OBITUARIES : Madame Gres

Germaine Emilie Krebs (Madame Gres), couturier: born Paris 30 November 1903; married Serge Czerefkov (one daughter); died 24 November 1993.

Madame Gres was haute couture's sphinx; a silent, dignified and seemingly asexual creature who held within her the secret of techniques of an art which stretched back to antiquity. And it is somehow very much of a piece with the mystique surrounding the Gres name that her daughter, Anne, should have kept her death 13 months ago secret, until - just two weeks after an important retrospective of her work closed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York - it was revealed by the French newspaper Le Monde yesterday.

Before I ever met her it was impressed upon me by the doyennes at Vogue and the Victoria and Albert Museum that she was couture's living legend. Trained at Premet, an Edwardian couture house, she opened her own house in 1934 under the name Alix. She reopened in 1942 under the name Gres, an anagram of her estranged husband's name, Serge (Czer-efkov), where her signature styles became drapery and bias cut, typically in unpatterned, monochrome cream, lacquer red or honey-coloured jersey.

Between the 1930s and 1980s Gres' silk and wool jersey dresses were the apex of the craft of covering the female form. Reminiscent of classical Grecian draperies, such as the wind-blown gown worn by Samothrace's Victoire in the Louvre, they captured the still perfection of an ancient statue. To apply the word ``fashion'' to such creations is laughable, for they were as old as Methuselah and as unfaddish as marrons glaces.

Nothing was easy or accessible about Madame Gres and no one, save for her family, ever presumed to be on first-name terms. This artist, and I use the term judiciously for in my opinion there were only three couture artists this century - Gres, Vionnet a n d Balenciaga, - was elusive and exacting. Her pursuit of an absolute standard of beauty in dress bordered on fanaticism and her struggle to elevate women by her dress was a crusade against the demoralising and undignified influence of our time.

She was also responsible for Cristbal Balenciaga's setting up his own house. Fleeing from civil-war-torn Spain in the mid-Thirties, where he had set up his own couture house, Balenciaga travelled to London in the hope of joining a couture house there. He was turned down and moved on to Paris, where he sought Gres' advice in the hope that he could join her staff. The stern woman inspected his work but refused to employ him, stating that she could only work alone and that he was far too talented to assist anyone. She urged him to open his own house, which he duly did in 1937.

It is little wonder that she provoked in me a sense of awe that verged on fear. Even the act of interviewing her, an opportunity rarely granted, was made difficult. As a young historian of dress at Vogue, after much effort, I was given the chance to meetthis legend. Since 1970 she had held the most prestigious rank in French fashion, President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne.

Madame Gres' salon, the piano nobile of the north-east corner building of the Place Vendome, was unique. A modest brass plate indicated its presence and neither scent bottles nor the other geegaws of the fashion trade distracted the visitor. Up the dove - grey-walled staircase I climbed. I was halted at the top by two austere spinsters in grey flannel, who confirmed my credentials before showing me, without exchanging superficial pleasantries, into a large oyster and grey salon flanked on two sides by win dows from ceiling to floor.

My simple act of arriving, laying down my coat, opening my bag and sitting on a gilt chair seemed to disturb the tranquillity. I waited - a good half-hour - my anxiety rising. After such careful preparation, why did I feel so scruffy? My dress wouldn't lie neatly, every frond of hair that escaped from my pony-tail seemed undisciplined. How could I sit straight enough in this chair?

The double doors, easily 20ft high, opened and an old woman, barely five foot tall, entered the room in utter silence. Though her feet stepped across a parquet floor, I heard nothing. She was dressed in her famous uniform: a grey cashmere jersey, a grey

flannel skirt, skin-coloured stockings, black lace-up shoes, the sort favoured by nurses, and her lifelong shibboleth, that nun-like jersey turban. Unpainted, unscented, unembellished she sat, ramrod straight, beside me. I longed to strip all the trinkets off my person and look equally and beautifully austere.

There were approximately six decades in age between us; in shaking her tiny, soft hand I realised that she, in similar circumstances, had reached just as far back, touching the hand of Charles Frederick Worth, couturier to the Empress Eugenie.

We spoke about fashion, art, history, the occupation of Paris, Cocteau, Berard, Chanel, the Resistance . . . on and on we rambled but hardly ever, no matter how emotional the reminiscences became, did Gres let her small hands, discoloured by liver spots,hands that had wanted to sculpt clay but had become the instruments of her exquisite art of drapery, leave her flannel lap. I have never witnessed such composure.

We spoke of the Nazi invasion of Paris. Madame Gres was one of the few French couture houses that was permitted to remain operative. The Nazis longed to have their wives and mistresses dressed by this famous couturier, but Gres would never oblige. She mastered the art of excuse and instead designed collections using contraband silks smuggled in from Lyons in Free France - in red, white and blue, the tricoleur. Initially the Nazis tolerated her, then one day a stormtroopers' truck drew up outside the sal on and the Germans demanded entry. They were refused and orders were given to close the house down. Gres turned to me and said, "I was sitting there, right there on the floor, sewing pieces of Lyons silk together to create my own tricoleur. Half-finishe d I flew it out of the window at them. We were closed down." Each citizen had their own expression of defiance and resistance.

Across the eight decades of her working life Madame Gres defied vulgarity, resisted the fashion to vulgarise woman and sell her cheap. Her clothes rarely made headline news: she never pandered to the tabloid publicity machine, nor even to the vagaries offashion and the demands of the trade. To be dressed by Madame Gres was to give gentle outward expression to the essence of femininity, an ancient, noble and immutable quality that inspires respect and love. Madame Gres loved women and wanted to do her utmost to dignify their beauty. Her work did not defy fashion, it eclipsed it.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor