Britain · France · Monaco

Designer Diaries – Madame Grès and the Royals

“Simplicity and elegance are never boring: you can never get enough of them, and one single detail manages to suggest that touch of gaiety only you have!”

Mme Gres

Madame Grès was a French couturier, known as the “sphinx of fashion”. She was a formally trained sculptor who used soft drapes and pleats to create structural fashion designs. She was intensely secretive about her private life, and changed her name several times. She was born Germaine Émilie Krebs, and was later known as Alix Barton or simply ‘Alix’. Her date of birth and birthplace was never clear, and her daughter kept her death a secret for a full year.

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The designer worked by draping draped fabric on live models, thus making sure the woman inside the garment was both flattered and comfortable. She always stood outside the trends of her time, and influenced subsequent designers like Azzedine Alaïa, Yohji Yamamoto and Haider Ackermann, Calvin Klein and Jil Sander.

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She sold designs to people as varied as Marlene Dietrich, Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, Edith Piaf, and the Duchess of Windsor. She was on a constant quest to achieve the perfect seamless garment, and as a result her designs remained recognizable and consistent throughout her career.

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Madame Grès closed up shop during the Second World War, re-opening in 1944 with a patriotic window full of French blue, red and white. She picked up designing where she left off, continuing her commitment to perfect tailoring and elegant workmanship.

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As we found with Fortuny, Madame Grès and her designs were not easily adaptable to royal life, but a few pieces found their way into the Duchess of Windsor’s wardrobe (not surprising!) and to Princess Grace. The designs worn in public life by royal figures were of a less revealing variety. In 1998, the Duchess of Windsor’s Paris villa was auctioned off, her gowns were part of the lot of the estate. Princess Grace wore her designs as a young actress and as Her Serene Highness.

The Duchess of Windsor’s Madame Grès couture beige jersey day dress, 1971, black on white label, with curved Cardinesque front plastron, with slots to take the patent mock-croc belt, zip fastened, bust approx 92cm, 36in (2)
Princess Grace in Madame Grès – 1971
1977 Portrait by Ricardo Macarrón, Princess Grace in Madame Grès

Madame Grès continued to design into the 1980s. Her work remained relevant throughout the decades by virtue of its very pure design. You could picture many of her garments on the catwalk in 2023.