Editor’s Note: The fourth installment of WWD’s weeklong exploration of the Fairchild Fashion Archive includes this Feb. 15, 1977, interview in Paris with the legendary Madame Gres, as well as a Dec. 31, 1975, interview in London with Zandra Rhodes.
PARIS — You must be prepared for Mme. Gres. She is chronically fragile and timid. “living in another world”Even bald.
Inside the Gres offices on the Rue de la Paix, Madame’s aides offer counsel on how to conduct an interview with the last grande puriste of the French couture. There are certain questions you should not ask, photographs that must not taken, comparisons that should not be made, and time limits. The close-to 70-year old couturier has been draping famous women for over 40 years and is apparently as tight-lipped, if not more so.
With some trepidation, one approaches zero hour. A large, white door slowly opens into the cream-colored main salon. In walks a short, firm-looking woman, who is all hands and eyes. She moves quickly in an oatmeal-colored Shetland sweater with a straight grey skirt. She is as retiring and shy as Diana Vreeland.
There is no doubt that this intelligent, dignified designer is Alix BARTON. She was the one who opened her Paris design business in 1934. She also married a Russian artist who preferred to reside in Tahiti. But she refused to serve German clients during occupation. Her workrooms were closed down and reopened in Paris as Gres after the occupation. Mme. Gres cross a room explains why she named one of the Gres perfumes Cabochard – which means strongly stubborn (literally pigheaded) in French.
She arranges herself on a white leather couch and laughs about it “aversion”Interviews. She is available to speak. She is open to discussing the couture.
“People say there is a new energy in the couture these days, but I really don’t know. I feel that the energy has always been there. Young people today are interested in and appreciate quality. I see it in my young clients. People realize that couture is truth – couture is inspirational. The couture goes beyond thefrontiers of the house that it is designed in. The couture influences everything. The couture,” she adds quietly, “is my life.”
Mme. Gres is the only Parisian designer who doesn’t design a pret-a-porter collection. “Pret-a-porter? The importance of pret-a-porter? Ooh la la,”She sighs. “The couture always gives the ideas to pret-a-porter. The pret-a-porter designers are always influenced by the couturiers. I feel that pret-a-porter has indeed given the woman in the street a better, neater appearance, but couture is the creative key. It is a grand work – it is truth – couture brings something into the world.”
Kenzo should not be brought up. Mme. Gres sits back and smooths the silk scarf of paisley at her throat.
“One must have courage to be a couturier,”She says. “Unhappily, a maison of couture is a business. It is very, very difficult. Each season, a couture collection is judged on the strength of the designs you present. It is like you are nude for the whole world to see.”
Mme. does not love business, regardless of its size. Gres. She believes, “It is simply not possible ever”You can design anything with a profit motive.
“Ooh la la,”She disagrees. “I cannot think about business or cost when I am designing a dress. I don’t look at the price of any of the fabrics I use. I don’t care.”
Her customers don’t either. Mme. Gres’ loyal list of Ladies – including Jacqueline de Ribes, Jackie O, Babe Paley, the Brandolinis, the Rothschilds, Sao Schlumberger, Mica Ertegun, Chessie Rayner and Nan Kempner – have been buying chez Gres for years. Her designs are not easily copied.for intricate draping and cutouts that require hours of fitting time.
“I like to accentuate the beauty, the personality and the individual gestures of the women I dress,”She says. “A couture dress is a second skin. Each woman has her own unique comportment and figure. I am clothing personalities. I see my clients transformed during a fitting. It is a miracle to see this.”
The salon is enveloped in a quiet, almost sacred silence. “Let me give you an example of the power of the couture,”She says. “I was in Russia in 1969 – or was it in 1968? – for a three-day tour with my couture collection. One day I showed the collection to government officials, but the other two days I showed to the people – in large public auditoriums. The people came from far away – they were poor but they paid a few rubles or somesuch to see the show. I have never seen a reaction like this. They could not imagine that clothes such as I showed even existed. They couldn’t get over it. They cried. It was a very emotional event for me. One that I will never forget.”
She seems to be unconscious of the swollen eyes and the tears that are building in her eyes. She quickly recovers.
“The couture is a true ideal,”She speaks suddenly. “I have been asked about the problems of couture, but at the house of Gres we have no difficulties. The workers are happy. People gladly give extra time for collections. Yes, there are less craftsmen than in years past, but we have in Paris the finest handwork available. It does exist. Quality is enduring.”
Mme. Gres can be a little cold. “The others? I am not interested in what anybody else does. I have never in my career attended a showing of another designer. You must always find your ideas in yourself – not the direction of others. I do not believe in studying what other couturiers do. The couture is an individualistic manner of cut and working with fabric. It has nothing to do with outside influences. It is not worth the pain to work if you do not do something unique and coming from you alone. I have even refused designers who wanted to come and see my collections. The couture should be individual.”
So, the eternall, turbaned designer says, private clients should be unique. “My clients are very special women,”She smiles. “I admit that sometimes they do inspire my work. While most of the women are French, we also have many from America and Brazil.
“The Americans are wonderful to work with,” says the designer who has used over 50 yards of fabric in one single dress.”“American women seem to like different ideas, different shapes. They have an appreciation for sculpture. They are modern and they appreciate simplicity. And on top of that,”She smiles with glee. “American women have such good rib cages and backs. And such long legs.”
Mme. Gres gets up from her chair and toy with the good luck charms hanging from several long, gold chains. It is time to go back to the ateliers.
There is no discussion of herb 36-year-old daughter, her 1930s-styled home near the Bois de Boulogne, her Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur status, her trip to India in 1958, her friendship with Cocteau, her nonexistent vacations, her day-to-day private life.
“I am outside of life,”She explains.