MME. GRES: A LOOK BACK
Byline: Mort Sheinman
PARIS — Though Madame Gres was often referred to as the grande dame of haute couture, she was famous but famously private. She shied away from questions about her personal life, creating through her silence an aura of mystery. Her small stature and retiring manner belied a determined artistic personality that never shrank from difficulties and consistently inspired 50 years of couture designs.
“A timid pirate with plenty of nerve under her turban,” decided Edmonde Charles-Roux, editor of French Vogue, after an interview in 1964 with the French designer, during which the following story surfaced.
It was World War II, and at La Maison Gres they were showing the last collection before the liberation of Paris. The Germans had announced they were coming, and there was no way to prevent it. A few chairs had to be set aside for them.
In the collection, there were some materials that had reached the fashion house through unorthodox and forbidden channels. So Gres decided to exhibit the suspicious dresses in niches and counter questions with the claim that these were not really dresses, but rather statues. There surely would be no objection to the display of art in one’s house.
At the last minute, the Germans decided not to come. And so they never saw the “statues” in their niches, nor the models wearing the other designs — made, without exception, of fabrics in the colors of the French flag: blue, white and red.
It is likely the Germans would have fallen for Gres’s statue ruse, for she created her own style of statuesque and molded designs, sculpted and draped from fine silk and rayon jersey along the lines of ancient Greek and Roman statuary.
“The pieces of sculpture that I create for myself in fabric attempt to find a certain resemblance to rock in their purity, in order to attain a kind of perfection,” Gres said in an interview with WWD in 1975.
As a girl, Gres dreamed of becoming a sculptor. But financial problems forced her into an apprenticeship, and she began her designing career by making muslin toiles, copies of couture designs.
She never identified the supporter who backed her financially and gave her the name under which she opened her first couture business in January 1933. But within a few years, she made the House of Alix world famous.
Until 1938, Gres was only a salaried employee of the couture house that carried her name. When she threatened to leave, she was offered — and accepted — half the house.
During World War II, Gres was not only inclined to flaunt Nazi edicts, but also refused to cater to German clients. The House of Alix closed its doors in 1940, and she left Paris for a time.
After her return a couple of years later, she broke with her supporters and financial backers when they unsuccessfully tried to denounce her to the Germans. Lacking the capital to buy out the other half of the business, she was forced to sell her part and, with it, her name.
But she persisted, and in 1945, this time without outside financial backing, La Maison Gres presented its first postwar collection at 1 Rue de la Paix.
Gres never spoke publicly about the Russian painter and sculptor Serge Cezrefkov, whom she married in 1939. Their daughter, Anne, was born that same year, but Cezrefkov left Paris for Tahiti to pursue his own career and never returned.
Gres preferred to work on her own. An ever-present pair of scissors and a pincushion were constant visible proof of her own hand in every design. Using 20 to 70 yards of fabric for a single dress, she began by draping the actual fabric on a live model and then shaping and cutting the material directly, without pattern or drawing.
Gres was also an indefatigable traveler — often with startling results. From India, where she was sent by the Ford Foundation in 1958 to study Indian silks, she brought back ideas for sari-like gowns and Nehru jackets, and the name Chouda for her first fragrance. In Hindi, it turned out, chouda is not a nice word. The Gres Perfume Co., set up in 1959, had to recall the scent. Undaunted, Gres renamed it Cabochard. Literally translated, it means “pig-headed.”
It was an appropriate name, considering that the designer refused to compromise her line by designing a ready-to-wear collection, not giving in until 1980, when she finally acceded to the requests of her general manager, Jean-Vincent de Saint-Phalle.
The beige turban Gres always wore was also a travel souvenir. During a stay in the Pyrenees in the early Forties, she found herself without a hairdresser. To hide her hair, she wound it in a turban. It became a signature touch. Her own manner of dressing was always simple — skirt and sweater in unobtrusive gray and beige — but she was very much aware of the power of her couture.
“I like to accentuate the beauty, the personality and the individual gestures of the women I dress. A couture dress is a second skin. Each woman has her own unique comportment and figure. I am clothing personalities. I see my clients transformed during a fitting. It is a miracle to see this,” she told WWD in 1977.
Her couture, inspired by Persian harem pants, Roman togas and Arabian pantaloons, and returning time and again to the liquid, swaying folds of jerseys and silks, attracted clients such as Anne-Aymone Giscard d’Estaing, Marie-Helene de Rothschild, Jackie de Ravenel, Isabelle d’Ornano, Sao Schlumberger and Helene Rochas.
In 1936, she dressed Marlene Dietrich in a gown inspired by the costume of a Balinese dancer. It was a tight-fitting jacket of stiff brocade with a circular peplum over a slim jersey skirt. Gres also designed costumes for theater and film at the request of Jean Cocteau, and dressed Delphine Seyrig for the plays of Harold Pinter and James Saunders.
Although the last few years were financially troubled, Gres continued her work. Since 1977, she has produced a series of distinctive accessories lines — scarves, ties and sunglasses. In 1979, she created a special and limited new edition of her perfume to celebrate its 20th birthday.