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Perversion, cowboys and Berlin noir: Looking back at Clare Waight Keller’s Givenchy
By Jake Hall | Fashion | 16 April 2020

Last Friday, Clare Waight Keller announced that her three-year stint as Givenchy’s artistic director was officially coming to an end. In that time she’s revamped the iconic house, developing her own signatures in the process: from sexed-up couture and razor-sharp tailoring to cinematic references and new interpretations of Givenchy staples, Keller’s time has been short but undeniably impactful.

The last few years have also seen a series of landmark moments for the label. Not only was Keller the first woman to ever hold the artistic director role, she found a place in fashion history when she was commissioned by Meghan Markle to design her iconic wedding dress.

High-profile clients aside, Keller has taken the storied house in a brand new direction. By staying true to Hubert de Givenchy’s signatures, rallying against the rigidity of gendered dress codes and perverting fixed ideas of formality, Keller created a design blueprint which was elegant but subtly experimental. Here’s a brief overview of what made it work so well.

PERVERSION

Givenchy FW19

The word ‘perverse’ has cropped up occasionally in Keller’s show notes, most notably in her FW19 menswear collection. Show notes described it as ‘perverse posh’, which made sense: classic tailoring was offset with shiny, wipe-clean accents guaranteed to raise an eyebrow or two. Perverse isn’t exactly a term that the house has shied away from – Riccardo Tisci famously printed the word ‘PERVERT’ across t-shirts and accessories during his time as creative director – but in Keller’s eyes it was less literal, more a commentary on twisting and subverting the codes of formality.

Although Keller denied any outright allusions to kink, some of her most memorable moments came from a collaboration with latex couturier Atsuko Kudo, who created sexy, second-skin bodysuits to wear underneath Keller’s more traditional couture dresses. These pops of bold colour glistened underneath, suggesting a hint of subversion and bringing a sexed-up twist to the tried-and-tested couture aesthetic. Keller might not have been aiming for kink, but her work undeniably proved that couture can be sexy.

CULT CINEMA

Givenchy FW20

Think of Givenchy and you immediately think of cinema. Audrey Hepburn became one of the designer’s first and most famous muses, cementing his reputation as the go-to creator of elegant, on-screen chic. Givenchy built on this reputation over the years, also working on more experimental, arthouse flicks like Les Yeux Sans Visage, the tale of a glamorous young woman whose face is disfigured in a car accident. With its slick, often creepy cinematography and fusion of gore and opulence, the film rates as one of history’s most stylish.

Tellingly, the moodboard for Keller’s FW20 womenswear showing – her last as Givenchy’s Artistic Director – was filled with cinema posters from around the same period of film history, dominated by the French New Wave. The collection took inspiration from their clean, graphic lines and arresting use of colour, spawning a series of looks that could have easily slotted into an up-to-date remake.

Keller often imagined hybrid worlds, too: for FW18, she married the worlds of Bowie’s vampire flick The Hunger (1983) and B Movie: Lust And Sound In West-Berlin, 1979-1989 (2015), fusing them to create a collection rooted in juxtaposition. The result was a high-drama, high-glamour collection filled with film noir nods, which read as a tribute to the brand legacy.

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From the Palais de Justice to Palais Brogniart, Keller often staged her shows in grandiose, Parisian buildings which often connected to Givenchy’s past. When first appointed, she took a tour through the house archives and turned a handful of its most distinctive motifs – gold lips, four-leaf clovers – into a series of updated graphic prints. Her first cross-body bag was named GV3, a reference to the address of Givenchy’s first-ever salon. Basically: Keller knew her stuff about house history, and stayed remarkably faithful to its codes throughout her three-year stint.

Every creative director has approached Givenchy’s legacy differently, but Keller chose not to rip up the rulebook entirely. Instead, she updated classic signatures with a modern twist, from the heritage check and animal prints to the nipped-in waists and exaggerated, curved shoulders, each of her collections featured new interpolations of archive staples. In this sense, Keller succeeded in resisting trends and creating a slick, modern take on elegance, which paid homage to Givenchy while maintaining the timelessness of his aesthetic.

BLURRING LINES

Modernity trickled into Keller’s work conceptually, too. For a while, she showed a handful of menswear looks within her womenswear collections to resist definition between the two. But when she did launch a standalone menswear line at the brand’s couture showroom back in 2019, Keller brought the same couture sensibilities to the table and treated menswear with the same reverence as womenswear.

Not that there was often much difference, of course. The idea of a ‘Givenchy couple’ permeated plenty of her collections, but most notably SS19, a show dedicated to journalist, explorer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach. From a young age, she rejected the idea of gendered dressing and wore whatever she wanted. This informed Keller’s own mentality both personally (she’s spoken in the past of mixing menswear into her own wardrobe) and professionally, spawning collections modelled by women with pixie cuts and the occasional male model thrown in, often dressed with little variation. It was never about making some huge statement about gender, and more about adapting to changing societal attitudes.

In many ways, this is the essence of Keller’s legacy at Givenchy: modernity. Whether designing refreshingly frill-free royal wedding dresses, bringing latex onto the red carpet or creating new wardrobes for the laidback, androgynous couple, Keller brought a sense of modernity to everything she touched.

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