PARIS -- The fashion world was stunned to learn this week that the grande dame of haute couture, Madame Gres, had died -- more than a year ago. Gres's daughter Anne hid the fact from the public for 13 months, Le Monde reported Tuesday, "out of love."
Since 1990, Gres had lived as a recluse in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the South of France with her daughter, with almost no contact with her former peers.
"The last time someone from here saw her was in 1990 or '91," said Betty Granella, spokeswoman for the House of Gres, yesterday. "We had no news from her since then."
"I wrote to her several times in the last few years," said Jacques Mouclier, president of the Chambre Syndicale du Pret-a-Porter des Couturiers et des Createurs de Mode, of which Gres was still honorary president. "I never got a response."
In September, after much investigation, Women's Wear Daily in Paris found an address for Anne Gres and wrote to her to ask for Madame Gres's impressions on the retrospective of her work on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. (Anne Gres does not have a telephone.) She wrote back, by hand, that her mother was very touched by all the interest, and attached two pages of quotes, allegedly dictated by Madame Gres.
"I remember that simple but powerful moment when, alone in front of a bare stockman, pins in hand, I cut the fabric for the first model of what would be a new collection," Anne Gres wrote. "This gesture, performed every time with joy but also emotion and anguish, because of its importance, because so much depended on it, still haunts me."
However, Le Monde reported that a death certificate states that Madame Alix Gres passed away on November 24, 1993, in a retirement home in the South of France, six days shy of her 90th birthday.
"To hide the death of someone is impossible," declared Mouclier yesterday. "It's astonishing."
Anne Gres told Le Monde that her mother had decided to stop eating and let herself die. "Love was the reason for secrecy," she said. "Mum still has an older sister, and I didn't want her to find out the news. And at the time I didn't have the money to pay for a tomb that would be worthy of her."
The House of Gres and the Chambre Syndicale are planning a memorial service for the designer in early January.
Madame Gres was born Germaine Krebs in Paris in 1903. In the early '30s, she began her work in fashion first as a milliner, under the name Alix Barton, then as a dressmaker. Her signature was great swaths of silk jersey, pleated and draped directly on a live model like the gown of a Greek goddess. Christian Dior once said, "Every dress she creates is a masterpiece."
In 1942 she opened her haute couture house, called Gres, a partial anagram of the first name of her husband, Russian painter Serge Czerefkov. They married in 1937, but soon after, reported Le Monde, he ran off to French Polynesia and never returned.
She spurned licensing and shrugged off ready-to-wear, preferring to produce made-to-measure clothes for women such as Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy and French First Lady Danielle Mitterrand. In 1984, the house was sold to politician-financier Bernard Tapie, went bankrupt, was liquidated and eventually purchased by the Japanese firm Yagi Tsusho in 1988 for a mere $2 million. A twice-yearly ready-to-wear collection is now produced under the name Gres by French Canadian designer Lloyd David Klein.
"It was a huge surprise, and a huge sadness" to hear of Gres's death, said Granella, a former model who has worked with the house since 1969. "We didn't know. Nobody knew."
"I found out with a call from a reporter," said Richard Martin, curator for the Costume Institute, "and I was startled. It took me a moment to realize that Madame Gres had been dead for a year. Isn't this ironic? I have given countless tours, telling people what a pleasure it was to have this exposition during her lifetime. I feel a little duped in a sense. It's sort of Shakespeare meets Alfred Hitchcock."
CAPTION: A creation by Madame Gres, whose death was kept a secret by her daughter for more than a year.