Madame Gres was haute couture's sphinx, an austere and dignified person who dedicated her whole life to perfecting the art of draping and pleating vast amounts of cloth into a single gown. She defied the vulgarity of fashion and hated the glare of publicity. She was a genius who was admired by everyone in the fashion industry but died in obscurity and poverty.
Germaine Emilie Krebs was born in 1903 in Paris, France. Frustrated in her ambition to become a sculptor, she began her career by making Toiles for major Paris fashion houses. She worked for a time for the house of Premet.
In 1934, she opened her own house under the name of Alix Barton, and her gowns started to appear in fashion magazines under the name ALIX. She started experimenting with simple clothing, particularly jersey day dresses. Initially she was in partnership, and she decided to leave Alix, as the name belonged to someone else.
During the 30's, the Alix gowns were greatly admired. Her training in sculpture enabled her to capture the classical Greek style and timeless elegance in her evening gowns. Hers was an individual uncompromising style which seemed to have a liquid effect on the drapery and turned fashionable women into living statues.
She formed a new salon GRES, taking the letters of the name from the name of her husband Russian painter Serge Czerefkov, whom she had married in 1939. After a few years, he left her and her baby daughter and went to Tahiti, never to return. She was heartbroken but she financed him until his death in 1970 although she never saw him again.
The house of Gres opened in 1942 at l, rue de la Paix, during the German occupation of Paris. In spite of her being Jewish, the Germans initially allowed her to continue her business hoping that she would dress the wives of German officers. When she refused to do so, they closed her down.
The salon reopened after the war and Madame Gres was again feted as a master couturier. She insisted on haute couture in a age of mass production. Her gowns often took 300 working hours to complete. They were constructed pleat by pleat, each pleat l millimeter wide. She said "My only desire is to create dresses that impress the world", however this led to severe financial problems.
She continued making her dresses throughout the 50's, 60's and 70's. She often visited the Museum of Fine Arts, studying the classical Greek statues and returning to her atelier to create her own forms of classical gowns. She would sometimes use up to 70 metres of silk jersey.
She brought out her first Perfume Cabochard in 1959. She gave out a licensing agreement for scarves and neckties, and designed jewellery for Cartier. She was awarded the Golden Thimble, fashion's highest award in 1976.
However in 1982, to keep her couture going, she rashly sold her Perfume rights to Beecham. Eventually, very reluctantly she was forced to make ready-to-wear garments.
Losing her work destroyed Madame Gres, without her work she had nothing to live for. In 1993, she died in poverty in an old people's sanatorium. Her daughter did not inform the world, as she herself was very poor. However when the news did come out, the French fashion industry was shocked and shamed. She had been President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, Haute Couture's governing body and she was the oldest living Couturier, a French legend, who had been allowed to disappear and to die unrecognized.
In 1994, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, held a major retrospective of the work of Madame Alix Gres, which was attended by thousands of people. But of course this was too late to help the great designer herself.
A large Japanese fashion distributor Yagi Tsusho, bought the name Madame Gres in 1988 and has developed the brand in Japan.
Designer Lloyd Klein was chief designer in Paris from 1994-1997. The house of Gres continued under designer Frederic Molenac who joined the house of Gres in 1995.
In the summer of 2002, Japanese designer Koji Tatsuno took over. Tatsuno is very respectful of the legacy of Madame Gres, and intends to continue her draping style using new and modern techniques and retaining the beauty and elegance of the House.
Grés' draped and pleated silk jerseys flattered the body with the minimalist and rationalist radicalism of 1930s design, but provided a classical serenity as well. The real achievement of the draped dresses was not their idyllic evocation, but their integrity. They were a unified construction, composed of joined fabric panels continuously top to bottom, fullest in the swirling flutes of the skirt, tucked at the waist, elegantly pinched through the bodice, and surmounted at the neckline— often one-shouldered—with the same materials resolved into three-dimensional twists. Grés was creating no mere lookalike to classical statuary, but a characteristically modern enterprise to impart the body within clothing. By the 1960s and 1970s, Grés was translating the planarity of regional costume into a simplified origami of flat planes, ingeniously manipulated on the body to achieve a minimalism akin to sportswear. Ironically, she who exemplified the persistence of couture treated the great dress with the modernist lightness of sportswear, and she who held out so long against ready-to-wear turned with a convert's passion to its possibilities in the 1980s, when she was in her late 80s. The personalizing finesse of a plait or wrap to close or shape a garment was as characteristic of Grés as of Halston or McCardell; her ergodynamics brought fullness to the chest simply by canting sleeves backward so the wearer inevitably created a swelling fullness in the front as arms forced the sleeves forward, creating a pouch of air at the chest. For evening, Grés practiced a continuous antithesis of body disclosure and hiding the body within cloth. Even the Grecian "slave" dress, as some of the clients called it, seemed to be as bare as possible with alarming apertures to flesh. But the Grés draped dress, despite its fluid exterior, was securely corseted and structured within, allowing for apertures of skins to seem revealing while at the same time giving the wearer the assurance that the dress would not shift on the body. Conversely, more or less unstructured caftans, clinging geometries of cloth, could cover the wearer so completely as to resemble dress of the Islamic world, but in these instances the softness of structure complemented the apparent suppleness. Never was a Grés garment, whether revealing or concealing, less than enchanting. The slight asymmetry of a wrap determined by one dart, the fall of a suit button to a seaming line, or the wrap of a draped dress to a torque of shaping through the torso, was an invention and an enchantment in Grés' inventive sculptural vocabulary. History, most notably through photographers such as Hoyningen-Heuné and Willy Maywald, recorded the sensuous skills of Madame Grés chiefly in memorable black-and-white images, but the truth of her achievement came in garden and painterly colors of aubergine, magenta, cerise, and royal blue, along with a spectrum of fertile browns. Her draped Grecian slaves and goddesses were often in a white of neoclassicism, but an optical white that tended, with exposure to light, to yellow over time. Grés' streamlined architecture of clothing was the pure white of dreaming, of languorous physical beauty, and apparel perfect in comfort and image.
She did not design for the glitterati, but for rich women who conducted truly private lives. Among them were Gersende de Sabran-Ponteves, Duchess d'Orleans, Princess Ghislaine de Polignac, the Begum Aga Khan, Princess Grace of Monaco, Marella Agnelli and Marie-Helene de Rothschild.