Grès taffeta dress photographed by Norman Parkinson for Vogue, June 1950.
"People says 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 is my life."
Often referred to as the "Sphinx of fashion" for her secretiveness, Madame Grès was actually quite open and forthcoming with her opinions in this 1977 interview I am sharing with you this week. Described in the interview as "the last grande puriste of the French couture," Madame Grès was a sculptress of textiles who used her masterful hands to mold and drape directly on to the body—creating designs that are still considered among the greatest examples of couture. Born Germaine Émilie Krebs in Paris in 1903, she studied sculpture before reorienting her career toward fashion due to her family's desires. First a milliner (similarly to Chanel), she opened her own maison de couture, Alix, in 1932—her signature Greco-Roman inspired silk jersey gowns and sculptural designs were apparent from these very early years. In 1942 she renamed her company Grès, an anagram of her new Russian husband 's firstname Serg. She continued to design under this name until she retired in the late 1980s, after selling her company in 1984. At the time of this interview Grès was almost 70 and very confident in her own work and beliefs. I've selected some quotes from the grande dame of couture and paired them with a small selection of designs from her long career.
Interview with Madame Grès from WWD, February 15, 1977.
Madame Grès photographed by Guy Marineau for WWD, February 15, 1977.
"Prêt-à-porter? The importance of the prêt-à-porter? Ooh-la-la. The couture always gives the ideas to prêt-à-porter. The prêt-à-porter designers are always influenced by the couturiers. I feel that prêt-à-porter has indeed given the women in the street a better, neater appearance, but couture is the creative key. It is grand work—it is truth—couture brings something into the world."
"One must have courage to be a couturier. 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."
Madame Grès dress photographed by Willy Maywald, 1939.
"I cannot think about business or cost when I am deigning a dress. I don't look at the price of any fabrics I use. I don't care."
Madame Grès draping a dress, photographed by Boris Lipnitzki, ca. 1935.
"I like to accentuate the beauty, the personality and the individual gestures of the women I dress. 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."
Three Grès dresses, photographed by Leombruno-Bodi for Vogue, June 1960.
"Let me give you an example of the power of the couture. I was in Russia in 1969—or was it 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 some such 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."
Wilhelmina wearing Grès in India. Photographed by Henry Clarke for Vogue, December 1964.
"The couture is a true ideal. I have been asked about the problems of couture, but at the house of Grès 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."
Madame Grès cocktail dress photographed by John Rawlings for Vogue, June 1960.
"The others? I'm 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 of work if you do not do something unique and coming from you alone. I have refused designers who wanted to come and see my collections. The couture should be individual."
Jerry Hall in Grès. Photographed by Richard Avedon, 1977.
"My clients are very special women. I admit that sometimes the do inspire my work. Most of the women are French, but we have any from America, Brazil and Greece. The Americans are wonderful to work with. 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, American women have such good rib cages and backs. And such long legs."
Madame Grès taffeta dress, photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for Harper's Bazaar, April 1956.