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Couturier Hubert de Givenchy dies aged 91

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French couturier Hubert de Givenchy, a pioneer of ready-to-wear who designed Audrey Hepburn's little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany's, has died at 91.

The house of Givenchy paid homage to its founder in a statement as "a major personality of the world of French haute couture and a gentleman who symbolised Parisian chic and elegance for more than half a century".

"He revolutionised international fashion with the timelessly stylish looks he created for Audrey Hepburn, his great friend and muse for over 40 years," the house of Givenchy said. "His work remains as relevant today as it was then."

Along with Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and mentor Cristobal Balenciaga, Givenchy was part of the elite cadre of Paris-based designers who redefined fashion after World War II.

Givenchy, speaking last year at an exhibition of his creations at the City of Lace and Fashion in Calais, said "too much artifice" detracts from clothing.

"A piece of material has a life. You must never upset it, if you want the material to speak," he said.

A towering man of elegance and impeccable manners, he forged close friendships with his famous clients, from Hollywood screen sirens of the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Lauren Bacall to women of state, including Jackie Kennedy and Princess Grace of Monaco.

Born into an aristocratic family in the provincial city of Beauvais on February 21, 1927, Givenchy struck out for Paris in his late teens.

Couturier Jacques Fath hired Givenchy on the strength of his sketches. He spent two years learning the basics of fashion design, from sketching to cutting and fitting haute couture styles.

After apprenticing with other top names, Givenchy founded his own house in 1952.

His debut collection ushered in the concept of separates – tops and bottoms that could be mixed and matched, as opposed to head-to-toe looks that were the norm among Paris couture purveyors.

Working on a tight budget, Givenchy served up the floor-length skirts and country chic blouses in raw white cotton materials normally reserved for fittings.

"Le Grand Hubert," as he was often called for his 6-foot, 5-inch (1.96 meters) frame, became popular with privileged haute couture customers, and his label soon seduced the likes of Gloria Guinness, Wallis Simpson and Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran.

But the client whose name would become almost synonymous with the house was Audrey Hepburn, whom he met in 1953, when he dressed her for the romantic comedy Sabrina.

Legend has it that Givenchy – told only that Mademoiselle Hepburn would be coming in for a fitting – was expecting the grand Katharine Hepburn. Instead, the diminutive Audrey showed up, dressed in cigarette pants, a T-shirt and sandals.

Thus began a decades-long friendship that saw Givenchy dress the star in nearly a dozen films, including the 1961 hit Breakfast at Tiffany's. The sleeveless black evening gown she wore in the movie, complete with rows of pearls, elbow-length gloves and oversized shades, would end up becoming Givenchy's most famous look.

Aiming to reach a wider market, Givenchy launched a line of upscale ready-to-wear and accessories in the 1960s. Its commercial success soon enabled him to buy out his backers, making him one of only a handful of Paris couturiers to own their own label outright.

In 1988, he sold the house to French luxury conglomerate LVMH, the parent company of a stable of top fashion labels that now includes Dior, Celine, Marc Jacobs, Pucci and Kenzo.

Givenchy retired in 1995, and was succeeded by John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Julien Macdonald, Italy's Riccardo Tisci and its current chief designer, Clare Waight Keller, the first woman in the role.

Givenchy is survived by his companion, French couturier Philippe Venet.

Australian Associated Press

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