THE STRANGE, SECRET DEATH OF MADAME GRES

Byline: Godfrey Deeny

PARIS--Madame Alix Gres, one of Paris's most-celebrated couturieres, is dead.
In fact, she's been buried for over a year. And, in a bizarre tale worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, her daughter, Anne Gres, managed to keep the news of her mother's death from public knowledge for over a year.
According to the town hall of the 17th arrondissement of Paris, where Madame Gres was born, the designer died on Nov. 24, 1993. However, as recently as Nov. 1, Anne Grès replied to inquiries from WWD about Madame Gres's whereabouts with a letter that read: "She was very touched by the interest you have shown and has entrusted me to give you the following responses to your questions," before proceeding to provide two pages of "quotes" from her mother.
At the time, Gres was rumored to be languishing in a nursing home somewhere in the south of France and, when Yves Saint Laurent praised the Metropolitan Museum of Art's recent Gres retrospective, WWD sought out the couturiere's response. Anne Gres wrote back with the following quotes, claiming they were from Madame Gres: "Coming from an artist and colleague whom I admire...I'm greatly touched. Fashion today sometimes seems to laugh at itself, but that's part of how it's changing with time. It doesn't take itself as seriously as it used to, but after all, isn't that what fashion's all about?
"I remember that simple but very powerful moment when, alone in front of a bare stockman, pins and scissors in hand, I cut the fabric for the first model of what would be a new collection. This gesture--performed every time with joy, but also emotion and anguish, because of its importance, because so much depended on it--still haunts me."
In fact, Madame Gres--or, as she was born, Germaine Emilie Krebs--died in the Chateau de la Condamine retirement home in the Var region last year. Her age was another mystery and at the time of her death was said to be either 89 or 94.
The news of her demise never reached Paris, where she continued to be the honorary president of the Chambre Syndicale.
"I made several attempts to contact her, but her daughter never replied to any of my letters," said Jacques Mouclier, president of the Chambre Syndicale. "It's extremely sad to learn about her death a year after it happened. To think that she died totally forgotten is unjust."
Gres, who was once described as "tightlipped as a Mafia don," ended her life in the manner she lived it: secretively. Even other close relatives were not informed of her death.
The Paris evening paper Le Monde, which ran an interview with Anne Gres in its Tuesday edition here, quoted her as saying: "It's a secret of love. Mama still has an older sister, but I kept the news from her. And I hadn't the means to pay for a tombstone worthy of her. Me and my son have eaten spaghetti for the last six months.
"Fashion people? I'd tell them to take a walk. Like they deserve... nobody tried to help her, apart from a few true friends like the Duchesse d'Orleans and Christine Gouze-Raynal. All these people just enjoyed themselves in Paris. She wasn't tricked by the people who circulated around her," she said.
Anne Grès, who does not have a phone in her Provence house, could not be reached for comment. However, according to Le Monde, when Anne Gres was first approached in Provence, she denied her mother was dead.
"Mama's absent," she told a reporter. "She doesn't know who she is anymore. She's resting, listening to music. It's like somebody took a chunk out of her brain and threw it in the trash can. I don't want people to see her. That would be like betraying her. She doesn't wear her turban anymore."
The deceased couturiere, who opened her own couture house in 1941, was nearly always photographed wearing a turban.
The name Gres was derived from the Christian name of her husband, Serge Cezrefkov, a Russian emigre painter who not long after their marriage moved to Polynesia in the manner of Paul Gaugin and was never heard from again.
Known for her draped, monochromatic evening gowns, Gres frequently designed for the French cinema and in her time dressed Princess Grace and Jacqueline Kennedy. However, her insistence on concentrating on haute couture--she only designed her first ready-to-wear collection in 1981--severely restricted the house's growth.
She was also known for her extravagant tastes--her blue Jaguar had mink seat covers.
In 1984, with losses mounting, the Gres fashion business was acquired by maverick businessman Bernard Tapie.
Two years later, it was resold to the French group Estorel before going bankrupt in 1987.
The brand was eventually acquired by a Japanese investment group Yagi in 1988 for around $2 million. However, the contract apparently did not guarantee Madame Gres any royalties.
Ironically, Gres's influence--especially the jersey dress--was palpable during the spring '95 runways in New York and Europe last October and November.
Pierre Berge argued that Gres "did not die of old age, but for lack of attention." He said, "I'm not surprised nothing was heard of her death. She was always an exceedingly discreet person. No one had written about her or published any photos of her fashion since Diana Vreeland put something in Vogue years ago. She didn't die last year; she died 15 years ago," he insisted.
"I have to say that the exhibition I saw of her work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. When one saw the craftsmanship and skill which with she created all these wonderful clothes, one has to laugh at all the so-called talents we see praised nowadays," Berge scoffed.
Mouclier added that the Chambre will probably organize a special service in memory of the late couturiere soon.
The mystery remains, however, just why Anne Gres hid her own mother's death. No foul play is suspected, and the daughter, apparently, had nothing to gain financially from the subterfuge.
Richard Martin, curator of The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which recently put on a large retrospective of the designer's work, said he'd made attempts to correspond with Gres and her daughter, but his letters went unanswered.
"All our contact was one-way letters to Madame Gres, which we assumed were being received by the daughter," he said. "When we asked people, including the owner of the Gres name, if she was still alive, no one informed us otherwise."
Martin said he'd even sent a batch of catalogs to Paris in September with the understanding that they would be delivered to the designer by her friend, the Duchesse d'Orleans.
Martin said he'd heard that Anne, the daughter, was "very protective," and "slightly on the eccentric side."
"I can't understand why she would want the world to believe that her mother was still alive. If it was to wait for the world to vindicate her mother's talent, well, she could have waited forever. And she was tremendously recognized within the world of fashion--she was the honorary president of the Chambre Syndicale in the Eighties.
"Another thing is that some of Madame Gres's personal pieces went up for auction, and they probably would have gone for a much higher price had we known that she was deceased. I don't think it's venal; it's just perverse."
Yves Mouclier, who was managing director of the Gres fashion business in the late Eighties, argued: "It was a case of an envious daughter and an unfortunate mother. Madame Gres had an extraordinary talent, but her daughter had none and she hated her mother for that. It was as simple as that."

To Read the Full Article
SUBSCRIBE NOW

Tap into our Global Network

Of Industry Leaders and Designers

load comments
blog comments powered by Disqus