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A Glimpse of Madame Grès

A retrospective devoted to the mythic French couture label opens today at the Musée Bourdelle in Paris.

Mme Grès
Mme Grès
Mme Grès

PARIS — Offering a powerful flashback to the golden age of French couture, “Madame Grès, Couture at Work,” a retrospective devoted to the mythic French couture label, opens today at the Musée Bourdelle here.

Running until July 24, the show is the first of a series of off-site exhibitions planned by Paris-based fashion museum Musée Galliera’s new director, Olivier Saillard, pending the completion of his museum’s renovation in 2012.

The exhibit gathers around 80 creations, mainly from Musée Galliera’s vast private collection, spanning the 55-year long career of Germaine Krebs (aka Madame Grès). It includes pieces on loan from collectors including Azzedine Alaïa and U.S. Vogue’s Hamish Bowles. Fifty original photographs, style magazines and bold jewelry pieces are also presented, along with a series of sketches by Grès herself.

Set in various rooms around the Musée Bourdelle, the show interweaves Grès’ sensually architectural creations, presented in glass cabinets and on wooden sculptor’s stools, among the site’s gargantuan freestanding classical works. Picture a pumpkin orange dress with tiered pleats glowing in the dimly lit wooden Atelier de Bourdelle surrounded by dusty sculptures, while elsewhere white draped dresses, with their antique-style sculptural drapery, resemble Greek statues.

The choice of site, among the most beautiful sculpture museums in Paris, was no coincidence, as Grès herself trained as a sculptor. Working rarely with patterns, she constructed designs directly on the body. “For her working with fabric or stone is the same thing,” explained Saillard, who views the late designer as a pioneer of sophisticated minimalism. “This was minimalism before its time — Yohji Yamamoto before his time, the Belgians before their time.”

According to Saillard, Madame Grès essentially reworked the same dress, pursuing her ideal of the seamless garment with economy of line and volume. The designer was also a great colorist, using a broad palette of hues, from sand to sun yellow, bluebell, raspberry and coral.

Known as a designer’s designer, Grès’ heyday was in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. But she also saw a comeback in the Seventies, with Yves Saint Laurent and Issey Miyake among advocates of her work. Marlene Dietrich, the Duchess of Windsor, Grace Kelly and Paloma Picasso were among the label’s fans.

Contrary to the designs of male couturier greats such as Cristóbal Balenciaga and Pierre Balmain, who loaded pieces up with padding and underskirts, Grès’ creations were extremely light, supple and unstructured, according to Saillard. He said the designer liked her models to wear her dresses without underwear, as she wanted the clothes to be in direct contact with skin.

Grès released a couple of scents, was a skilled tailor and dabbled in ready-to-wear. Yet her focus remained riveted on one thing: couture dresses, which she continued to design into her 80s. One element missing from the exhibition is information on Grès herself, and that’s how she liked it. She is remembered as a fiercely private, strong-willed workaholic who preferred to let her creations do the talking. Saillard learned that she drove around in a Jaguar with mink-lined seats, often sitting on a piece of jersey to protect the fur.

“She was the Azzedine Alaïa of her time,” said Saillard, who views Alaïa as her spiritual son on several levels, including Grès’ steely temperament. The late designer named her bestselling fragrance after herself, baptizing it Cabochard, which translates as “stubborn.” Saillard said a heartbroken Grès is said to have sawn her marital bed in two upon being deserted by her husband, Serge Anatolievitch, known as Grès, after whom her company was named. Grès was an anagram of Anatolievitch’s first name, dropping the “e.”

The firm was liquidated in 1987, before being acquired in 1988 by Japanese textiles importer Yagi Tsusho Ltd., which still owns the brand today.

Grès died in obscurity in 1993 in a retirement home near Toulon, France, a few days before her 90th birthday. Her death was only made public a year after the event. The last dress she ever made, a Japanese-style floral gown that features in the Musée Bourdelle show, was commissioned by Hubert de Givenchy in 1989.