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.