She was quite the antithesis of today’s fashion designers. She made every attempt not to cultivate a celebrity status.
She wouldn’t throw attention-grabbing sound bites at the media. Or, pose for the camera. If anything, Madame Alix Grès, one of Paris’s most-celebrated couturiers, lead a notoriously reclusive life.
So much so that even the news of her death, in November 1993, didn’t leak out to the public domain until more than a year later. In a bizarre Alfred-Hitchcock-esque tale, her only daughter, Anne Grès, managed to keep it a closely-guarded secret from the world.
It’s this veil of secrecy surrounding her life that earned her the nickname “Sphinx of Fashion.” Just as little is known of her personal life, an in-depth knowledge about her professional life is also scant.
The museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology will showcase little-known aspects of her work in the first exhibition to analyze her work and categorize her creations stylistically.
It will run from February 1 to April 19. More than 70 of her masterpieces will be on display.
Those interested in learning more about her may also pick up a copy of “Madame Grès: Sphinx of Fashion,” a fabulously-illustrated coffee-table book by the museum’s deputy director, Patricia Mears, which shines light on her obscure life and her passion.
“One of the things we try to do [at the museum] is to have diversity programs. At any given time, we have two exhibitions on view. One of them is a historical collection. The other is a special exhibition, which displays foreign collections,” said Mears.
Born as Germaine Emilie Krebs in 1903, Madame Grès aspired to become a sculptress or a ballerina. But her sartorial talent took her down a different road—women’s clothing.
She started out as a milliner, but found her true métier in dressmaking. In 1934, in a Parisian workshop, she opened her own house under the name “Alix,” where she began experimenting with simple garments.
The following year, she had her first brush with success by designing costumes for a 1935 play “La Guerre de Troie N’aura Pas Lieu,” directed by the French playwright Jean Giraudoux.
During the Nazi occupation of France, her business was shut down for a brief period because she defied the German officers by refusing to make dresses for their wives. After the war, her salon reopened. And once again, she continued to reign as the high-priestess of haute couture.
In an age of mass production, she frowned upon machine-made, ready-to-wear apparels. Often, her gowns took as much as 300 hours to finish, each created pleat-by-pleat, one millimeter wide. She worked alone to craft by hand, the preliminary designs for all her creations, which was an unusual feat for designers.
She was quoted as saying: “My only desire is to create dresses that impress the world.” Sure enough, she “focused obsessively” on her work, much to the exclusion of anything else, said Mears. “She was shy and aloof,” she added.
During a nearly five-decades-long career that spanned from the early 1930s and continued until 1988, she dressed some of the most stylish, albeit private, women of the 20th century. Among them were Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Dolores del Rio.
Madame Grès was known for her flowing Grecian gowns in monochromatic schemes. Her training in sculpting enabled her to capture the timeless elegance and chic simplicity of classical Greek art—a unique style that injected a certain fluidity into her fabric.
The exhibition illustrates her signature elements: pleated-gowns made of matte silk; the use of geometric designs, inspired by ethnic costumes like the Indian sari, the Japanese kimono; and the three-dimensional sculptural quality for which most of her work was noted.
Some of the garments that will be featured are a gray-and-yellow plaid cape coat from the 1950s that belonged to Doris Duke, a one-piece silk crepe pajama owned by Diana Vreeland and a black silk faille Turandot evening dress.