August 21 2014

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The Original Minimalist? A Paris Exhibition Reintroduces Couture Pioneer Madame Grès


Madame Grès: Couture at Work, curated by Olivier Saillard, the new director of Paris’ Musée Galliera, sheds light on one of the most enigmatic designers in twentieth-century fashion. The designer (born Germaine Krebs) originally wanted to be a sculptor, but her family had other ideas; she trained instead in haute couture. Described by French Vogue‘s editor Edmonde Charles-Roux as “a dictator disguised as a mouse,” Grès (left, in 1946) went on to revolutionize couture by refining her unique draping techniques over six decades—as she said, “like someone who didn’t know how.” The show, held at the Bourdelle museum (the former studio of the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle) while the Musée Galliera is under construction, makes a case for the timelessness of Grès’ designs. spoke with Saillard about Grès’ prescient minimalism, her timeless style, and her modern-day successors (Azzedine Alaïa and Rei Kawakubo among them).

Madame Grès: Couture at Work runs through July 24 at the Musée Bourdelle, 18 rue Antoine Bourdelle, Paris, 33-01-49-54-73-73.

Why did you decide to do your first Galliera exhibition on Madame Grès?
While doing part one of “The Ideal History of Contemporary Fashion,” covering the seventies and eighties at the [Musée des] Arts Décoratifs, I wanted to show Madame Grès’ work from the 1970′s. She was a very old woman by then, with 50 years’ experience, but her dresses from that period were astounding. Many designers’ work plunges a bit by the end of their career, but Grès had a nervous quality one associates with breakthroughs. The problem was we had very few pieces of hers in the collection, so I wasn’t able to do anything. When I arrived at Galliera I found that the museum has 250 pieces of Grès, so I said, let’s do it right away.

What interests you about Grès?
Her work is very classic and elegant, but it’s also a precursor. She is a bit minimal, before fashion used the word—a bit Belgian, a bit Japanese. For me, doing the show was like becoming immersed in a biography. I began looking at Guy Bourdin’s photos of Grès in the seventies for French Vogue, which heralded a comeback. That’s what I personally adored. This was fashion that wasn’t fashionable. Madame Grès is like an outlaw, she’s beyond fashion, or as the Americans say, she is a “designer’s designer.”

Why do you think Madame Grès stood out in the 1970′s?
Madame Grès launched her first label, Alix, in the 1930′s, and in the 1970′s people became fascinated by the style of the 1930′s. We had just come through the 1960′s when fashion was personified by Cardin and Courrèges, a style that Madame Grès couldn’t identify with at all. The only couturiers she acknowledged were Cristobal Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent. Wearing Grès in the 1970′s would have been like wearing vintage Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche today; the only difference was that she was still designing at the time.

What sets Grès apart from other designers?
The lightness. Her clothes aren’t weighed down with padding and petticoats. Grès actually has a lot in common with American designer Claire McCardell. Both heralded the era of simple-to-wear, not to mention ready-to-wear. When she was given the Dé d’Or [the Golden Thimble], France’s fashion award in 1976, she said, “I’ve never had one of these before. I never sew.” Grès designed her clothes like a sculptor, and worked with fabric like stone. When she described her technique she would say: “I look at the fabric and I touch it. Then I ask myself: ‘What kind of a dress will this turn out to be?’ It’s not a trip, or an inspiration that defines the dress, it’s the fabric.’ “

Why did you decide to hold this show at the Bourdelle museum?
I didn’t want to suffer through the Galliera’s renovation like a punishment, and it seemed natural to show Grès’ work with sculpture. The result of this off-site exhibition has been so good I’d like to do more, even after Galliera reopens [in 2013]. In July, on the last day of Couture week, we’re opening a show at Versailles on the influence of eighteenth-century style on contemporary designers including pieces from Vivienne Westwood, Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld, and Jean Paul Gaultier.

Do you think a designer like Grès, who never wavered from her purist draping, could exist in today’s fashion climate?
For me the natural successor to Grès today is Azzedine Alaïa. They share the same stubborn belief in their own identity and both discovered ways to work on their own terms. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons is like that, too. Madame Grès said she didn’t look at fashion because it didn’t interest her. She didn’t see the necessity to update her look every six months. Today, we’ve almost forgotten that designers like Grès, who had a large couture clientele, once did nothing but clothes.

Photos: Pierre Antoine/Courtesy of the Musee Galliera (exhibition photos); © Eugene Rubin / FNAC / Centre national des arts plastiques – ministere de la Culture et de la Communication, Paris (Gres portrait)