Grès is the label created by the French haute couture fashion house “Maison Grès”, which was founded by its progenitor, legendary couturier, known simply as "Madame Grès". Parfums Grès is the associated perfume house, which still exists, and is now based in Switzerland.
Madame Grès nee Germaine Émilie Krebs (1903–1993) was born and raised in the 17th arrondissement in Paris, France. There are many unresolved curiosities surrounding this diminutive 5’ tall giant in the fashion world, not least of which is the unconventional evolution of her name, which ultimately became the moniker Madame Grès. Today she is considered the “Designer's Designer” and has been referenced as the “Sphinx of Fashion” and described as “More Garbo than Garbo”. Although she never gained the mass notoriety attributed to her female contemporaries that included: Gabrielle Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jeanne Lanvin, and Madeleine Vionnet, she is today considered to be one of modern histories most significant artists in the field of clothing design and specifically in haute couture. 1930 She grew up in a middle-class Parisian family where she studied music, dancing, and art. She traveled outside of France extensively as a young girl and she developed an affinity for ethnic and indigenous costume and deeply admired the Grecian style robes adorning the majestic Roman and Grecco statues she encountered outside of Paris and in the treasures resident in the Louvre. She had ambitious dreams of becoming a great sculptress and when the opportunity arrived, she began formal training in this field. Her family felt it was an “unladylike” career and offered very little encouragement. Indeed, her slight frame at a mere 5’ tall proved to be a formidable physical challenge which resulted in the necessity to replace chisel and hammer with scissors and pins “sculpting” via dress design. Her first jobs were in millinery. She found a consistent income by making toiles by the piece for the local ateliers, gaining a reputation of providing her clients with highly detailed and swift workmanship. Heeding the advice of a family friend who owned a fashion company, she entered an apprenticeship at Premet, an Edwardian couture house, where she acquired skills in sketching, cutting, and sewing. However, even though she understood the concepts of sewing, it was never her forte and she managed to become adept at an unorthodox method of making dresses by draping fabric directly against the body and then by using pins on dress forms to indicate fabrication closures. This technique is one that is now familiar to those who design couture even through these modern times.
1932 The young designer consciously changed her first name from Germaine to Alix and relinquished her surname altogether and opened her own House of Couture under the company name of La Maison Alix. 1934 She became the Assistant to a designer who was also her childhood friend, Juliette Barton, owner of La Maison Barton which was situated in a three-room apartment on Rue Mirosmesnil in the Paris 6th Arrondissement.
1935 As the designer simply known as Alix, she experienced her first successes designing costumes for Jean Giraudoux's play "La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu", directed by Louis Jouvet and produced in November 1935 at the Théâtre de l'Athénée in Paris. L'Officiel Magazine and other prominent French fashion publications of the day took notice of her costume accomplishments aand began to favor her work and began to feature the designer by photographing the garments for fashion editorial bringing attention to the House. However, the editorial credits were inadvertantly listed as “designed by Alix Barton”. This is most likely because Alix did not use a last name at the time and for the journalists, she was the face of the House. This success in the media prompted a formal business alliance between Juliette and Alix and in order to reduce confusion about the identity of credit in the fashion magazines, the house was rechristened La Maison Alix Barton. Alix became the half owner of he business and they moved to a workshop located at 83 rue Fauborg Saint-Honore.
1937 (April 15) Alix married an unconventional Russian oil painter named Serge Anatolevitch Czerefkow who was known to sign his paintings with a partial anagram of his own first name as Grès. She converted to Russian Orthodox in order to marry in her husband’s religion. Both claimed the redesigned surname of Grès.
1939 (August) Alix gave birth to a daughter she named Anne. However, two weeks before she gave birth, WWII began and the German invasion and occupation of Paris soon followed. A few months prior to this, her husband abandoned Alix and their unborn child and left France altogether to pursue a separate life in Tahiti and never returned to his family. Interestingly, Mme Grès faithfully sent him monthly financial support until his demise in 1970. Anne was brought up with the full time assistance of a woman named Muni who became the baby's godmother and who was a very close and personal friend of Madame Grès co-habitating with the designer for more than 40 years causing speculation about their sexual orientation because of their intimate relationship. Muni was confidant, muse and long-time fit model to the designer. The combined influence and poor advice given to Mme Grès by Muni and a female employee named Mufthach, brought about a series of regrettable legal embroilments for the couturier who often deferred to others on business matters.
1940 (January) Mme Grès and Barton began to argue often with each other as well as with their silent investors which prompted them to consider ending their business partnership. The decision to cease working together was an obvious one after Barton allegedly denounced Mme Grès as Jewish to nazi occupiers. Alix, Muni and Anne fled the war zone of Paris and sought refuge in the Haute-Garonne in the Pyrenees near the border of Spain until their safety could be assured upon return.
1941 (June) Mme Grès returned to Paris and sold Juliette her 50% stake in the Alix Barton business and at the persuasion of Lucien Lelong the President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, she opened a epynomous salon under the name La Maison Grès located at 1 Rue de La Paix adjacent to Place Vendôme. Although the nazi’s were fully aware that she was Jewish they allowed her to conduct business with the ulterior motive of demanding that she create dresses for their wives due her widely known reputation as one of Paris' most prolific and prestigious dressmakers.
1944 Mme Gres refused to accommodate the nazi’s insistence that she reveal her trade secrets, and combined with her excessive use of fabric in adherence to the imposed restrictions on maximum amount of textile allowed per garment regulated by the regime as well as her ultimate refusal to dress the nazi wives was enough reason for them to force closure on the house in January. By early summer, she was authorized to resume her business in occupied Paris, albeit from scratch. Shortage of cloth meant she had to fit in with the necessary fashion of short skirts and mannish shoulders, where her previous work had depended on the lavish draping of fabric. She patriotically and defiantly refused to admit Germans to her fashion shows. Her final wartime collection was entirely red, white and blue, the colors of the tri-color flag of France - a bold finger up to the occupying powers. In the years following the war, her atelier became one of the biggest in Paris, with 180 employees and seven workrooms.
1957 – 1962 Mme Gres vehemently avoided designing for the ready-to-wear market throughout her and likened it to a form of prostitution for the artist. However an organized effort to bring the couture designers of Paris into the prêt a porter was organized as a group and Grès begrudgingly participated.
In 1958 Grès was commissioned by the Ford Foundation to study textiles in India. Again, her travels inspired her, this time not only in the design of sari-like gowns and Nehru jackets, but also in fragrances. She launched her first perfume created by Bernard Chant, initially marked as Choda, and later, renamed Cabochard (pig headed). Grès continued to develop perfumes throughout her career.
In 1972 Mme Gres officially became a woman of prestigious rank in French fashion through her election by unanimous vote to the highly esteemed position of Honorary President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, the highest governing organization of the French fashion industry.
1978 Grès was recognized with the New York University Creative Leadership in the Arts Award.
1981 Grès produces the House's first ready-to-wear collection known as Boutique Grès for distribution and under the purview of Anne Grès' fiance, Jean Vincent de Saint Phalle it lasts 2 1/2 years in the market.
1984 Gres became one of the first couture houses to divest and sell a controlling interest to non fashion industry investor. In her case, it was Bernard Tapie, an ambitious entrepreneur keen to invest in luxury. He was a minister under Frédéric Mitterrand and the only owner of French football team, Marseille, to win Europe’s greatest prize – The Champions’ League. But shortly after, Tapie’s financial empire over expanded and fell into bankruptcy, landing him in prison.
1986 (April) Maison Grès was expelled from membership in the Chambre Syndicale for nonpayment of dues through the mismanagement of Bernard Tapie. Tapie is forced to sell the company and ownership is tansferred to the Jacques Estorel Group.
1987 Madame Gres continued to design for her namesake company after selling her final interest but ultimately retired after presentation of her Spring 1988 collection.
The company known as Maison Gres physicallly located at 1, Rue de la Paix, was brutally liquidated by the French Government. One day the French officials stormed the location and broke the furniture and the wood dress forms with axes. The precious fabrics and dresses were taken away in plastic garbage bags and left curbside for trash removal. "The place was completely sacked", Annes Grès told Laurence Benaïm, the Fashion Director at Le Monde who incidentally authored a book called GRÈS (Assouline Publishing). Mme Grès confided to Pierre Cardin that the sale of the company to Tapie was the worst decision she ever made.
1987 Estorel declares bankruptcy soon after its purchase of the company and in 1988 sells the distressed house to a Japanese textile firm, Yagi Tsucho, Ltd. who remain the current owners of the label.
1988 Grès continued to work from her private apartment in Paris with noble financial support from her esteemed peers Mssrs. Givenchy, Cardin and Saint Laurent and created special gowns by commission for them in appreciation. Monsieur Hubert de Givenchy purchased over 300 of Madame Grès personal gowns from her personally and in his book written the same year, entitled The Givenchy Style he described her work as, “Beautiful enough to go mad over”.
1990 Mme Grès retires officially and her daughter Anne quietly moves her from Paris to a second home in Saint Paul de Vance for a brief time and then susequently, on her own volition, commits her mother, the Couturier, to Château de la Condamine, a low-income retirement residence in the Var in the South of France without announcement.
1992 - 1995 The Yagi Tsucho Group begins an exhaustive and formidable 5 year search for the ideal designer to helm Grès with the hope of resurrecting the cherished label. They finally discover a young but skilled designer in Paris named Lloyd David Klein who although only 26 years old demonstrates prowess in the area of women’s tailoring and his work reveals an understanding of the proportions and volume that align with the concepts established by Grès. He accepted the prestigious position opportunity as Design Director for GRES, since no other designer had pre-ceeded him other than Mme Gres herself, the responsibility in assuming her role was daunting. In addition to creative duties he was also given the task to restore the basic building blocks essential to the atelier that were destroyed by a history of ruin from the war and violent removal of company assets that had resulted from the previous bankruptcies. With barely a thread of physical reference and no sample vault from which to browse, few physical photos in hand and without the luxury of digital imagery now enjoyed in age of the internet, he systematically began to do the near impossible restoration. Klein's first move was to invite the long serving seamstresses of the previous Grès atelier to return and assist in the rebuilding process. He then meticulously scoured every known vintage store in Paris for all things Grès. His persistence and resolve in the curation process resulted in building a trove of relics from Madame Grès collections including original sketches and recovers over 75 rare photographs and several original Rene Gruau illustrations as well as over 100 samples of Madame Grès garments representing her overall career with a majority connected to the 60's - early 80's. Among his finds are numerous items and photographs that belonged to Madame’s longtime personal partner Muni and those of her “Muse Daughter”, her unofficially adopted daughter whom Grès showed favor over her often estranged daughter Anne. With a newly staffed team in the atelier and the small library of samples his first accomplishment was the creation of “Tailleur Grès” given that he was adept at designing tailored apparel. The initially skeptical seamstreses most of whom were 4 times his senior become his strongest allies as they observed his work that began to capture the essence of their beloved grand couturier. His first collection for Gres received great acclaim from the Press including a review from Le Figaro Daily in which Fashion Editor Janie Samet wrote, “des Fleures Pour Grès” (Flowers to Grès), “Lloyd David Klein proved today that the spirit of Madame Gres lives on through his hands”. The front-row seats for his runway shows mostly held at the Carrousel Du Louvre were luminous with VIP's like Madame Carven, Madame Chirac, Monsieur Hubert de Givenchy who Klein credits as his inspiration for entering the field of Haute Couture much the same way that Pierre Bergé stated "Madame Gres is one of the reasons why we went into fashion". Like his predecessor his clients at Grès were notable and included Mrs. Johnson(of the Johnson & Johnson Co.), Princess Princess Philomene d’ Arenberg,Princess Diane de Beauveau Craon, Princess Anne de Bourbon Sicile, Mrs. Judith Taubman, Cyrielle Clair, Amanda Lear, Mrs. Jocelyne Wildenstein and Mrs. Nan Kempner among many others. His runway theater attracted the top models in Paris including Tricia Helfer, Bridget Moynahan, Eve Salvail, Christy Turlington, Adriana Karembeu, Emma Sjoeberg, Linda Evangelista and Gretta Cavazzoni. He collaborated with some of Paris most accomplished artists such as Jean Barthot for hats, Alexandre de Paris for Coiffure. Lloyd Klein decided not to renew his contract with Yagi Tsucho to their dismay after 4 major runway collections and design management and development growth of over 35 licensed categories of apparel and products for Asia and throughout Europe. He realized that the constant shadow and unfair comparison to Grès made it impossible to create with his own fashion identity and to have freedom of artistic license.
1993 (November 24) the legendary and mysterious couturier Madame Grès died in the retirement home she occupied, apparently alone and penniless. Her death was strangely held secret from the public and Madame’s colleagues by her daughter Anne who for 13 months impersonated her mother by phone and by mail answering inquiries in detail in her deceased mother’s name. Speculations to explain Anne’s bizarre behavior have run the gamut from jealousy, immaturity and greed but with no final conclusion. Thus, adding yet one final mysterious element to the designer’s legacy. Madame Grès never received any royalties for her work after her retirement.
1994 (September 13 - November 27) “Madame Grès: Sculptural Fashion “The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, NYC Curators: Richard Martin and Richard Koda - the first major exhibition positioning Madame Grès as one of the greatest fashion designers in modern history. Although the exhibition curators had sent multiple requests to the designer to attend the exhibition they received forged letters presumably from the honoree explaining her inability to attend due to her busy schedule. An accompanying commemorative book is produced with the same name.
1994 (December 13) An investigative journalist discovers Madame Grès death certificate and reveals that the great artist had indeed passed away in a nursing home, supposedly alone and penniless and the fashion world is shocked by reading this news through Le Monde Newspaper. Sadly, the shocking revelation was made just two weeks after the conclusion of the Grès exhibition at the Met.
2002 – 2005 Koji Tatsuno is hired as Creative Director.
2004 Previous Design Director Lloyd Klein 1992 –1995 presented his Lloyd Klein Couture runway Spring 2005 collection in the tents at Bryant Park with a standing room only presentation in tribute to Grès called “Reflections of Madame Grès”.
2008 (February 1 – April 10) “Madame Grès: Sphynx of Fashion”, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, NYC; Curator: Patricia Mears. An accompanying commemorative book is produced with the same name.
2011 (March 25 - July 24) “Madame Grès : la couture à l'oeuvre”, The Musée Bourdelle, Paris France; Curator: Olivier Saillard. According to fashion journalist Suzy Menkes: The exhibit included an abundance of original drawings provided through the benevolence of Pierre Bergé at the Yves Saint Laurent Foundation, who bought and offered 3,000 drawings out of respect for Madame Grès. A large selection of donations of specific clients such as the Duchess of Orleans or of Windsor added to the rich display, and the final creation of Mme Grès: a swelling-bodice dress ordered in 1989 by Hubert de Givenchy was donated for the display. An accompanying commemorative book is produced with the same name.
2012 the last Grès store in Paris was closed.
Mme Grès Personal Style
When asked by those who worked with her how she should be addressed she indicated that she would prefer to be known simply as Madame Grès. She was known to prefer working in quiet and always dressed in her famous uniform: a grey cashmere jersey, a grey flannel skirt, skin-colored stockings, black lace-up shoes, the sort favored by nurses, and her lifelong shibboleth, that nun-like jersey turban. The atelier operated like a convent ; stark and clean, much like her couture. Her demeanor was serious and her attitude about her work was never taken lightly. The New York Times called her couture house, "the most intellectual place in Europe to buy clothes". Her most notable personal style trademark was the turban that she wore from the time of her exodus from Paris during the war until she disappeared from public view. It is said that while in exodus she had no hairdresser and enjoyed allowing the turban to take the place of having to fuss with her hair. According to Olivier Saillard, she allowed herself a few luxuries - like her blue Jaguar with mink interior. She even had a television installed, although she never watched it. She would scour the flea markets in Paris for antiques accompanied by her tetchy Pekinese Musig. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/paris-pays-overdue-homage-to-madame-gres-2252067.html
Mme Grès Clientele
Mme Grès was very public in her sense of snob in her preference to cater only to the “discrete” woman of high social standing and financial stature rather than those merely in the limelight for most of her career but as time progressed she included not just the rich but the famous as well who were often both. Her clientele included: the Duchess of Talleyrand, the Countess Munose, Comtesse de Bourbon-Busset, Princess Matilda of Greece, Lady Deterling, Lady Mendl, Gersende de Sabran-Ponteves, Duchess d'Orleans, Duchess of Windsor, Princesses of Bourbon-Parma, Princess Ghislaine de Polignac, the Begum Aga Khan, Princess Grace of Monaco, Marella Agnelli and Marie-Helene de Rothschild Duchess of Windsor Danielle Mitterrand and American Icons and Hollywood legends: Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Edith Piaf, Vivian Leigh, Yvonne Printemps, Madeleine Renaud, Arletty, Sao Schlumberger, Jacqueline Kennedy,and Dolores del Río. Barbra Streisand posed in the designers creations for a 1966 Vogue  Magazine cover story in which the often reclusive designer posed together with the singer while the designer is shown wrapping of a coif triangle of Moreau linen on the singers head, in clever reference to her own signature turban coif. Among Grès first muses was Isadora Duncan, the first dancer to dance barefoot in a short tunic. Her impact on the work that was interpreted by the costume departments in old Hollywood is quite noticeable particularly as seen in the gowns created by Edith Head for Grace Kelly among others. She worked directly with Hollywood wardrobe departments as well exampled by the costumes for Circes portrayed by Italian actress Silvana Mangano in the 1954 production of Ulysses.
Mme Grès impact on the fashion industry
Gres is credited for her part in Cristóbal Balenciaga's setting up his own house. Fleeing from civil-war-torn Spain in the mid-Thirties, where he had set up his own couture house, Balenciaga travelled to London in the hope of joining a couture house there. He was turned down and moved on to Paris, where he sought Grès advice in the hope that he could join her staff. The stern woman inspected his work but refused to employ him, stating that she could only work alone and that he was far too talented to assist anyone. She urged him to open his own house, which he duly did in 1937 Yves St. Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Lloyd Klein, Madame Carven, Azzedine Alaïa, Yohji Yamamoto, Jean Paul Gaultier, Ralph Ricci, Issey Miyake, Alber Elbaz, Haider Ackermann and Roy Halston are just a few of the top designers who have paid tribute to Gres ranging from quotes to staged homage references. Bill Blass, for example, was once asked whether he agreed that fashion design was an art. "No" he replied. "It's a craft. Sometimes a creative one, sometimes a technical one. It only becomes an art in the hands of Mme Grès or Balenciaga."
Photographers and illustrators
Among the revered artists who captured the work of Madame Gres for posterity on film and sketch are: Willy Maywald, Guy Bourdin, Cecil Beaton, Henry Clarke, Jean Moral, Man Ray, Horst B. Horst, and Katerina Jebb, George Hoyningen-Huene, Richard Avedon, René Gruau and Jean Cocteau.
Grès's signature fragrance was Cabochard, created by Bernard Chant, and launched in 1958. As of March 2012, Cabochard is still being manufactured and retailed. Other perfumes, launched after the sale of the company, include:
1930 Parfum Déesse (W) 1946 Muse (W) 1947 A (W) 1958 Cabochard ex-Choda (W) 1965 Grès pour Homme (M) 1975 QuiProQuo (W) 1980 Eau de Cologne Grès (W) 1981 Eau de Grès (W) 1982 Alix (W) 1982 Monsieur de Grès 1984 Gres Monsieur Sport 1990 Cabotine de Gres(W) 1996 Pastel de Cabotine 1996 Homme de Gres 1997 Folie Douce (W) 1999 Grain de Folie (W) 2000 Air de Cabochard (W) 2002 Cabaret (W) 2003 Cabotine Bleu (W) 2003 Cabotine Rose (W) 2003 Cabotine Fleur (W) 2003 Cabotine Sensuelle (W) 2004 Cabaret Pour Homme 2004 Caline (W) 2006 Ambre de Cabochard (W) 2006 Fleur de Cabotine (W) 2006 Caline Night (W) 2007 Caline Sweet Appeal (W) 2007 My Dream Hommage a Marlene Dietrich (W) 2007 My Life Hommage a Marlene Dietrich (W) 2007 My Passion Hommage a Marlene Dietrich 2008 Cabotine Delight (W) 2009 Cabotine Aquarelle (W) 2009 Sphinx Hommage a Greta Garbo 2009 Goddess Hommage a Greta Garbo 2009 Mythos Hommage a Greta Garbo 2010 Caline Blooming Moments (W) 2010 Caline Tender Moments (W) 2010 Cabotine Gold (W) 2010 Cabotine Green Summer (W) 2010 Cabotine Moon Flower (W) 2011 Cabotine Cristalisme (W) 2011 Cabotine Fleur de Passion (W) 2011 Cabotine Fleur d’Ivoire (W) 2011 Cabotine Floralisme (W) 2013 Cabotine Eau Vivide (W) 2013 Cabotine Fleur Splendide (W) 2013 Madame Gres (W)
Grès design style
According to Katy Werlin, Fashion Historian, Mme Grès showed favor to silk jersey in her collections, and a single dress could take from 13 to 21 meters. Her talent for pleating could reduce 9 feet of fabric into a mere 2.8 inches. The drapery of her gowns also showed her technical virtuosity. Long swags of continuous strips of fabric would be incorporated into the front and back of a gown, giving her work a sense of classical antiquity. She also introduced the idea of cutouts, creating little windows in her gowns which revealed the back or shoulder. Wearers of her gowns have said that they felt perfectly secure in her gowns, so impeccable was the construction. Where Madame Grès differs from the sculpture she idolized is through the liberty of movement, which radiates from her dresses, even when statically displayed. Madame Grès never used corsets. Instead, she created lines and volume through the art of twisting, braiding and billowing. The “pli Grès” is her own, a kind of millefeuille for fashion, an intricate treat of millions of carefully composed folds. A Grès dress manages to, bafflingly, be lavish even as it’s spartan. The adornments are few—though when implemented, the use of buttons, collars, belts, pockets is restrained, minimalist. 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. Her inventions were many and varied, and all bear the unmistakeable imprint of "Haute Couture".
- Chevalier, Michel (2012). Luxury Brand Management. Singapore: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-118-17176-9.
- Perfume Intelligence - The Encyclopaedia of Perfume: Volume G : Grès, Parfums, retrieved 2012-03-02
- Laurence Benaïm, Madame Grès, Editions Assouline, 1999 (in French)
- Patricia Mears, Madame Grès: Sphinx of Fashion, Yale University Press, 2008
- Grès at the Fashion Model Directory
- Sewing patterns by Madame Grès
- Some photos of her clothes: Dress (1971), Evening Gown (1979), Cocktail Dress (ca. 1960), Evening Gown (ca. 1965), Evening Dress (1958)
- Metropolitan Museum New York