For the very first time, an exhibition brings together the works of Azzedine Alaïa and Madame Grès. It is organized by the Alaïa Foundation, which drew from the personal collections of Azzedine Alaïa, happy owner of some 15,000 pieces of fashion from the 19th and 20th centuries – including 700 dresses created by Madame Grès.
The Alaïa Foundation is also a very beautiful place. It succeeds an association created in 2007 by Alaïa himself, concerned with protecting his work and his art collection. The Foundation is located in the heart of Paris, in a group of buildings surrounding a pretty interior courtyard.
The impressive glass-roofed gallery hosts the exhibitions, and the first floor allows, through a porthole, to see behind the scenes, that is to say the workshop.
I want to create a foundation that is in my house, where I live in the Marais, to store my fashion, art and design collections in addition to my own archives.”
Let’s return to Alaïa (who, like all great fashion designers, is only called by his surname) and to Madame Grès (who is remembered under this name, when we should officially speak of “Grès”).
The exhibition dedicated to Alaïa and Madame Grès reveals the obvious and numerous connections between the two designers.
Both of them wanted to study sculpture.
A Tunisian of modest background born in 1935, Alaïa lies about his age – he is 15 – to study sculpture without his father’s knowledge at the Tunis Institute of Fine Arts. When he realizes that he will not become a great sculptor, he turns to dressmaking. However, his time at the Tunis Institute of Fine Arts was valuable as he learned anatomy there, and the relationship between clothing and the body will always remain at the heart of his work. He makes dresses for the wealthy women of Tunis.
In 1956, he arrives in Paris in the middle of the Algerian War, a delicate moment for people coming from North Africa. He remains four days at Dior where he was taken on an internship but chance – which has always put many fairy women on his path – allows him to meet the elegant people of Parisian high society, including Louise de Vilmorin, Simone Zehrfuss, Cécile de Rothschild and Greta Garbo.
He joins Guy Laroche in 1958, before creating a fashion house for private clients in 1964. His clothes are only available in his workshop, but his name began to be renowned in the Parisian fashion world. Alaïa works secretly for other houses, and it is to him, for example, that we owe the prototype of the famous “Mondrian dress” by Yves Saint Laurent.
He launches his brand in 1982 and, contrary to the oversized and over-shouldered fashion of the 80s, creates tight-fitting and corseted models that highlight the curves of the body.
Alaïa will have worked with all materials, from leather to knitwear. He will have dressed Claudette Colbert, Arletty, Tina Turner, Grace Jones. He refused to follow the official fashion calendar to organize his shows at his own pace.
This little man of one meter and fifty-eight centimeters, often demanding, sometimes tyrannical, was loved by all his models, adored by his numerous friends and always helped by women.
Inexhaustible on the history of fashion, on the masters of cutting, small and large, of whom he knew not only the style but above all the technique, Azzedine was undoubtedly of all of conservatives the greatest, the most erudite. Even today I challenge curators and commissioners to tell me the history of fashion through the analysis of technique as only a couturier of the greatness of Azzedine can do. Freed from books, from often erroneous biographies, attached to clothing and bodies, Alaïa taught me to look at and evaluate an evening dress from the inside, whatever its brand and its decade”.
Olivier Saillard, friend of Alaïa and curator of the exhibition
Sculptor, architect, Alaïa, who died in 2017, leaves a timeless legacy.
Madame Grès, 1952 (left) – Azzedine Alaïa, 2014 (right)
Madame Grès, 1960 (left) – Azzedine Alaïa, 2014 (right)
Madame Grès, 1960 (left) – Azzedine Alaïa, 2017 (right)
Azzedine Alaïa, 1991 and 2004
Madame Grès also wanted to study sculpture – but she could not contest her father’s interdiction, unlike a little Tunisian helped by fairy women.
Born Germaine Krebs in 1903, she creates Maison Alix on Faubourg-Saint-Honoré street in 1934, which becomes Madame Grès the following year. The name is an anagram of the first name of her husband (a sculptor…), Serge Czerefkov and probably a nod to one of the most worked materials in sculpture, which means “sandstone” in French.
In 1935, she designs the costumes for the play “The Trojan War will not take place” directed by Jean Giraudoux in a production by Louis Jouvet.
In 1937, she wins the first prize for haute couture at the Universal Exhibition.
In 1940, upon her return from Exodus, her fashion house no longer belongs to her, her partner having sold it. No longer able to use the name “Madame Grès”, she founds in 1942 a new fashion house soberly named “Grès”, where she will remain until 1987.
She is very successful thanks to her draping technique which evokes ancient statuary. Her drapes are instantly recognizable. The silk jersey fabric that she discovers and which fascinates her allows the creation of the “Grès fold” (only three creators have given their name to a fold, Fortuny, Miyake and Grès), this famous drape which is made up of folds formed from the design of the dress on the mannequin, before being sewn.
I wanted to be a sculptor. For me, it’s the same thing to work with fabric or stone.”
She works with silk jersey, but also wool jersey, viscose jersey, muslin, taffeta, tulle and always focuses on the relationship between the cut and the body. Her simple style hardly needs jewelry, the dress itself being the adornment. Her most famous clients include Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Maria Casares, and Grace Kelly.
Her personal style makes her immediately recognizable because it is immutable: if Madame Grès never wears her own creations – her clothes are made for her in the workshop – she never separates from her turbans.
Discreet, even secretive, dedicated to the point of seclusion in her workshop, Madame Grès is unanimously elected President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in 1972 and receives the first Dé d’Or de la Couture created by Cartier in 1976.
Sculptor, architect, Madame Grès, who disappears discreetly in 1993, also leaves a timeless legacy.
Madame Grès, 1975 (olive dress on the left) – Azzedine Alaïa, 1991 (coral dress on the right)
Madame Grès, 1956
Azzedine Alaïa, 1990
Madame Grès, 1956
Madame Grès, 70s
Madame Grès, 1940
Madame Grès, 1950
Azzedine Alaïa, 2017 and 2014
From left to right: Madame Grès, 1987 and 1976 – Azzedine AlaÏa, 2013 and 2004 – Madame Grès, 70s
Madame Grès, 1973
Azzedine AlaÏa, 2004 – Madame Grès, 70s
If nothing attests to the meeting of the two fashion designers, the echo that their creations send back to each other is very real. The apparent simplicity of the creations of Alaïa and Madame Grès hides a deep technical complexity. It is perhaps the material – whether it is silk jersey, wool knit or leather – that moves them at first glance, but it is the technical rigor of an Alaïa or a Grès that transforms it into a masterpiece.
The “pas de deux” proposed by the Alaïa Foundation is simply marvelous.
October 27, 2023