In fashion today, there are the big names, which are on everyone’s lips, if not for commercial value only. If a designer can sell and sell a lot, he or she is as good as gold. Then there are the old names that have been around before a lot of us were even born who are undergoing a renaissance based on the name alone. However can anyone really master the sway that the great Balenciaga or the shocking Schiaparelli had? One woman, whose design aesthetic and technique will never be reproduced, is the nearly forgotten name of Alix Gres.
Madame Gres, contemporary and rival of Lanvin, Vionnet, Chanel, and Schiaparelli has virtually faded away into history and mystery. Even in death she was clouded in mystery, with her daughter supposedly suppressing the event, so that nobody knew for sure whether she was dead or not. Nobody even knew what her real name was. Born Germaine Emile Krebs, she then for a while was known as Alix Barton and then Madame Gres.
She formally trained as a sculptress, and that is how the haute couture that came out of her house took on an artistic fluidity that has only been rivaled by the great Vionnet. Her signature was cutouts on gowns that made exposed skin part of the design. From her original training you gain a sense of how the ideals of classicism influenced her. Evening gowns followed and sculpted the human form, using techniques practiced only by herself, a specialist skill known as draping, quite distinct from tailoring When looking at her clothes one is not only impressed with the design, but of their sheer timelessness and sophistication. Where fashion today can be a ridiculous parody of itself, Gres designs never were and never will be.
She dressed the rich and the famous, including the Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Dolores del Rio. Some even say that she was more Garbo than Garbo herself. Even after WWII when most of the pre-war designers were struggling with the bombshell that Dior had launched and later on the swinging sixties, Madame could hold her own. Her style evolved with the times because it was more like art than fashion and was timeless.
However through changing tastes and moods even she could not keep her finger on the pulse that was fashion. The house started to loose money and like a lot of other houses was only being propped up by the perfume side of things, but soon even that was not enough. The company at 1, Rue de la Paix, was liquidated in 1987, during her own lifetime. She died in November 1993, but her death was not announced. With its disclosure in Le Monde, on December 14th 1994, Anne, her daughter, finally agreed to talk: "first of all, I wanted to protect her. All these people who took advantage of her would have found a way to shine again at her expense...It's a love secret.” Madame Grès left us just as she had lived: very discreetly.
Of course like most of the couturiers that time forgets the name lives on in a Perfume business. You can still buy her most famous perfume, Cabochard (even though changed through time), which I wear myself from time to time. Of course it smells of a bygone era, but I like it like that.
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