Sandi Bass Remembers Hubert de Givenchy

How do you measure someone’s worth? Is their worth equivalent to their earnings, their name recognition, the adulation of adoring fans, or their market power? Perhaps, those things do define some elements of a person’s character, but often speak little to someone’s humanity.

Sandi Bass has had a very long, sustained career in fashion. First, as a fashion model, and in the last couple of decades as a casting agent extraordinaire and model scout, of which all of her career paths she has carried off with elegance, dignity, and kindness. With all the success Sandi Bass has experience, the things that define her most is her gentility, her kindness, and her wisdom; virtues that cannot be measured.

Sandi Bass bears witness that the things worth measuring in someone’s life cannot be measured, but should be experienced. And experiencing Sandi’s love, generosity and knowledge have more weight than gold.

Sandi Bass generously spoke with Fashion Reverie about her time being a part of the recently departed Hubert de Givenchy’s inner circle of models. This revealing interview exposes the things in fashion that we still yearn for and how a country girl from Tennessee got to model from one of the greatest fashion designers of the 20th Century. Hubert de Givenchy passed away on March 10, 2018 in Paris.

Fashion Reverie: How did you get started as a fashion model?

Sandi Bass: I have always loved fashion. I was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee so I am a country girl at heart. My fashion icon was my mother. She was a fashion plate, very stylish. I don’t ever remember seeing my mother wear pants. She always wore beautiful dresses; she always had her hair styled. So, that is what I grew up with.

When I finished high school in Nashville I went to California to model. I knocked on all kinds of doors and got little response. When I did get the chance to model, the pay was very low. Sometimes, I walked in fashion shows for as little as five dollars. I didn’t really care; I just loved fashion. I was extremely thin at that time, but also very healthy. I was 5`8.5 and was smaller than a size 0. Clothes from the department stores would always hang on me, so I would sew my own because I could never find a pair of slacks that fit properly.

I went to a model casting at Mary Webb Davis, which at that time was the biggest modeling agency in Los Angeles. She said to me, “Honey, why don’t you have lunch. None of the clothes are ever going to fit you. But, give me you number.” I gave her my number, but didn’t hear from her for some time.

Anyway, I loved my life in Los Angeles, but I wasn’t really getting any where in my career. I was still walking in a lot of fashion shows, but working for very little or no money. I worked for some of the top designers in Los Angeles. I even taught at one of the modeling schools in the area.

Finally, I got a call from Mary Webb Davis for a casting for a fashion show featuring Hubert de Givenchy. None of the models from her agency could fit the clothes. She sent me to the Beverly Hills Hotel and there was Givenchy, this tall, elegant man. Now, this is 1978.

Anyway, I was wearing my tallest heels. Remember, I was not a very tall model, but I was thin, weighting about 104 lbs. I was also already 28 years old, but I looked I was in my late teens. Givenchy chose me for the show because I fit the clothes and I had a very good walk. After, the show Givenchy asked me to come to Europe and become one of his muses. That is how I got to Europe.

I was supposed to stay six months in Paris and I ended staying six years in Paris, five years in Rome, five years in Tokyo, working for all the top designers. That is pretty much my story.FR: You were a part of Givenchy’s inner circles of models, which is France they call a cabine. Could talk about what that was?

Sandi Bass: A cabine is a group of models that are muses to a couture designer. Couture garments are clothes that are actually made on models. The clothes are very expensive and a lot of the work is done by hand. Unfortunately, it is a fading art form in fashion. However, couture established some of the great luxury fashion houses in Europe—Christian Dior, Balenciaga, Chanel, Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Vionnet, etc.

When Givenchy found me in LA, he also discovered another model, Carol Miles. Dianne Washington was already working for him. Michelle Denby and Lynn Watts were also brought to Paris to work with Givenchy around the same time. We were all a part of Givenchy’s cabine and we were all models of color. There was one white French girl, Sophie, who made up Givenchy’s cabine in the late 1970s and early 80s. We were larger than life. And did all of Givenchy’s shows, fittings, etc.

We all had our own dressing room with lighted bulbs around huge mirrors, just like in Hollywood. We did our own makeup and hair. We had robes with our initials engraved on them. We had our own dressers. The phone would ring and we would go up and get fabric draped on us and we collaborated with Givenchy on what the fabric looked like, how the garments felt on us. It was a true collaboration between designer and muse model.

Givenchy always respected us, and listened to us. In 1979, Hubert de Givenchy won the Gold Thimble, the highest award a designer could win in Paris at that time. And the models in his cabine believed that he won because of the beautiful way his muse models displayed his collections. His cabine at that time was very chic and a very exclusive club, so to speak.

FR: At that time, in the late 1970s and early 80s, there were five models of color working almost exclusively for Givenchy as a part of his inner circle. Why did Givenchy choose five models of color to be his model muses?

Sandi Bass: Givenchy loved our spirit; he loved our walk and our energy. And I also believe that he did not see color. He told me once, “Sandi, you girls were like family to me. I didn’t care what your race was.” He loved us because we brought his clothes to life.

FR: Was having a core group of models of color unusual at the time?

Sandi Bass: Yes, it was. At that time we were a group of black models that was an extension of what had happened in Paris in 1973 when black models—Pat Cleveland, Alva Chin, Bethann Hardison, Billie Blair, Norma Jean Darden, and a few others—modeled in the charity event, the Divertissement de Versailles. Givenchy got a taste of the spirit of black models from that event.

As he was traveling, Givenchy handpicked us to be a part of his cabine. I don’t think it was a conscious thing, but it happened. The fashion industry was very different then. Runway models did not book print jobs, and vice versa. Beverly Johnson was an exquisite model, but she was not considered a runway model; she did mostly print.

Once the black models started to trickle into Europe in the late 70s, others followed. Instead of working mostly in Paris, we also started to get traction in Italy and other European fashion capitals. Dior and Valentino would call Givenchy wanting him to share his black models and at first he didn’t want to share us. He finally relented because he didn’t want to hold us back.

FR: Now you were Audrey Hepburn’s fit model for Givenchy. How did that come about?

Sandi Bass: That was a real honor. I had the same measurements as Audrey Hepburn, though she was a little shorter than me. I believe she topped at 5`7, but our proportions were the same, small and very petite.

At first, I didn’t know I was fitting Audrey’s clothes. However, one of the fitters told me that I was the fit model for her clothes. I did meet her one time. Monsieur Givenchy introduced me to her and we exchanged pleasantries. It was a huge honor.

                                        Sandi Bass modeling for Valentino

FR: How long were you a part of the Givenchy model cabine?

Sandi Bass: I worked from 1978 to 1981 as a part of the cabine. I took a pause in`81 to have my beautiful daughter, Christina. I was back on the runway for Givenchy in February of 1981 after having my daughter in January. I continued to work for Givenchy almost exclusively through 1983. After then I started to work in Italy and Japan.

After I left in `83, many of the other models in the cabine left and began to model for other designers. Within a short amount of time, Givenchy’s model cabine had completely dissolved and he never formed another one after that.

FR: Why did Givenchy not form another model cabine?

Sandi Bass: Well, we were special and it all happened during a very special time in fashion and in Monsieur Givenchy’s life and I don’t think he felt the need to replicate the cabine. Monsieur Givenchy always encouraged us to do other things outside of modeling; he felt having outside interest made us more interesting. I was in a rock band, The Peter Jacque Band, with my husband, Jacob Wheeler, Von Gretchen Shepherd, and Dianne Washington, which toured with the Bee Gees and ABBA. And at one point Monsieur Givenchy asked me if I wanted to sing or did I want to model. But, it was all good. He liked models that had a variety of things going on in their lives.

FR: What is one of the most important things you learned working with Givenchy?

Sandi Bass: I learned to be honorable. I know that sounds like a cliché, but it is true. I also learned to be kind. I was not the tallest or prettiest model; however, clients continuously wanted to work with me because I showed up, I was on time, and I did my job. That is what I mean by being honorable.

To have Hubert de Givenchy as a mentor at the start of my career was immeasurable. I was a country girl and to experience his kindness made my ascent in the fashion world easy. I used to bring him country ham from Nashville and we were great friends.

                                      All images courtesy of Sandi Bass

FR: How do think Givenchy should be remembered?

Sandi Bass: He should be remembered as a simple, kind, very giving, talented, amazing human being. He was a good person who happened to have great taste and talent. He was elegant up to the end of his life. When I went to visit him last year, although he was experiencing hearing loss, his conversation was just as sharp as it had always been.

FR: What are you doing now?

Sandi Bass: I am scouting director for Red Model Management. I have been so blessed to travel the globe; to have had a successful modeling career, and my list of blessings is endless.

My main focus now is to take care of my health, love my daughter and grandchildren, and give back. That is what I do at Red Model Management. I really try to support and mentor the new models at Red Model Management. I instruct them on how to have longevity as a fashion model.

I travel all over the world, scouting models. Thanks to the Internet and social media, I don’t to have to travel so much. I have kept all my contact from modeling in major international fashion capitals. I have placed models in Asia and Europe for over 15 years now. So, I bring everything I’ve learned to the models at Red Model Management, and it is so fulfilling.

—William S. Gooch

 

 

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