Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Madame Grès Exhibit at Musée Bourdelle

May 25, 2011

Make a detour to the 15th arrondissement, for the show and the museum. It’s close to Gare Montparnasse at 8, rue Antoine Bourdelle.

Ends July 24th.

Another innovator who changed their name.  It’s uncanny how many creative people reboot their persona with a name change. Germaine Krebs (1903-1993) did it in stages; adopting Alix Barton when she began working as a designer in the 1930’s and Madame Grès after launching her couture house in the 1942.  Grès was an anagram of her husband’s name, Serge Czerefkov, a Russian painter.

Madame Grès trained as a sculptor, so it’s fitting that a major show of her couture clothing, sketches, and collection of fashion and portrait photography featuring her designs by preeminent photographers of the 1930s through the 1980’s – is installed in the former home and atelier of neoclassical sculptor, Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929). Though an intimate museum, it’s surprising spacious and comprises lovely gardens.

Bourdelle, a student and friend of Rodin, produced vigorous nudes on a frequently monumental scale.  His muse was another unconventional neoclassicist – Isadora Duncan. Madame Grès’ neoclassical vision stands up well in comparison.  The artistry of her craft calls to mind winged victory – the headless Hellenistic sculpture that’s among the Louvre’s treasures.

Grès was a purist, who stuck to her obsessions – draping, asymmetry, soft pleats and a body-conscious, sculptural cut.  Her evening dresses, crafted from dozens of meters of gossamer fabric, were intended to transform the wearer into a goddess. Their timeless beauty is incontestable.  Any of the evening gowns could be worn today and not stand out as vintage.

Strict rationing during WWII obliged her to forgo the habitual pleating of yards of fine jersey fabric on a single dress to focus on geometric cut, but she returned to her copious use of fabric soon thereafter and didn’t let up.  She was and remains a designer’s designer, respected and honored by fellow couturiers during her lifetime and revered today by students and practitioners of haute couture.  Grès was championed from the start by Lucien Lelong and supported by Hubert de Givenchy through the turmoil of her late career.   Grès lacked business acumen and ultimately lost her company to bankruptcy.  The final collection of a 50-year career was in 1988, and she died a pauper at 93.  Her fragrances continue to be marketed.

Her dresses have since become collector’s items.  Azzedine Alaia is among those who loaned pieces for the show.  Grès’ influence on Alaia is evident in a shared mania for perfect workmanship, body-conscious, ultra feminine silhouettes, impeccable cut and a restrained palette.  White, black and deep jewel tones predominate in both their work.  Other designers, whose clothing evokes the purity of her style, are Jean Muir,  Geoffrey Beene (in his lifetime not his licenses) and even Halston.

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