Couturier Christian Dior once said, “Each dress she makes is a masterpiece,” while Bill Blass remarked, “[fashion] only becomes art in the hands of Madame Grès.” The 20th century’s pickiest fashion plates—Marlene Dietrich, Babe Paley, Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly—were among her most devoted clients. But when Madame Alex Grès died on this day in 1993, the great couturier was utterly alone and destitute.
As with many artists, Mme. Grès was not savvy in business. She began turning over creative control in the late 1970s, and unwisely sold the entire operation in 1984 to a scalawag financier who changed the name and subsequently dragged the company into ruin. With financial help from Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert Givenchy and Pierre Cardin, the stoic designer retreated to her apartment in the 16th arrondissement and continued sewing orders for friends. At some point, however, her daughter, Anne Grès, swept her mother away to a nursing home in Provence, and that was the last anyone heard of her. Grès quietly died, penniless and in obscurity. To add to the mystery, Anne kept her mother’s death a secret for a full year—she later stated she couldn’t afford a worthy tombstone—until a curious reporter found the official death certificate and revealed the truth.
But the story gets creepier: By the time reports of Grès’ death reached the public, a full-scale retrospective of her work had closed just two weeks earlier at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The two curators designed a glowing exhibition that loftily compared Grès to poets, painters, composers and architects, and were unaware the designer was dead. Richard Martin and Harold Koda had repeatedly sent messages to Grès—as had fashion journalists hoping to interview the designer for stories to coincide with the exhibition—all of which received cordial, chatty replies: She wrote that she was honored and delighted to be remembered, but would not be able to attend any parties or speak to reporters. Of course, Grès, now dead for a year, had not written the letters. Her daughter Anne went to great lengths to pen the responses that included intimate “quotes” from her mother, such as: “I remember that simple but very powerful moment when, alone in front of a bare stockman, pins and scissors in hand, I cut the fabric for the first model of what would be a new collection. This gesture—performed every time with joy, but also emotion and anguish, because of its importance, because so much depended on it—still haunts me.”
Grès began her career in the 1930s during the heyday of the woman designer in Paris: Chanel, Lanvin, Schiaparelli and Vionnet were all her contemporaries. Born Germaine Emilie Krebs in Paris in 1903, she first worked under the name Alix, and then reopened her business as Alix Barton Couture, then Alex Grès Couture and was soon called simply Grès. Throughout her 50-year career, Grès never wavered from what was sometimes called her “Grecian formula,” a steadfast loyalty to cutting on the bias and drape that made her dresses so coveted. Grès used fabric to follow and enhance the figure, moving on to fold and pleat the fabric to create the effect of a curved column. It was a timeless and terribly flattering effect. “To apply the word ‘fashion’ to such creations is laughable, for they were as old as Methuselah and as unfaddish as marrons glaces,” author Jane Mulvagh wrote in her obituary of Grès. Trends came and went, but Grès held fast to her distinctive silhouette. She never expanded into ready-to-wear and insisted on made-to-measure couture. In 1959 she launched a perfume, Cabochard. It means stubborn.
We may never know why Anne kept her mother’s death a secret for so many months, though speculation points to a number of theories: jealousy, control issues or simply confusion or immaturity. But the incident, though sad, inarguably adds to the allure of Grès. She was an inimitable—and now highly collectible—artist, who knew what she liked and what looked good on women. If her work alone describes her legacy, it is clear that Grés was devoted to one philosophy: the ongoing creation of classic, timeless beauty.—Ali Basye
Photos: Top: Madame Grès by Diane Arbus for Harper’s Bazaar, February 1964. Middle: Mme. Grès in her studio in the north-east corner building of the Place Vendome. Bottom: Suzy Parker wearing Grès in an unknown editorial.