The Secrets of Haute Couture: Henry Wilkinson and the Discovery of Lee Radziwill’s Lost Givenchy Dress
What secrets do dresses keep and what past lives remain etched within them? Beneath their delicate layers of taffeta or tulle, we may encounter sequins or gems of the past, just waiting to be revealed. Henry Wilkinson, costume designer and fashion historian encountered this when he uncovered a piece of haute couture history.
For admirers of Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy, Henry’s Instagram feed is a dream come true, but his latest reveal has surpassed all those which came before. In February he informed his followers that he had discovered a piece from Lee Radziwill’s wardrobe, the sister to former first Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
Wilkinson is well versed in the history of Givenchy, and when he first came across the piece he could confirm that this was a genuine article. The bodice of the garment was dishevelled and appeared to have been torn away from the skirt of the original dress. Yet, there was something alluring about the Lesage embroidery adorning the bodice and he was determined to restore Givenchy’s original work and find out more about its elusive past…
Wilkinson sourced the original garment through a seller who had found it in a costume department. Initially, Wilkinson had not thought too much about the connection to the Kennedy’s; his priority was salvaging Givenchy’s work. However, his intensive research eventually took him to the Givenchy archives in Paris, where experts were also struggling to locate which collection the piece was from. Wilkinson needed to look at photographic evidence and the history it preserved.
It all fell into place when a close friend of Wilkinson’s uncovered a rare photograph of Radziwill wearing the garment – he was spellbound by this discovery. Now he had not only encountered evidence of the dress’s authenticity, but he could also continue to work on re-crafting the garment with the photograph as inspiration.
Henry began sourcing the materials he needed to restore this enchanting Givenchy piece. For those who would like to see how arduous and in-depth this reconstruction process is, Henry has documented some of the process on his Instagram stories. With the sponsorship of Shrimpton Couture, Henry was able to find closest matches to the original textiles used. As the skirt of the dress had been lost, Henry needed to find out what fabric had originally been used.
After a lot of research, he discovered that the skirt’s fabric was silk zibeline, which was frequently used by Givenchy in the 1960s. Though it is a rare fabric, Henry managed to find a supplier, although he still needed to dye it to create an exact colour match. Using Givenchy silhouettes as a reference point, Henry re-drafted a pattern for a new skirt and he continued making small alterations to the bodice to make it as accurate as possible.
As well as restoring the dress, Henry undertook hours of research to uncover its history and why it was created for Radziwill. The story begins with Radziwill attending a Givenchy couture show in 1961 where she spotted a beautiful bolero. This piece was decorated with the embellishments which make up the garment which we see today, but Radziwill had requested that Givenchy create a new dress, tailor-made for her.
The dress was first worn to an event in Paris which was held in honour of her sister, former first Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy. It was then spotted again in the same year, on the 5th of June, at an engagement in Buckingham Palace (an event which was later dramatised in The Crown – ‘Dear Mrs. Kennedy’) and finally on the 11th of August at a Red Cross charity event hosted by Grace Kelly, the Princess of Monaco. Henry’s story is truly an inspiration, and also a lesson that we can often find magical things when we least expect it.
It was so wonderful to actually talk to Henry about this discovery through Instagram, and he was so kind as to answer a few questions I had about curating your own collection of couture:
In Conversation with Henry Wilkinson
1) How does one begin to delve into the archives of such a highly regarded fashion house like Givenchy?
To be able to work for the company archives of the fashion house I first had to establish my own database of research. When it comes to this, a great place to start is looking at contemporaneous magazines and newspaper articles, which not only offer amazing editorials of a designer’s work, but also give you an idea of how they were received at the time and the progression of their successes.
2) What was it about the Radziwill piece which stood out to you or made you feel as though you needed to explore it more?
The first thing that stood out to me about the dress was the amazing embroidery and beadwork. I could tell from the photos that it was probably an early 1960s design, and evening dresses from this time period – especially those with such beautiful embroidery – are not something I come across every day. The second thing that really intrigued me was the condition. The dress was in a very poor state: the skirt had been cut off, there was staining on the fabric, and it had undergone some very sloppy alterations. Part of my mission in researching Givenchy’s work is to help preserve it, so seeing this dress made me want to find out what it originally looked like and to restore it to how he would have intended it to look.
3) Do you have any tips for someone who wishes to start their own collection of rare couture pieces?
The main piece of advice I can offer is do your research, and understand the body of work of your chosen designer. Vintage, and especially vintage haute couture, has become an incredibly competitive market in recent years and as such it has become much less accessible to a lot of people. When pieces are sold at public auction they can reach truly astronomical prices, so most of us who are starting a collection need to find the hidden treasures. For me, this can mean uncovering important couture pieces that have lost their label which can only be identified if you know the designer’s work and what to look for in their construction techniques. It takes a good deal of time to do all the research, but it is ultimately worth it if you are wanting to find yourself a special piece.
4) What made you first fall in love with Givenchy and why do you believe his designs have such an enduring appeal?
I discovered Givenchy’s designs when I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time. I was only 10 years old but already had a keen interest in fashion and costume and seeing these clothes, especially on Audrey, had such an impact on me. I thought then, as I still do today, that they were the most beautiful clothes I’d ever seen. The combination of simplicity, elegance, colour and slightly architectural design is what I love most about Givenchy’s style, and I think it is part of his enduring appeal. There is so much about his work that can be carried forward to today and for me that lies mainly in the simplicity of his aesthetic. It was never over-decorated, nor was it too flamboyant. Audrey has had a lot to do with the timelessness of his work, and I think she often kept his style grounded.
5) What is your favourite piece so far in your couture collection?
Even though the collection of items I’ve been fortunate to curate is small, it’s still so difficult to pick a favourite. Whilst I love the design of all the pieces I have, perhaps the most special to me is the first one I ever found. Since I discovered Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy as a child I dreamed of having an item of clothing made by him and worn by her – it felt like a tangible symbol of the impact their collaboration had on me. I did, however, realise the chances of that happening would be slim due to the huge market for these types of items. Even so, nearly ten years later I found a Givenchy dress that I fell in love with and recognised as being the same as a design Audrey had worn. I knew it was exactly the type of piece I had in mind as a child and symbolised their collaboration completely. It wasn’t until a while later, after I had decided to acquire it, that I was able to find out through Hubert de Givenchy himself that only one of these dresses was made, making mine the same dress that Audrey herself had worn. Just like that my childhood dream had come true.
6. Tips for spotting a rare piece? Are there any ways you can check or is it all just by chance?
You can certainly come across rare pieces by chance in bizarre and unexpected places, but I think to recognise that they are special you need to have a good understanding of what to look out for. The first thing to check is if it has a label, and this is where research into brand history is important because labels can immediately help you identify and date a piece.
I also always recommend looking out for beautiful finishing techniques. If a dress is finished to a couture standard it can be a good indicator of its importance. I have a lot of admiration for those who have such an in-depth knowledge of multiple designers across various decades, because focusing on one designer or a certain time period will make knowing what to look for a lot easier.
7) How do you care for each piece you collect? Is there a special way to maintain their condition?
I have the pieces I do because I genuinely love them and want to preserve them for future generations, so caring for them is very important for me. If you have a special item of clothing – be it your wedding dress or great grandmother’s christening gown – the best things you can do for them is to keep them out of sunlight and in a stable environment. This means storing it somewhere where the temperature won’t fluctuate dramatically (so not in an attic or basement). Heavier pieces are ideally stored flat, wrapped in acid free tissue paper and stored in an acid free box, all of which can be found inexpensively. If you only have hanging space, try to use a padded hanger to relieve pressure on the shoulder line, and cover it in a breathable garment bag – this can be made of cotton, or an archival material like Tyvek – just as long as it isn’t plastic, or a bin bag!
8. Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy had a life-long fashion collaboration and friendship. What is your favourite piece which Givenchy created for Audrey?
This is another question I struggle to answer because there are too many to choose just one favourite! Instead, I might have to say the whole screen wardrobe he created for her in the film Charade. It is my favourite film, and I have always absolutely loved the clothes. There are some many beautiful designs and I especially love the tailored coats and suits he made for her. The colours are stunning and the cuts are masterful.