Born: Germain "Alix" Barton in Paris, 30 November 1903. Education: Studied painting and sculpture, Paris. Family: Married Serge Czerefkov, late 1930s; daughter: Anne. Career: Served three-month apprenticeship with Premet, Paris, 1930; made and sold toiles using the name Alix Barton, Paris, 1930s; designer, Maison Alix (not her own house), 1934-40; sold rights to the name Alix and adopted Grés, from husband's surname, 1940; director, Grés Couture, from 1942; accessory line introduced, 1976; ready-to-wear line introduced, 1980; retired, 1988; perfumes include Cabochard, 1959, Grés pour Homme, 1965, Qui Pro Quo, 1976, Eau de Grés, 1980, Alix, 1981, Grés Nonsieu, 1982, and Cabotine de Grés, 1990. Exhibition: Madame Grés, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994. Awards: Named Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, 1947; Dé d'Or award, 1976; New York University Creative Leadership in the Arts award, 1978. Died: 24 November 1993, in the South of France (not made public until December 1994).
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According to many who attended, the Madame Grés showings were exquisite anguish. With alterations up to the last minute by the
Grés shunned the promotional grace and personal identification of many fashion designers, insisting instead on rigorous attention to the clothing. First a sculptor, Grés depended upon sculptural insight even as she, in her most famous and signature form, brought the Louvre's statue of the Nike of Samothrace to life in clothing form. Grés' draped and pleated silk jerseys flattered the body with the minimalist and rationalist radicalism of 1930s design, but provided a classical serenity as well. The real achievement of the draped dresses was not their idyllic evocation, but their integrity. They were a unified construction, composed of joined fabric panels continuously top to bottom, fullest in the swirling flutes of the skirt, tucked at the waist, elegantly pinched through the bodice, and surmounted at the neckline— often one-shouldered—with the same materials resolved into three-dimensional twists. Grés was creating no mere lookalike to classical statuary, but a characteristically modern enterprise to impart the body within clothing.
Grés, however, was never a one-dress designer. Her 1934 black Cellophane dress with a black-seal-lined cape (photographed by Hoyningen-Heuné) is, as Vogue described, a scarab, but with the cling of bias cut. Following a trip to the Far East in 1936, Grés created a brocaded "Temple of Heaven" dress, inspired by Javanese dancing costumes. Throughout the 1930s, she took inspiration from North Africa and Egypt; in the 1940s, after managing to keep her business alive through most of the war, Grés became interested in tailoring and created some of the most disciplined suit tailoring for daywear in the 1940s and 1950s.
By the 1960s and 1970s, Grés was translating the planarity of regional costume into a simplified origami of flat planes, ingeniously manipulated on the body to achieve a minimalism akin to sportswear. Ironically, she who exemplified the persistence of couture treated the great dress with the modernist lightness of sportswear, and she who held out so long against ready-to-wear turned with a convert's passion to its possibilities in the 1980s, when she was in her late 80s. The personalizing finesse of a plait or wrap to close or shape a garment was as characteristic of Grés as of Halston or McCardell; her ergodynamics brought fullness to the chest simply by canting sleeves backward so the wearer inevitably created a swelling fullness in the front as arms forced the sleeves forward, creating a pouch of air at the chest.
For evening, Grés practiced a continuous antithesis of body disclosure and hiding the body within cloth. Even the Grecian "slave" dress, as some of the clients called it, seemed to be as bare as possible with alarming apertures to flesh. But the Grés draped dress, despite its fluid exterior, was securely corseted and structured within, allowing for apertures of skins to seem revealing while at the same time giving the wearer the assurance that the dress would not shift on the body. Conversely, more or less unstructured caftans, clinging geometries of cloth, could cover the wearer so completely as to resemble dress of the Islamic world, but in these instances the softness of structure complemented the apparent suppleness.
Never was a Grés garment, whether revealing or concealing, less than enchanting. The slight asymmetry of a wrap determined by one dart, the fall of a suit button to a seaming line, or the wrap of a draped dress to a torque of shaping through the torso, was an invention and an enchantment in Grés' inventive sculptural vocabulary. History, most notably through photographers such as Hoyningen-Heuné and Willy Maywald, recorded the sensuous skills of Madame Grés chiefly in memorable black-and-white images, but the truth of her achievement came in garden and painterly colors of aubergine, magenta, cerise, and royal blue, along with a spectrum of fertile browns. Her draped Grecian slaves and goddesses were often in a white of neoclassicism, but an optical white that tended, with exposure to light, to yellow over time. Grés' streamlined architecture of clothing was the pure white of dreaming, of languorous physical beauty, and apparel perfect in comfort and image.