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Grès, Madame (Germaine Barton)

house continued couture collection

B. November 30, 1903

D. November 24, 1993

Birthplace: Paris, France

Awards: Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, 1947
         Dé d’Or Award, 1976
         New York University Creative Leadership in the Arts Award, 1978

Germaine Emilie Krebs, who to most of the world was known as Alix Grès, grew up in a middle-class Parisian family where she studied music, dancing, and art. Grès was primarily interested in sculpture, an unacceptable career for a lady, so she applied her interests in art to “sculpting” dress designs. A family friend who owned a fashion house encouraged Grès to enter the fashion business, and in 1930 she became an apprentice at Premet, a couture house, where she acquired skills in sketching, cutting, and sewing.

In between her travels to exotic places, such as North Africa and Egypt, Grès utilized her design talents by working on toiles (copies of couture designs) for buyers. The combination of remarkable cutting and draping skills and unique sources of inspiration prepared Grès for designing her first collection. In 1934 Grès acquired a partner and opened her doors for business under the name Alix Barton.

Her first collection consisted of day wear, cape and skirt ensembles, and evening wear, using draping techniques to pleat bias-cut fabrics into complex designs. It was her third collection, in which she introduced silk jersey in neoclassical style evening gowns, which made her famous. This was the first time that anyone had ever incorporated silk jersey into evening wear. Her gowns made such an impact on the industry that jerseys were often referred to as “Alix jerseys.” Grès continued to instill inspiration from her travels in her designs; in 1935 her “Arabian gown” featured an ornamental harem-pant style trouser skirt in grape angora jersey. The success of her couture house continued to escalate, but unfortunately, in 1940, the impact of World War II forced her to close her doors.

Grès left Paris with her daughter for several years but returned after the war to reestablish her business. Upon her return to Paris, she opened a new couture house under her name, Maison Grès, which she solely financed. Her new venture was highly successful, and her work continued to reflect her unique design aesthetic. She designed day-time tailored suits fabricated in wools and leathers, and exquisite gowns using her signature bright brocades, failles, jerseys, taffetas, silk satins, and organdes. Each design was a piece of art, a masterful manipulation of between twenty and seventy yards of fabric, which were sculpted to enhance the figure, or conceal flaws, and transform each individual client’s personality.

In 1958 Grès was sent to India by the Ford Foundation to study textiles. 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 in 1958: Choda, which was later renamed Cabochard (pig headed). Grès continued to develop perfumes throughout her career, launching Grès pour Homme (1965), Qui pro Quo (1976), Eau de Grès (1980), Alix (1981), Gre v’Nonsieu (1982), and Cabotine de Grès (1990), as well as a special, limited edition of their perfume in celebration of their twentieth anniversary. Grès also designed accessories for Cartier in 1977, as well as lines of scarves, ties, and sunglasses for other companies, and she launched her first collection of ready-to-wear clothing in 1981.

Ultimately, her business proved to be financially unstable, and it was purchased by investor Bernard Tapie. The house of Maison Grès also suffered financially under Tapie, and it was sold again, this time to Estorel, a French group. Estorel declared bankruptcy in 1987 and sold the house to a Japanese investment firm, Yagi. Although Grès continued on as designer until her retirement in 1990, she never received any royalties for her work. Grès died three years after her retirement at her home Château de la Condamine on November 24, 1993.

Madame Grès, known as the “grande dame of haute couture,” contributed fifty years of her extraordinary talents to the world of fashion by focusing on the fabric and the body as one. A perfectionist, she was not concerned with the functionality of dress, rather in sculpting fabric into exquisite pieces of art.

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