By  on March 18, 2008

Madame Grès' mastery was described by Patricia Mears, who curated the Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology's current exhibition about the designer and penned a companion book.

Essentially the designer's work consisted of three genres — Grecian gowns, ethnic influences and sculpted forms — and she embraced the lengthy, and no doubt tiresome, process of refinement. That hallmark was not such a stretch considering Grès initially wanted to be a sculptress or artist, Mears said, in one of the few personal details she mentioned about the notoriously aloof designer. Another was how Grès died penniless in a low-rent pensioner home in France despite having earned many fortunes in her lifetime.

With a black-and-white Diane Arbus photograph of Grès on the screen behind her, Mears explained that she intentionally refrained from psychologically or personally interpreting the designer's life — preferring to center on her craftsmanship. And she was determined not to limit that focus to the designer's impeccably draped Grecian gowns, "which were certainly not the only thing she did and did well," Mears said.

Widely known as the designer was for the Grecian pieces in the Thirties, her real heyday for sculpted styles didn't happen until the Fifties and Sixties, she said. To illustrate that point, Mears showed an image of a cocktail dress from that period with three-dimensional sleeves, a finely pleated bodice and a skirt that was essentially two half circles of fabric sewn together. A stickler for precision, the self-taught designer "could not have come up with these shapes had she not been draping herself," said Mears, adding Grès influenced Halston in the Sixties and Seventies.

During that time, Grès delved into hippie chic as evidenced by the caftans, kimonos and pajama-type eveningwear that cropped up in her collections. Years before, a grant provided by the Ford Foundation had enabled her to travel to India to see non-Western fashion firsthand. The curator dismissed others' suggestion that the latter part of Grès' career was inconsequential, noting that Guy Bourdin found her designs to be relevant in the Seventies and featured them in the pages of French Vogue.

Undoubtedly, Grès was unabashed about her stubborn streak and even named her first fragrance Cabochard, which means "pigheaded," Mears said. In fact the designer once said, "For the time being, I did not want to do anything others were doing in any way; I wasn't about to because I didn't have the knowledge."

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