The untold story: Givenchy’s Filipino muse remembers her ‘Gentle Giant’
It was late Monday night when, upon learning that Givenchy had died, I took a chance on calling up Tetta Agustin-Baverey. She picked up, and I broke the sad news to her.
And that was when I heard the Philippines’ first international model break into sobs, muffled at first, but getting more and more audible, sadly audible, as it finally dawned on her that her “Papa” was gone.
Fashion titan—the “Gentle Giant” (he stood at six-feet-six)—Hubert de Givenchy died in his sleep over the weekend in France, and here in Metro Manila, innumerable miles away from France, a Filipina was overcome with grief and couldn’t help but cry.
How did the two build a connection—a Filipina known for her exotic beauty and crisp charm, and fashion’s revered creator who had a world reign all his life, and is now one of the most recognizable brands to contemporary generations, from baby boomers to millennials?
Their story should be part of Philippine fashion: how the Filipino ingénue, fresh off the boat, as they say, became the muse of Givenchy, and hobnobbed with the icons in his circle—Audrey Hepburn, the Duchess of Windsor, Jackie Kennedy, Bunny Mellon, to name a few. (It must be remembered that Jackie Kennedy unforgettably wore a Givenchy during the state visit to Paris—thus John Kennedy’s famous line, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”)
This was from the mid- to late ’70s.
Although I had been hearing of Tetta Agustin from Manila’s fashion designers, I first learned the details of her fairytale story from Inquirer’s editor in chief Letty Jimenez Magsanoc (who passed away in 2015) when Tetta and her husband Christian Baverey came to Manila to visit from London many years ago, and another friend, Louie Cruz, would host Letty and us for dinners.
On those nights, Tetta, coaxed by Letty, would give us bits and pieces of her famous career—and more interesting, her times with Givenchy, who would become the godfather of Tetta’s daughter, Tosca, now a lawyer in New York.
Back in ’70s Manila, Tetta had just stopped flying for Air Manila and was already walking the runway, notably at Hyatt, where fashion shows were the daily luncheon fare, just like they were at Hilton (the luncheon fashion shows had a fierce competition).
Tetta would also hang out and give a hand at Pierre Cardin (tailoring) on UN Avenue in Manila, then run by Tessie Macasaet with Giovanni Sanna (who’s now a Benedictine monk in the Benedictine monastery in Subiaco, Spain), and who had a young staffer named Jean Paul Gaultier (yes, that one).
It was in this setting that Tetta met the young journalist Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc.
Tetta was among the models who caught the eye of Italy’s foremost couturier, Renato Balestra. A favorite visitor of then first lady Imelda Marcos, Balestra would be invited by Mrs. Marcos to stage his fashion collections in Manila, attended by the country’s social and political establishment. (Balestra would also design the wedding gown of presidential daughter Irene Marcos when she married Greggy Araneta in 1983.)
Balestra grew fond of Tetta, and was able to convince her to try her luck at modeling in Italy.
“Balestra suggested I see them in Italy. I tried on his clothes but I was too small. All the clothes were too big for me, it seemed. So he suggested I go to Paris,” Tetta recalled in our impromptu interview this week.
In Paris, Tetta’s first stop was Madame Grès, the stalwart in haute couture antedating Dior and Chanel. “Again, the clothes were too big for me, and Madame Grès did only one show a year,” Tetta continued.
She also tried the House of Nina Ricci. “By then I already had my portfolio with a modeling agency.”
Tetta was sent to the fashion house of Givenchy at the landmark address on Avenue George V.
She remembers the moment vividly: “I put on his dress. Then finally, he walked into the room, looked at me, and nodded me on, to say ‘thank you.’”
That was it—a mere split-second glance. And a twist of fate.
Givenchy needed an Asian-looking model—and he already had signed one up, a Vietnamese. He changed his decision right then and there, and asked his staff to sign up Tetta instead.
Tetta got the job to model in his cabin—to parade the clothes before his choice clients, among them the era’s icons such as Barbara Hutton, Bunny Mellon, the Duchess of Windsor, Rose Kennedy.
Aside from cabin work, Tetta would model Givenchy’s collections, including the wedding dress in the finale.
There’s an interesting footnote to Tetta’s ties to the Vietnamese model Doti, whose slot was given her at the last minute. Tetta sought her out, they became good friends and she became godmother to Doti’s child.
Friends say that Tetta has come to enjoy good fortune, indeed a well-blessed life, because of her kind character. They are not exaggerating.
Add vivaciousness to that kindness. Back in ’70s Paris, it didn’t take long for Tetta to endear herself to the staff of Givenchy, and to the man himself. In fittings, Tetta had a way of making the seamstresses laugh, and in time, Givenchy himself would enjoy the mirth, even the laughter, in those work hours.
During fittings, Tetta recalled the regular scene: “I would see him peer in and walk through that door, and I’d say, ‘Bonjour, Papa!’”
And “Papa” became a term of endearment between the Filipina and Paris’ “Gentle Giant” through the decades.
“He would always ask me over to his atelier perhaps because I made the seamstresses laugh,” Tetta added. “He treated me like his little girl.
“He would even bring me to Studio 54.” Studio 54 was the destination of the world’s fun party/artistic set in New York in the ’70s and ’80s (e.g. Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger).
‘I cried and I laughed’
“That’s why, after you told me about his death last night, I cried and I laughed and I cried because I suddenly remember all those memories,” Tetta told me.
Tetta knew not only how to party, but also how to host a party in the late ’70s. To celebrate her first birthday in Paris, she held a party at Aux lles Philippines, owned by Nora Daza, and the first Filipino restaurant in Paris that eventually became a culinary landmark. Givenchy was Tetta’s guest of honor, who stood by her as she blew her birthday cake—“a very little birthday cake, dwarfed by the tall ‘Papa,’ if you look at the picture now,” Tata said, chuckling at the memory.
That first birthday party drew such a good crowd that an advertising outfit offered to host Tetta’s succeeding birthdays for three consecutive years —a precursor of today’s marketing/branding practice of gathering “influencers.”
Givenchy also brought her to Germany.
She remembered how Givenchy would look at her and ask why she wore no makeup. Tetta loved not wearing makeup. “Then he would ask Alexandre to put makeup on me.” (Alexandre de Paris, now an iconic name, was the toast of Parisian salons.)
That good chemistry between the couturier and his muse apparently extended to Givenchy’s clients. The likes of Barbara Hutton and Bunny Melon must have enjoyed having Tetta around.
“I must have had exactly the same measurements as Barbara then,” Tetta recalled, so that even when the Woolworth heiress was already frail and homebound, Givenchy would send Tetta to her to model the clothes the high society icon could wear.
Givenchy loved to remind Tetta to see Bunny Melon, the American horticulturalist, philanthropist, and art collector, who designed the White House Rose Garden.
Tetta was blessed in the sense that she had the rare face time with personages in history. She named her daughter Tosca because she promised another Givenchy client, Maria Callas—yes the Maria Callas—that she would name her child “Tosca” (after Puccini’s famous opera that became so associated with Callas) if she was a girl—“and Tosco, if it were a boy,” said Tetta.
And as her friends know so well, Givenchy stood as godfather to Tosca. “Make sure I’m the godfather, he told me,” Tetta remembered. Although Givenchy didn’t make it to the London baptism, he would host a dinner for Tosca later on.
It was apparent how the fashion giant chose to get involved in Tetta’s personal life, as if to ensure that it thrived.
“Perhaps that’s why we were always fighting, as if in a love-hate relationship. He would always ask me if I was getting married, and when. And my personality is, I’d get queasy about being asked,” Tetta now chuckled at their unique dynamic. Of course, in due time, Tetta married Christian Baverey, and they now make their home in Cannes, London and Manila.
“Tetta, the hardheaded,” Tetta recalled how Givenchy loved to describe her, in French, of course.
Easily the most enviable privilege Tetta had with Givenchy was to witness his relationship with Audrey Hepburn.
In fashion history and pop culture, Givenchy’s name is mentioned almost always in the same context as Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn. She was the ingenue Hubert de Givenchy dressed in a series of collaborations— milestone movies, notably “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Sabrina,” “Funny Face,” “Paris When It Sizzles,” “Love in the Afternoon,” “Charade.”
Hepburn’s “little black dress” and “sabrina” (the neckline) became part of contemporary fashion iconography. After the Givenchy-Hepburn collaboration, contemporary fashion was never the same again.
“Perhaps no two artists have had a greater impact on contemporary fashion than Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy. Together, they popularized trends that brought fashion into the modern age…” wrote author Cindy de la Hoz in the book “Audrey and Givenchy: A Fashion Love Affair.”
And Tetta was right there with the two—in the same room, literally.
“Audrey Hepburn would be with him in his office, and sometimes he’d call for me to try on the clothes he wanted to show her,” Tetta recalled.
What was Hepburn like in person?
“The sweetest person,” Tetta said. “She had a way of greeting you, with a slight touch.”
Curiously, Tetta, ever possessive of “Papa,” had this inexplicable jealousy of Audrey, or of whoever was closest to Givenchy.
“I felt jealous,” she laughed at her juvenile reaction to modern fashion’s most popular and most enduring partnership.
But over and above her impetuous feelings, Tetta truly bore witness to Givenchy’s devotion to Hepburn: “Audrey Hepburn was Givenchy’s inspiration, obsession. If you see his clothes, you realized that it’s as if they were all made with her in mind.”
Any fashion observer should know what Tetta means: the elegance, the romanticism, the gamine allure, the feminine nonchalance, the near-purity of a woman.
And what woman wouldn’t want to have all of the above?
It comes as no wonder that even today’s teen generation knows of Audrey Hepburn.
“Perhaps that’s why I love history,” said Tetta, trying to put the people she’s met in their right context.
Yet, as her friends know, it has never been her wont, even during her career, to be a slave to fame. The artificiality of publicity and fame turned her off.
This was why the humanity of Givenchy drew her in.
“He was so nice and kind, liked to laugh. I had never seen him mad,” she described her friend.
“He was generous. When he learned that my mother loved to dab perfume on her pillow, he asked his staff to supply me every month with the Givenchy perfume.
“I like to say that he was the only gentleman left in Europe,” she added in half-jest.
She worked for him from 1973-79. “I left because he went to Los Angeles and he didn’t bring me. I went to Saint Laurent,” Tetta recalled her impetuosity.
But over and above her “tampo,” Givenchy had a special place in her life.
In his last collection, as all Paris and the world watched, Tetta was there with Tosca to see him take his final bow.
And after the show, as the crowd continued to mill about, he called for his goddaughter to go up and join him onstage—a seven-year-old Tosca. That was one precious photograph.
Upon his retirement, Tetta and husband Christian would run into Givenchy in art and antiques events—he decided to be active at Christie’s in Paris. “He loved to help people, his friends, with their collections,” Tetta said.
Christian would remind her to invite Givenchy over, but she never got around to doing it. Finally, last summer, the couple invited Givenchy to their home in Cannes. He didn’t make it.
Tetta wasn’t able to say goodbye to her “Papa.”
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