PARIS — Yves Saint Laurent was famous for speaking ill of his competitors, but there was one peer who found grace in his eyes: Hubert de Givenchy.
Saint Laurent declared his admiration for the couturier publicly in an interview in 1991, and privately in a series of letters in which he thanks the designer for his support and professes his deep respect for his oeuvre. His heirs shared the correspondence with WWD to coincide with the sale of de Givenchy’s collection of art and furniture at Christie’s in Paris next week.
“There are very few creators of genius. To be precise, I’d say there have been only two — Givenchy and I. The rest, the others, that’s the mob, the horror…zero,” WWD quoted him as saying in a 1991 article headlined “Saint Laurent’s Biting Words.”
The late couturier reportedly made the comments in an interview with Vanessa van Zuylen in her then-new magazine L’Insensé. “Since the days when Chanel and Balenciaga faced off, there’s really been nothing, apart from Givenchy and me,” Saint Laurent is quoted as saying.
While the friendship is not well-documented, there are photographs of Saint Laurent at the opening of the “Givenchy: 40 Years of Creation” exhibition at the Palais Galliera in Paris in 1991, and he was among the designers who attended de Givenchy’s final haute couture show in 1995, alongside Valentino, Christian Lacroix, Kenzo and Oscar de la Renta.
Conversely, de Givenchy was present for Saint Laurent’s farewell show at the Pompidou Center in 2002.
“Your letter and your presence at my show touched me more deeply than words can convey. I’m in a state of shock and I feel incapable of writing the letter that I owe you and that you deserve. In any case, please know that I thank you from the bottom of my heart and that I think of you with friendship and gratitude,” Saint Laurent wrote a few days later.
Although de Givenchy’s side of the correspondence is not available, it’s clear the two men were in regular contact. Saint Laurent thanks him several times for sending flowers, and describes him as a beacon in an industry that no longer felt familiar.
“Ever since my youth, you have never ceased to make me dream. Of course I am very sad to have shuttered my couture house but it was no longer possible for me to continue working in what has become a ludicrous world,” he wrote in a letter dated simply Dec. 17.
The two men’s careers were intertwined early on. In 1953, Saint Laurent entered the International Wool Secretariat’s fashion design competition when he was just 16 years old, and was awarded third prize by a jury that included Christian Dior and de Givenchy.
The following year he applied again, this time winning both first and third prizes in the dress category out of 6,000 anonymous entries. De Givenchy again sat on the jury panel, and the design that earned first prize, a black crepe cocktail dress, was made in his ateliers.
Saint Laurent subsequently shot to fame when he was named artistic director of the house of Dior at the age of 21, following the death of the founder.
Both he and de Givenchy were among the pioneers of luxury ready-to-wear. De Givenchy presented his line, called “Givenchy Université,” in 1954, while Saint Laurent was the first luxury designer to open a rtw boutique, “Saint Laurent Rive Gauche,” in 1966.
While Saint Laurent developed a lifelong relationship with Catherine Deneuve, de Givenchy was known for dressing another screen star, Audrey Hepburn. And both went on to amass impressive collections of works of art, sculpture and furniture that made them among the leading tastemakers of their time.
Beginning in the ‘70s, Saint Laurent entered into a long-running feud with Karl Lagerfeld that often played out in the press. By contrast, his friendship with de Givenchy was so private, it is rarely mentioned in biographies, and little-known even to fashion historians.
“I feel very lonely now in this profession, and I realize how much I miss you,” Saint Laurent wrote on Jan. 25, 1996.
“I was very touched, coming from you, about the words you used to define my work. It takes a lot of courage to keep doing couture given how corrupted the profession has become,” Saint Laurent followed up on Sept. 8, 1997.
Though it is not known how his correspondent responded, the letters provide a sense of Saint Laurent’s isolation, and de Givenchy’s trademark discretion.
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