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The timelessness of Audrey Hepburn

It has been 22 years since British actress Audrey Hepburn passed away, yet she is as enduring a presence in death as in life.

Hepburn, at one point in her incredible life as a Nazi resistance fighter in the Netherlands and later as a ballerina and an actress, was known as "the most beautiful woman of all time.” It is an accolade that is entirely possible and probably well deserved. Who cannot melt at the sight of that doe-eyed svelte beauty who influenced women and fashion for generations?

I would also make a case for the opposite species and cite a few examples along the way.

As a youngster, I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, War and Peace, and My Fair Lady among a great many of her classic films on television and videotape and later DVD. The opening sequence to Breakfast at Tiffany’s while wearing that iconic black dress by Givenchy remains one of the most enduring images in celluloid history.

On a recent trip to Europe, I was surprised to see a great many paintings and prints bearing her likeness for sale in stalls around the Notre Dame Cathedral, on newsstands along the Champs Elysees, in military-themed shops in Normandy, amid the Joan of Arc memorabilia in Rouen, in stalls all over Rome and Naples. It was absolutely fascinating. She had more prints (that also included her on that famous Vespa with a young Gregory Peck) than Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, or even Franco Nero some of her European film contemporaries!

When I asked Marguerite, one of the stall keepers in Paris’ Latin Quarter, about the popularity of Hepburn, her eyes lit up. “Audrey Hepburn stood for many things — class, humanity, elegance but was a person who had great concern for the plight of poor people, and was very beautiful. There aren’t many people like her.”

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In Italy, there’s a popular comic book titled, Julia, which is about the adventures of a criminologist who bears an uncanny resemblance to Hepburn. Creator Giancarlo Berardi makes no bones about the inspiration for his heroine. As a five-year-old boy, he saw Hepburn’s films and they left a lasting impression on the youngster. And since Julia has been published in 1998, it has garnered a huge following, including Hepburn’s only two children who currently run her foundation.

The Hepburn revival isn’t limited to the four-colored printed pages but also to modern advertising materials. In 2006, Japanese tea brand Kirin made use of footage of Hepburn for a series of four commercials. Clothing company Gap also used Hepburn footage for its famous “Gap in Black” commercial with the actress dancing to heavy rock band AC/DC’s “Back in Black."

More recently, in 2013, the chocolate bar, Galaxy, came out with a commercial titled “Chauffeur” that “resurrected” in CGI form. Explained creative director Mike McGee of Framestore, the award-winning design outfit that provided work on films like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Guardians of the Galaxy among a few as well as commercials for Kellogs and the recent Wimbledon advert, “Come As You Are” also to name a few: “Audrey represents heritage, classiness, and elegance. So from a strategic and creative point of view, it made sense for Galaxy to communicate its “silk, not cotton” branding through these qualities. What was less clear, however, was just how we were meant to recreate an iconic and globally recognized face when the original footage exists at a resolution incompatible with today’s high standards."

And the result of the CGI-Hepburn commercial? Absolutely incredible. She lives again if only for 30 seconds.

Just last July 2, her sons put our rare and unseen photos of their famous mother in an exhibit at the London Portrait Gallery. The exhibit has been drawing huge crowds.

The recent trip to Europe rekindled that fascination for a timeless and enigmatic icon, perhaps the last of a kind we will ever see. I have placed an order for those Berardi’s graphic novels of Julia. I’ve downloaded the Galaxy and Gap commercials and placed them in my archives. As for those prints that I saw on stalls along the Seine or those calendars in Rome? 

Ah, it gives me a good excuse (among other things) to go back.

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