CR Muse: Madame Grès, Sphinx of Fashion

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

Madame Grès is quite possibly one of the most important—yet elusive—designers of the 20th century. And to a certain extent, it seems as though she would have wanted it that way. Aside from her talent (she was an unparalleled technician when it came to couture) the thing Grès was most known for was secrecy. Her tight-lipped approach to her techniques and concealment from the public eye earned her the nickname „The Sphinx of Fashion.“

Despite rarely giving interviews, there are some details we do know about Grès’ life. For starters, she’s credited with convincing Cristobal Balenciaga to open his couture house. She was among the few designers during the Nazi occupation of France who was granted permission to remain open. But, in an act of defiance, she refused to create dresses for them and instead chose to make patriotic, French-themed designs. (She was shut down.) Grès had celebrity fans like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, and in 1970, she became the president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, couture’s governing body.

One thing that remains shrouded in mystery is her technique. Most known from her oeuvre were her grecian dresses, though these were not simply column-like gowns. Like Mariano Fortuny before her, her work was filled with intricate tucks, folds, and pleats. Much of her approach to design can be credited to her art background. “For me it is just the same to work with fabric or stone,” she once said. It helped that her looks were considered timeless, as she continuously produced similar styles. Unlike Yves Saint Laurent, who seemed to change his aesthetic every season, Grès could be counted on to show the same things again and again. It’s hard to say if critics were amused or bored with this, but one thing is for sure: her skills at draping and sewing were so unparalleled that her own atelier workers had trouble dating dresses in her archive.

Grès was born Germaine Émilie Krebs in Paris in 1903. Due to pressure from her family, she pivoted from a career in sculpture to a career in fashion, first starting off as a hat-maker before landing a job at the couture house Maison Premet. In 1932, she struck out on her own and opened the couture house La Maison Alix. Curiously, she briefly designed under the pseudonym „Alix Barton“ (Barton being her co-worker’s last name), but quickly landed on simply Alix.

In 1942, she married Serge Czerefkov, a Russian painter. Again, she changed her name, this time drawing from her husband. Madame Grès—an anagram of „Serge“—became the name she would forever be known for. For the next 40 years, she designed her grecian dresses, but eventually retired from her house, having fallen on hard times. Apparently, Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, and Hubert de Givenchy came together to help her rent an apartment.

Though her house closed down without her, she still had influential fans in fashion. Perhaps due to her association with art and sculpture, Grès’ work has been a seemingly endless source of fascination to curators. Her work was the subject of exhibits at the Museum of FIT in 2008 and the Musée Bourdelle in Paris in 2011. In 1994, she became one of the few designers to be the focus of a monolithic exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when she was still alive—sort of. Unbeknownst to both the museum and the world at large, Grès passed away in November of 1993. Her daughter, Anne, kept the death a secret until two weeks after the show closed.

Of course, the designer that most comes to mind when thinking about Grès’ lasting legacy is Azzedine Alaïa. Though their aesthetics were quite different, both were known for their distinctive, sculptural silhouettes. Naturally, he was a fan of hers, saying, “She is a woman who counts for so much in the history of fashion.”

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