A Meeting With Madame Gres – WWD

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 said to be chronically frail, timid, “living in another world” and 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 questions not to be asked, photographs which must not be taken, comparisons not to be made, not too much time to be taken. The close-to-70-year-old couturier who has been draping famous female bodies for over 40 years is apparently as tightly lipped as she is turbaned.

One approaches zero hour with some trepidation. A large white door opens slowly into the cream-colored main salon and in walks a very short, firm-looking woman who is all hands, eyes and lips. She movers quickly in an oatmeal-colored Shetland sweater and a straight gray skirt. She looks about as shy and retiring as Diana Vreeland.

There is not much doubt that this curious, dignified designer is the same Alix Barton who opened her own design business in Paris in 1934; who married a Russian artist who preferred to live apart in Tahiti; who refused to cater to German clients during the occupation and hence had her workrooms closed down, and who reopened in Paris after the occupation under the name of Gres. Watching 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 chaise and laughs about her “aversion” to interviews. She is willing to talk. About the couture, of course.

“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 the  frontiers of the house that it is designed in. The couture influences everything. The couture,” she adds quietly, “is my life.”

The subject of ready to wear is raised hesitantly: Mme. Gres is the only Parisian couturier who does not design a collection of pret-a-porter. “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.”

There is no point in bringing up Kenzo. Mme. Gres sits back contentedly and smooths the paisley silk scarf 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.”

Business, across the board, is not a cherished topic for Mme. Gres. She contends, “It is simply not possible ever” to design anything with a profit in mind.

“Ooh la la,” she says vehemently. “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. She is not much copied because her designs relyon intricate draping and cut-outs which require hours of fitting time and the most expensive fabrics in the world.

“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.”

An almost sacred silence settles over the salon. “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 unconscious of the tears that are building up in her steady eyes. She recovers smoothly.

“The couture is a true ideal,” she says 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.”

The question of the competition, the other couturiers who live and work in Paris, leaves Mme. Gres somewhat 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.”

And so, says the eternall, turbaned designer, should private clients be unique. “My clients are very special women,” she says smiling. “I admit that sometimes they do inspire my work. Most of the women are French but we have many from America, Brazil and Greece.

“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 adds gleefully, “American women have such good rib cages and backs. And such long legs.”

Mme. Gres scoots up to the edge of her chair and toys with the good luck charms that dangle from several long gold chains. It is time for her to get 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.

Mme. has spoken.

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