Paris pays overdue homage to Madame Gres

In her heyday Madame Gres dressed such style icons as Grace Kelly, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich and the austere white salon of her couture house was described by the New York Times as "the most intellectual place in Europe to buy clothes".

But when business declined and she sold out to maverick French entrepreneur Bernard Tapie, the house went into liquidation in 1988. Clothes were stuffed into bin bags in an ignominous end to nearly six decades in fashion, a rare feat by any standards.

Not before time, Paris is hosting a major retrospective to honour one of the greatest couturiers of the last century, with around 80 pieces of her work, as well as photographs from the likes of Henry Clarke, Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton and a selection of drawings from the house's archives.

Gres, whose original ambition had been to be a sculptor, was most famous for her drapery, turning women into living Grecian statues. So it is singularly fitting that the exhibition is being staged in the Bourdelle museum against a backdrop of classical sculptures, in a vast, airy space with natural light and plenty of room to walk around the exhibits and scrutinise them from every angle.

Gres worked in an unconventional way. She never bothered with paper patterns or "toiles", dummy runs in muslin, for her creations. "She often said she started with a drawing or the material itself suggested what needed to be done with it," says Olivier Saillard, who curated the exhibition.

She cut straight into the fabric and pinned it directly onto the models, often requiring them to stand patiently for hours on end while she made intricate adjustments to the sculptural pleats.

"I never sew," she boasted, but she got through three pairs of scissors with every collection.

Her fetish fabric for evening gowns was silk jersey and every dress required between 13 and 21 metres, even more extravagant than Dior's New Look. Lanvin's chief designer Alber Elbaz recently mused "Where on earth did she manage to put all that material?"

The quality that stands out from her designs is timelessness. Many of the exhibits are so modern they could easily be worn today - like a 1930s draped black jersey gown: "It could be Tom Ford, it is so 'glamour'," says Saillard.

Effortless elegance, an ability to make the complicated look deceptively simple, and clear, fluid lines were her hallmark.

"She was minimalist before the term had even been invented," says Saillard.

A classic example is a short-sleeved navy frock with simple knotted belt bought by the Duchess of Windsor.

Her designs were also surprisingly sensuous, often with bare backs an erogenous zone, at odds with their creator, who was physically very petite, bird-like, with pale skin, her hair always encased in her trademark turban. But appearances can be deceptive: Chanel's biographer Edmonde Charles-Roux once acidly remarked that Gres was "a dictator disguised as a mouse".

She had an almost monastic approach to her work. Would-be biographers or interviewers who asked her about famous people she knew - who included Edith Piaf, Paul Valery and Jean Cocteau - were given short shrift. "I have nothing to say. All I do is work, work, work."

But in her later years, Saillard says, she allowed herself a few luxuries - like her blue Jaguar with mink interior. She even had a television installed, although she never watched it. She would scour the flea markets in Paris for antiques accompanied by her tetchy Pekinese Musig.

One of the most moving exhibits was likely her last dress, commissioned by the aristocratic designer Hubert de Givenchy in 1986.

A strong silhouette with a kimono-influenced ballooning back, in a blood red and orange floral print, it could have been designed by Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garcons, Saillard says.

By that time, sadly, Gres did not even have a box with her house's name on it to deliver it. Givenchy later donated it to Paris' Galliera fashion museum.

She died in a retirement home in 1995, aged 90.

The only two designers Gres expressed admiration for were Cristobel Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent, so it is touching that when the museum was offered 2,900 drawings from her house's archives, the YSL/Berge foundation stumped up the money.

Saint Laurent's righthand man Pierre Berge told Saillard: "Madame Gres is one of the reasons why we went into fashion."

The exhibition runs until July 24 at the Musee Bourdelle.