Madame Grès wasn't a designer I'd ever heard of when I was growing up - in fact it wasn't until I was doing my degree in classical civilisations and archaeology that I found out about her. I wrote an essay about how ancient Greek clothes and sculpture still influence fashion today, and whilst I was researching it I discovered Madame Grès.
Images from the Costume Institute Metropolitan Museum of Art
Born Germaine Krebs in Paris in 1903, she originally wanted to be a sculptor but her parents forbid it. So instead, she managed to channel her passion through design and dress-making.
“I wanted to be a sculptor. For me, it’s the same thing to work the fabric or the stone” Madame Grès
Her pieces are instantly recognisable - she perfected the art of pleating and using drapery to create Grecian, statuesque garments and is even credited as being one of the first designers to incorporate cut-outs, she was so incredibly ahead of her time.
She started out designing under the name Alix Barton, but when the Germans invaded France she fled Paris. However, someone told authorities that she was Jewish, so she had to return to Paris and appear before the Germans, where she proved the claims false and promptly sold her shares of her company with the intention of leaving France for good and joining her husband in Tahiti.
Luckily she was convinced to stay on and open her own salon, for which she chose the name Grès, a partial anagram of her husband's name, Serge. Her desire to always be known by names other than her own led to her later becoming known as 'the sphinx of fashion'. The turban she always wore also added to her air of mystery, though apparently she only began wearing it because she had no access to a hairdresser during the war!
She refused to serve German occupiers, always claiming that she had no dresses when they called. Both her own company and Balenciaga were closed by the Germans, but after much protesting, she re-opened in 1944, boldly showing a collection made in the colours of the French tricolour flag.
Grès had an extraordinarily long career, working until the late 1980s. Her clients included Grace Kelly, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. She even collaborated on a jewellery collection with Cartier in the 1970s.
But the 1980s were troublesome times. She decided to sell shares in her company which she later claimed was the worst decision of her life. She ended up retiring to her Paris apartment, supported by designer friends like Hubert de Givenchy.
In 1988 her company was liquidated - her daughter described the trauma of the event, with mannequins from their store being sawn up and dresses stuffed in bin liners. The final dress she made she gave to Hubert de Givenchy in thanks for his support.
She died in 1993 in a nursing home, but her death was not made public until 1994. In the meantime, The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum in New York mounted a retrospective, featuring 80 of her creations - during which journalists continued to refer to her in the present tense and her daughter continued to conceal her death. One determined journalist, Laurence Benaïm, decided to investigate and discovered her death certificate which led to the revelation becoming front page news. Her daughter Anne explained the secrecy by saying that she had been unable to afford a fitting tombstone... you can read all about the strange affair in Laurence Benaïm's book Grès published by Assouline.
In 2011 Paris’s Musée Bourdelle staged an exhibition called “Madame Grès: Couture at Work,” a survey of 80 garments displayed among the statues of the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle. Many people who attended the exhibition noted how completely timeless her creations are - they could date from the same era as their inspiration, in the ancient world, or they could have come straight off the back of someone partying at Studio 54.
"For a dress to survive from one era to the next, it must be marked with an extreme purity." Madame Grès
Though her business may not have survived, her legacy certainly has. You can still see stars today wearing vintage Madame Grès on the red carpet, and many modern designers have been influenced by her.
Want to wear the look? I know that William Vintage often have original Madam Grès pieces in stock- though I warn you, these are collectors' items so likely to set you back a bit! If you're after Madame Grès-inspired pieces, your best bet is designer Sophia Kokosalaki. I normally detest wedding dresses but her draped designs are sublime. She's also done more affordable collaborations with Topshop and H&M, so I often try and hunt those down on eBay.
You can see the original pieces at the V&A or, if you're lucky enough to be in New York, at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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