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Lucire: Living

Madame Grès’ fashion appeal

Lola Saab talks to curator Laurent Cotta about the exhibition of Madame Grès, the French haute couture designer, at the Musée Bourdelle in Paris

Photographed by Stéphane Piera and Pierre Antoine


A WOMAN IS FASHIONABLE when she feels confident as well as comfortable in the clothes she wears, and in the material that closely embraces her womanly figure. This general idea of fashion can be simpler than one can imagine, as French haute couture designer, Madame Grès (1903–93) successfully proved with her simple designs.

The Madame Grès, la couture à l’œuvre (Madame Grès: Couture at Work) exhibition at the Musée Bourdelle in Paris represents many of the couturière’s outstandingly elegant and finely detailed pieces. As one closely examines the pieces on display, various elements come to life; suddenly pieces begin to resemble sculpted figures. Rather than wanting to become a designer, Madame Grès yearned to be something else: ‘I wanted to be a sculptor. For me, working with fabric or stone is the same thing.’ Simple pieces can truly be seductive as fabrics naturally drape around the woman’s body to wonderfully represent a perfectly feminine structure.

The designer was born Germaine Èmilie Krebs, soon she was known as Alix Grès and eventually Mme Grès. Although her name changed, her artistic designs and fashion sense remained consistent as her fingers performed magical illusions, using a range of different coloured fabrics. The couturière designed exquisitely flowing and classy pieces. Her designs provoked sophisticated and seductive appeal, marvellously exposing elegance.

Until the end of August, the museum will house a total of 80 dresses and over 100 sketches that will highlight Madame Grès’ works. Viewers can take time to admire the wonderful constructions that include fine cuts and draping. The exhibition does not only present spectators with various designs from different periods, it represents art and beauty Madame Grès fantastically created.

Her design house was founded in 1942. From day dresses to evening dresses, each design was outstanding to the eye, fulfilling one’s appetite of the arts.

Madame Grès’ pieces were worn by a number of famous women, including the fashionable Grace Kelly, Édith Piaf, Barbra Streisand, the elegant Marlène Dietrich and the stylish Wallis Simpson (the Duchess of Windsor).

We spoke to one of the exhibition’s curators, Laurent Cotta, who took us into Madame Grès’ inventive universe as we entered the world of a brilliant French haute couture designer.

Lucire: Can you tell us what this exhibition stands for?

Laurent Cotta: In fact we have a message which reminds people that haute couture is not necessarily some very “bling-bling” thing, but it can be very more introspective and more demanding than that. That is exactly what we can see with Madame Grès who is more like an artist than somebody working in the logic of fashion.

How were you, along with [fellow curators] Olivier Saillard and Sylvie Lécailler, able to put all of these dresses together to create such splendour? How long did it take?

We didn’t have a very long time to organize it—we only had nine months. For people, it might appear quite long, but that is not very long to organize an exhibition. In general it takes one year or eighteen months to organize an exhibition. And we also had to organize the catalogue at the same time, but we have a very big collection of Madame Grès’ dresses in our museum … something like 300 from all of the periods of her creation. We were also helped a lot from a student from the École de Louvre because he was also particularly fond of the work of Grès. We also knew a few collectors of Madame Grès’ dresses who are very involved in fashion.


Getting to know more of Madame Grès’ works over a period of nine months, is there anything you learned or discovered about her that you might not have known before?

What we discovered … she is always unexpected … she has a style which is quite easy to recognize. You always find little details you never saw and you see how great her dresses can be. That is something quite special about her because when you see dresses or garments in our storage, you know they hang on hangers or they are displayed in drawers, it is not the most glamorous way to see a dress. But when it is a dress by Grès, Balençiaga or other designers—but especially by Grès—when displayed this way the simplest and the least attractive one can still be something that you can be attracted to anyway by even one detail. That was a very good surprise for us to find.

It was very moving to organize this exhibition. You sometimes have the impression that you knew her from inside with her creations, which are so connected to her life. As she said, she worked, worked and worked and when she didn’t work she slept and after sleeping she worked again and again … You sometimes have the impression that you can feel her character in the exhibition—that was something we felt as we organized the exhibition. It was also very moving to meet her granddaughter who lived with her grandmother as a child; she also had the impression to see her grandmother through the dresses.


Now, allow us to take another French haute couture designer such as Christian Dior; what major differences could you tell us that may exist between Madame Grès and Dior?

The only difference between Madame Grès’ and Dior’s creations is the weight of the dresses. Madame Grès’ designs are seen to be considerably lighter. With Dior, the dresses were very beautiful but they were heavy and all of the weight of the dresses was placed on the client’s waist. Though you were looking gorgeous in the beginning of the evening, at the end it could be painful. You never had that kind of structure with Madame Grès’ dresses.

She also liked to play with different patterns like checked patterns and striped patterns … she also liked to play around with the way she cut the fabrics (points at the edges of a dress).


Are you happy with the result of the exhibition?

Yes! Very much so! We had a lot of people come to visit the exhibition. Up to now we have had more than 50,000 visitors and a lot of them didn’t know who Madame Grès was in the beginning. They were interested in fashion but a lot of them have forgotten about this name—I think for them it was an important rediscovery. We are quite moved as well because a lot of people who don’t care very much about fashion saw the Madame Grès exhibition and were quite enthusiastic about her work. They realized that she was not necessarily only a fashion designer but an artist in all of the meaning of the term. •

Madame Grès day dress, spring 1946

Madame Grès evening dress, c. 1976

Madame Grès evening dress, 1974–5

Madame Grès cocktail dress, autumn 1950

Madame Grès evening dress, c. 1947

Lola Saab is Paris editor of Lucire.


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