Madame Grès - Sculptural Fashion|Exhibition Review
10th February 2013
MoMu (Mode Museum) Antwerp
Exhibition: Madame Grès  - Sculptural Fashion
Exhitbiton sculpture-design: Renato Nicolodi

I wasn´t expecting that much of this exhibition, but in the end I was happily surprised of Grès´ couture dresses as well as from the designs of the designers, who were inspired by her.

About Madame Grès
Madame Grès was born as Germaine Émilie Krebs in 1903 in Paris and died in 1993 ibidem. She had a couturier-career for more than 50 years and is well-known for her Hellenic inspired, draped dresses, which created the unique Madame Grès-style. Although finishing a training as a sculptor with 18 and cancelling a training in a Haute Couture house in Paris after three months, she became one of the most influential 'fashion architects' in the 20th century – with NO pattern cutting skills.

The start of the exhibition made two life-size scans of a Hellenic-inspired bodice-dress from Grès´s 1952 spirng/summer collection, created by the artist Katerina Jebb. The dress was made out of 22 m silk-jersey with a width of 280 cm and a integrated corset (bodice). Like our excellent guide told us, Grès started all her collections with draping on the stand and 'wasted' three pairs of scissors for each collection. She was a 150cm tall "dictator in the size of a mouse", a workaholic and a perfectionist. This characteristics and the use of jersey, she had in common with the great Coco Chanel. Further on in the exhibition, as the first 'real' Grès samples, the dress and a study in calico were shown. Like all of her creations, she also started her first dress with draping on the mannequin.

Hellenic dress from 1952 - left in 'Alix-jersey', middle and right study in calico
(images: Wukovits 2013)

1945: Before starting to create the draping, the mannequins got covered into brown paper, which was fixed with needles. The most important fact before starting a design was the size of the body and that is why every client had her own mannequin with her exact body measurements. She just twice created a proper décolleté in the front of a dress. Normally her asymmetrical dresses had fascinating décolletés on the back as well as were quite heavy because of the use of lots of meters of silk and wool jersey. There is still the question, where all of Madame Grès garments vanished (a career of more than 50 years and each year a minimum of two collections, with more than 20 dresses). No one knows about it or just doesn´t want to tell the truth. Neither her daughter, who still hates her mother and doesn´t want to be linked to the work of her mother, knows what happened to them.

Before Madame Grès
In 1933 together with her friend Julie Barton Germaine Krebs founded her first 'fashion-label' but stopped it after one year, because she couldn´t work with her friend. The year on she founded the brand 'Alix' and stopped that as well after a while. After two fails, in 1935 finally her success started. She created costumes for the theatre in Paris, for the play 'Troja'. This was also a memorable milestone for theatres costume design. For the first time reviewers wrote about costumes on stage and Germaine became famous, titled as “couturist artist”.  At that time she worked unter the name 'Alix Barton'.

Germaine Émilie Krebs got married to the Russian painter Serge Czerefkov and gave birth to her daughter Anne in 1939. Although her husband never returned from a journey to Thaiti, Germaine kept his name and named herself from that time on as Madame Grès. She went so far, that every of her employees as well as her daughter had to call her Madame.  She also adopted a girl from Madagascar and called her “muse-daughter”, financed her everything and preferred her to her real daughter. In the 1970 her muse-daughter, a model, died because of drugs. Grès trademark became the turban, which covered her hair. She started wearing it at the beginning of the Second World War, because her hairdresser didn´t want to follow her.

Just couture
Madame Grès refused the title 'Haute Couture' for her fashion and wanted it simply to be called 'Couture'. For her creations she never used side seams and rarely buttons or zips. Instead of that she used metal buckles and hid the seams in the front pleats. Because of just using 280cm wide jersey, designers keep calling that kind of jersey 'Alix-jersey'.

There is this strange fact, that Grès was able to open the Maison Grès in the middle of the Second World War. But in 1944 Maison Grès got closed down by the Germans and there are circulating three possible reasons why it got closed down. One possible reason is, that she dressed her shop windows in the colours of the French flag, the second reason, that she refused to crate dresses for wives of the Germans and the last possible reason could be, that she was using too much fabric in a time, where fabric was rare as well as expensive.

black collection - cocktail dresses - white Hellenic dresses
(images: Wukovits 2013)

Post war & Grès pleats
Grès avoided to put seems in the sleeves and created as well as New Look (like Dior) and was mostly inspired by the 18th century. Unlike other designers, her cocktails dresses were not simpler versions of long, evening gowns. She create own designs for cocktail dresses and 'invented' the rat tale (pleats in the back of the dress). She always said that she is a woman that is designing for women (or “a woman dressing women”. Another interesting fact about Madame Grès is that she never wore one of her own designs. She preferred wearing a skirt, a blouse as well as a cardigan or a jumper. Her shows were held in her own 'Maison' and everyone got sent a personal invitation from Madame Grès. The shows took place at the end of each season, started in complete silence, after Madame Grès herself locked the doors, so no one could come later to the show.

Famous for her draped dresses with lots of pleats, the 'Grès pleats' got the speciality of Maison Grès. For example a piece of a 28 cm wide fabric had to be pleated down to 7 cm. Just the best pleaters were able to do that and it took them seven hours for the correct pleating. Next to that, every pleat had to have the depth of 3 cm. By take all those facts into count, a dress was about 300 working hours. 

Madame Grès mainly used white as well as 'covered' everything in white. When presenting her collections, she started with daywear and at the end she always showed at least three or four white dresses. Deciding for her designs was the quality of the fabric, which then directed her to the design. She designed always on the stand, later she created a technical drawing for the drapers and when the dress was finished, an illustrator created a fashion drawing, which then was sent to costumers all over the world - including the price of the dress. In 1956 she created a blush-pink velvet dress for the wife of the French ambassador in the USA, which the wife wore on a ball in the USA. The dress was because of the silk-velvet quite heavy and was just worn once. During this exhibition, the dress was for the last time shown to the public. It is quite old and needs to be kept under special conditions.

the pink-blush, silk-velvet dress from 1956 - on its last 'show'
(images: Wukovits 2013)

Downfall of Maison Grès
Later in the 60s Madame Grès mainly used velvet and in the 70s she concentrated more and more on taffeta silk. The Maison Grès had as well a perfume.  In 1970 she asked herself “How can I reveal parts of the body?” and the answer to that question was a beachwear collection. Also well known is her oriental dress for Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco in 1976.

In 1984 she sold her business to Bernard Tapie, a bad, French businessman. Because Tapie making such a bad business, the French government stormed into the Maison Grès headquarter and entered the building with axes, because the Maison was bankrupt. During this 'attack' everything got demolished and most of the dresses were packed into plastic bags, left on the pavement outside. So most of the dresses vanished as 'rubbish'!

“She was never out of fashion... and maybe she was a bit autistic.”
by our Madame Grès exhibition guide

After being bankrupt and left 'on the street', YSL and Givenchy paid the rent for the apartment she lived in as well as sent her some of their costumers, because she didn´t stop working till the end. She even took a dress apart and created a new one out of it, which wasn´t wearable. Later on, her daughter pretended to be Madame Grès for one year. It just turned out in 1994, that she already died in 1993, and also just because someone wanted to meet her. Her daughter simply explained that she once wanted to have her mother on her own.

I was really lucky, to have seen the exhibition on the last day of showing it! It was just a delight to see such high-class couture, which seemed to be from another dimension. All the dresses were so contemporary and made me think, how could someone, in this case a woman, be that innovative years ago and still being as influential as possible in the modern age.

For sure the 2005 collection of Yohji Yamamoto gave me the biggest input of all. Yamamoto´s work was exhibited as part of the exhibition, because he was inspired by Grès`s couture for. He used pleats (they reminded me of princess pleats) for blouses and shirts, as well as pleats in the long black skirts. (Other designers inspired by her: Jean-Paul Gaultier, Haider Ackermann) As well as that he took some inspiration from Catholic Priest robes´. This gave me a kind of a link to my own project. The positioning of the pleats in a contemporary design impressed me the most, because the pleats were not that visible and well included in the whole design of the garments.

The whole concept of the exhibition was well planned and perfectly styled. Although in this case I didn't really “like” the artist Renato Nicolodi, because of his preference for National Socialist architecture, but I understood why they picked him. I think, on the one hand, because his architectural sculptures matched perfectly to Grès´ sculptural fashion, on the other hand, because Grès was involved with the Germans during the Second World War. On the whole it was a fantastic experience, I learned a lot of new facts as well as my fascination for couture got fed with amazing visual and contextual material. Definitely a delight to have seen it!

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