-paced ready-to-wear.

“I think this collection represents a moment when a woman comes in and is taken aback by just the pure elegance and beauty and refinement,” Waight Keller said. “It feels incredibly wonderful and fresh and it really captures the moment. And the amount of work that has gone into this show is extraordinary.”