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Givenchy was a man ahead of the curve. Photograph by James de Givenchy on Wikimedia Commons

Hubert de Givenchy and the ever-changing definition of what it means to be a man

Born and raised in an era when masculinity was rigid and compartmentalized, the French fashion designer flourished. The spirit of this persistence is encapsulated in his classic Gentleman fragrance, which was reimagined for today’s time.
Adrian Soriano | Aug 15 2019

In the mid 20th century, the boundaries of what we perceive a man should be, have shifted. As time passes, culture develops and reforms, by way of globalization, the integration of different cultures, and the rise of different schools of thought. And as different circumstances arise, the roles of people change.

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These were the years that baby boomers were at their prime, and manual labor was well-paid. It was by way of the industrial revolution a century ago coupled with industrial unions fighting for the rights of workers which shifted the power to the working class. Blue collared work, from construction sites to the assembly line, was the means by which families are taken cared of. This gave birth to the strongman persona, that cared less for elegance and leaned more on the side grittiness. These were the Clint Eastwoods of the world that embodied tough, able-bodied, and hyper masculine identities, that, for better or worse, persists in some form to this day.


Ahead of the curve

At the time, there was a clear separation of identity between the sexes. But there were those that broke boundaries.

One such man was Hubert de Givenchy, who was most famous for designing clothes for the likes Audrey Hepburn, in classic movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who wore the brand from when her husband campaigned for the presidency up until his funeral.

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Aaron Taylor Johnson is the current face of the Gentleman campaign.

“I remember when I am young, I told my mother, ‘I really want to be a dress designer.,’” the late designer once said. “In that time, it was quite difficult. My family always criticized me for it not being a man’s job.” Still he persisted, and became one of the most recognizable names in the world. “To have lived your dream is very rare in life. I am a very happy man. I have been so fortunate.”

De Givenchy’s achievements in feminine fashion often overshadowed his efforts for the men. He was, however, innovative in a business sense by being one of the first to license his name and brand, spawning tableware, eyewear, jewelry, china, and even a car bearing the label. But, when talking about his greatest achievement outside of womenswear, one could argue that his vision for the Givenchy Gentleman perfume was the epitome of his wise business decisions.

Givenchy Gentleman was first conceptualized by de Givenchy as masculine elegance, characterized by its strong but pleasant scent, by way of a woody-aromatic scent rich with spice notes mingled with Russian leather. It was in the paradox of elegance and strength during the time of its segregation that made it innovative. It was quite popular during its initial release.

“I am of tradition, but that doesn’t mean I have an old outlook on life,” the Frenchman said. It was considered against the grain at a time when fragrances were strong and consequently appealed to a strong alpha male. The perfume was a message sent out by the Frenchman as a signaling of a shift of roles in society. It was ahead of its time in promoting men who were unafraid to be elegant, and emotional while still portraying an image of strength.


Changing definitions

Given its importance to the brand, its success, as well as its subsequent influence in men’s perfume, it’s no surprise that the original Givenchy Gentleman is still produced today. But, just as the times have shifted over 40 years ago, Givenchy is still trying to encapsulate the ever-changing definition of what it means to be a gentleman.

Contemporary reinterpretations of the classic 1974 scent have been released with the same name; The Givenchy Gentleman eau de toilette and eau de parfum was released in 2017 and 2018 respectively, with an eau de cologne to release this year. Made by Olivier Cresp and Nathalie Lorson, it hinges on its rebellious nature by adding an overdose of citrus notes like bergamot, lemon, and petitgrain that melds with the soft touches of iris.

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A new edition of the Gentleman is set to be released this year.

The face of such a move from "the classy yet elegant" to "tender but rebellious" is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, most known for his turn as Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron as well as being the main hero in Kick-Ass films. The British actor also snagged a Golden Globe for his role as Ray Marcus in Nocturnal Animals.

According to the actor, a gentleman is someone who is open-minded, compassionate, and for gender equality. “Someone who carries themselves with a sort of genuine kindness and respect for other human beings,” he tells GQ. “I find myself to be my most empowered as a man or in my masculinity is when I’m supporting my wife (director Sam Taylor-Johnson) in her ambitions, and being at home taking care of my kids and being paternal.”

The campaign for Givenchy Gentleman include a short featuring the actor breaking free from what seems to be a boring formal occasion. He and a woman break out into a dance, exemplifying that classy doesn’t have to mean boring. With its emphasis on rebelliousness and unapologetic unruliness, the storied brand shows that this isn’t just any throwback to the classic Gentleman perfume but a reimagining that harkens to its roots of breaking boundaries, and changing definitions. 


Givenchy Gentleman is available at Rustan's, SM Store, Landmark, and Robinsons Department Stores.