The thirties in Paris seems to have been a good time for female designers as Lanvin, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Vionnet and Madame Grès all were in their glory years, doing different things and cornering different markets. Of this five, Chanel has flourished, Lanvin has been successfully revitalised, Vionnet has been through a rough topsy turvy revitalisation process and Schiaparelli is rumoured to be relaunched. What of Madame Grès though which is still limping on as a Swiss-owned perfume brand? Grès was known as the ‘Sphinx’ of fashion because of the secrecy shrouding her life and her work, and it is this secrecy, coupled with the numerous poor business decisions that rendered Alix Grès penniless by the time of her death, which has resulted in a lot of people now who might be unfamiliar with the name Madame Grès (a good summary article can be found on the Telegraph).
Whilst in New York, I was advised to forgo the blog.mode exhibition at the Met and go to the Madame Grès exhibition at the FIT instead. Amidst silly worries over not being able to function without a laptop, I went to see neither so shame on me because judging from a selection of the images of the exhibition online, I have missed a real eye-opening treat of fabric technical feat.
The expert treatment of volume and sculpting of fabrics and a desire for fluidity, even during a time when crinolines and corsets were back in Vogue as exemplified by Dior’s New Look, means that today, these pieces by Grès all stand the test of time and rather than us looking bemused at the ‘torture garments’ of yesteryear, we’re wondering why the house of Grès doesn’t exist anymore.
Along with Vionnet, Alix Grès was famous for the ‘Grecian-inspired gown’ but it seems she took it to another level and developed a ‘fluting’ technique that makes the pleats highly intricate as seen in the following examples. The pleat obsessed of today like Sophia Kokosalaki or Mattijs Van Bergen surely took a trick or two out of Madame Grès’ dresses. It is these gowns that again have me wondering whether Madame Grès should be residing in fashion history book obscurity...