Ever wonder if you might have actually met your personal Guardian Angel? This is the story of how Lloyd Klein may have met his and might lead you to wonder if you'll meet yours. When Lloyd was 25 years old, he was offered the extraordinary position as the Artistic Director for Maison Grès. It was the eponymous fashion house that was originally founded by the legendary, Madame Alix Grès, in Paris. One of the more daunting challenges that he faced when he accepted the role, was to reorganize the Grès artisans, and rebuild the atelier from scratch. It was 1992 and the atelier been already closed for several years following her retirement in 1989. The house had fallen from subsequent financial calamity by several entities who'd purchased the house after the Mme left for he South of France. What was left twas only a licensed memory of what had once been the most prolific Houses of Couture in France.
Normally, a newly hired Artistic Director, for a decades-old fashion house, would start off with the full support of a thriving atelier, fully staffed, and with a complete archive of physical dress samples, sketches, and images upon which to build from. But in this case, part of his job as Head of Design, was to start from scratch, quite literally. The atelier that had been the creative fountain that created some of the world’s most beautiful gowns and had become the favorite place for women of notoriety to visit at least once a year. The taxes on the business hadn't been paid and it was assumed that the building had been abandoned. The unpaid bills activated the government bureaucrats to respond by destroying the physical remnants of all that was left as was the normal practice more than as punishment. However, the result of this action left the house with nothing but history and memory of an enterprise that was largely only known to a relatively small group of clientele and fashion insiders. Yagi Tsucho, a textile conglomerate from Japan, purchased the Gres master license, with the intention of reinvigorating the trademark. They'd searched for the perfect candidate to replace the founder and bring the company back into business. After a long and exhaustive search they came upon a young designer who was getting great critical review and offered him the position.
THE REAL LIFE PROJECT RUNWAY CHALLENGE
So his first task, on his long list, was the re-formation of the atelier, which is the backbone of any fashion house. He needed to hire staff immediately. Although there is no shortage of capable hands to hire in Paris, aka, the capital of fashion, he knew the importance of bringing back as many of the previous and original staff that had worked with the Grand Couturier directly. They alone held the keys of knowledge and know-how that could unlock the secret of technique that was honed for decades of exactitude in craft, under the watchful eye of their beloved Madame. Only they would know the proprietary intricacies of draping and technical methods used by the Founder. Without their knowledge, it would be nearly impossible to recreate without her "recipes". Without them the techniques would remain hidden in the shadows of her mysterious legacy. Unlike most fashion designers, Madame Grès did not work from a pattern, but instead, created draping fabric on the body. Without understanding her technique of making 50 yards of jersey silk fabric disappear into a flowing, wispy goddess gown, that transformed into what seemed like a dress that used only 5 at the most, would have been long-lost, unless taught to the next generation.
JUST AS ONE DOOR SHUTS, THE NEXT ONE OPENS
As he began to call upon the various ex-staff members,optimistically assuming this to be a no-brainer, of sorts, his hope of reassembling the artisans was quickly dismantled. With each attempt to persuade the now retired staff to come back to work, he heard only, "no merci", "c'est impossible", and "absolument pas". His exuberance in tracking them down became increasingly desperate, as each door shut and when the fifth one slammed without a word in reply, he became worried. His situation was becoming grave and his youthful optimism was replaced by dread. As he was returning home to his flat in the Marais, confused and deflated, he stopped at his favorite cafe. just at the edge of the Seine, with the hope of coming up with a solution. For several years it had become his unofficial "office". He’d often composed his thoughts and it had served him well as a place to figure out what to do next. He rarely missed an opportunity stop by and enjoy that, which was for him, a sanctuary of creativity, that faithfully energized him time after time. Its ambiance was peaceful, and it drew other young artists who enjoyed it for their ritual afternoon coffee. As he sat trying to identify a new strategy, an idea came to mind. It was one of those “Voila” moments that he had pined for. He'd already come to the correct conclusion that his request was disregarded in part, because of his age. He saw the disdain on the faces of those who considered it a travesty for a 25-year-old to have the audacity to attempt to succeed the mantle of the respected Madame. The other reason for the general non-compliance, was that for the most part, they were now already ensconced in retirement and had accepted the generosity of leisure and time with grandchildren and family that is hard to give up once enjoyed. He needed someone who could bridge the gap and help convince the seamstresses and artisans to return to work.
early career image of Madame Carven at work sketching fashion designs
THERE'S Something ABOUT THAT MADAME
He'd recently met one of the other revered and iconic Couturiers of Paris fashion scene. By chance just a week earlier he'd been introduced to the prolific, Madame Carven (1909-2015). He recalled how unusually charmed he was by her. Like Alix Grès, she was a diminutive woman already in her eighties and her respected position as an eponymous fashion icon was well known. He had a sense of awe and respect for her long before having met her. So it was no surprise to him that upon meeting her that he would encounter a woman of great experience and wisdom. However, he couldn't imagine that her "old-world" charm would be so alluring and calming, that although he couldn't put his finger on it, he sensed that she was other worldly altogether. From the moment they met, the designers hit it off famously. When she spoke with him that day, he felt that she seemed to know his very soul. He felt so comfortable with her that he felt a sense being safe in her presence that was unlike any he'd experienced before. He sensed with a rare certainty, that they'd known each other in many lifetimes. He'd had similar feelings before, but never so profoundly as he did in her presence. He recalled that she'd mentioned to him that she'd be very happy to advise him and offer her support. Whereas he'd heard that in polite conversation, as most probably we all have, he knew that beyond mere words, her offering of assistance was pure and sincere. It was, however, something she'd said to him that he'd not been able to shake from his mind,
"I've been wondering when you would find me" , she said in a voice that indicated that he would understand what she meant without the need for further explanation. "I've been looking forward to getting started for so long. 'We' were becoming concerned that you would end up becoming an architect, instead of fulfilling the path...".
The always impeccable Madame Carven photographed while primping in the mirror
GREATEST ALLY OR GUARDIAN ANGEL?
Ma Plus Grande Allièe
Her words confused him and in particular her use of the word 'we'. He wondered if she was speaking in the third person or whether there were others involved. At this point, nothing was surprising to him and everything seemed possible, even if implausible. Although he had no idea what her words meant, he instinctively felt compelled to respond to her by saying, "and so it is". Those words felt good to say, even though somewhat uncharacteristic of him. She accepted them with a warm, 'all knowing', smile. He wondered how she knew about of his previous ambition to become an architect were known by her, but shrugged it off. It felt better to him to just go with the flow. They bid each other adieu and as he walked away from her that afternoon, he thought to himself, "I wonder if I just may have met greatest ally" or as they say in French, 'Ma Plus Grande Allièe'. In any case, he felt less lonely, and for some reason, more confident from having met her. It was only her promise of support, but her sincerity seemed undeniable. It that was enough to make him feel invincible and assured that he had someone that he could call upon, if he needed support.
She had come to mind just as he sat down at the cafe. He thought to himself, If there was anyone who could advise him on what to do to solve his situation, it was Madame Carven. The next morning, bright and early at 8am, he stopped by Chez Carven intending to merely make an appointment with her secretary, to schedule a meeting with the sage who might help him with his conundrum. He didn't have time to waste, so assuming it might be a week or so before she could squeeze him in, he arrived first thing, so he could get on on her busy calendar. The day ahead of him included the ongoing search for vintage Grès samples, which was second on his list of 'must dos', as they were sorely missing. He'd already been to several vintage stores and although he hadn't found any garments, he'd discovered a few framed personal photographs of Gres fashion that were better than nothing at all. Unlike modern times, there were no online galleries or research possibilities other than museums, vintage periodicals in the library or second hand stores. Although they weren't of great significance, he felt he'd made some bit of headway by finding them.
As each moment passed, the demand to begin the work on the collection, flashed through his thoughts. It was becoming a bit overwhelming. He knew he needed to stay focused on the tasks at hand in order to keep on track, so as the fear crept in he ushered it out deliberately and kept his focus to only those things that he desired. Just as he reached for the door buzzer at his destination, the door swung open before he even had chance to summon a response. Instead of someone from staff, stood the 5'1" 'giant' with her 'all-knowing' smile. She was already perfectly coiffed and dressed impeccably. She wore one of her brightly colored floral skirt suits that were her “prétention à la célébrité" ("claim to fame"). She gestured him to enter hurriedly seeming to know the urgency he was facing and greeted him with a kiss on each cheek, followed by the words that were similar to the ones that still haunted him,
"I've been waiting for this time, for so long. We're glad you listened to your heart and came by to let us help you. Your mind is so full of thoughts and ideas and needless worries, We weren't sure if if you could hear us calling you..."
a smiling 'all-knowing' Madame Carven
START OFF WITH A GOOD BREAKFAST
The words didn't make sense. She spoke in the third-person, as if she were speaking on behalf of a group. It was odd, but he chalked it up to eccentricity. He was getting used to it already. As she ushered him inside, he noticed a beautiful, already-set table, that was appointed with fine china, linens and crystal goblets. Assuming that she must have been waiting for a special guest to arrive, and that he'd possibly intruded upon her, he turned to apologize. His face was now flush with embarrassment for his potential faux pas. Before he could utter his first word, she stunned him with her own words,
"We wanted to start our day off well and figured that you'd be better off with a good breakfast. We do apologize that we couldn't find the raspberries that we know you enjoy so much. However, we did find some fresh blueberries as a replacement".
GO WITH THE FLOW
Now anyone else, might normally be spooked by all of this. But for Lloyd Klein it felt oddly normal. It was as if it was according to some sort of destiny, or 'un fete accompli'. It was somehow natural even though it may have only existed in dreams or been attributed to the stories told to children in fairy tale. There was something inexplicable going on. He was slightly, dizzy by it all, but he ceded his need to control the logic of the situation. The less he tried to make sense of it all, the more he was enjoying the experience.
Madame Carven photographed in her home
Pardonnez-moi Madame, but have you seen the Maître?
As he (unnecessarily) explained the dilemma of recruiting the staff that had previously worked for Grès, she listened as if she'd heard it for the first time, as if to placate him. He confessed to her politely that he had come to ask for her guidance and that he hoped she might be able to assist him with locating and recruiting the elusive Maitre of the Atelier. She was after all, the colleague and peer of Madame Grès and if there were anyone who knew what-was-what and who-was-who in the couture arena, it would be her. After listening to him patiently, as he described his problem in great detail, she looked at him with a comforting smile, as if his hand-wringing and worrying was completely a waste of time. She gently took his two hands in hers that were half the size of his, and said,
“Wed like you to join us tomorrow for lunch here in my garden. We want you to let go of this task and allow us to do what we know to do. We've made a list of places that you will visit today. There is a wonderful surprise for you discover at each destination. Just listen to your intuition and believe in that little voice. You will someday understand all of this. we are here to guide you in accepting the strength of that which you already know”.
Madame Carven winged by orchids
WHEN THEY SAY GO, WE GO
He followed her (ahem, 'their') list of locations, which were cryptically mapped out in scavenger hunt style. At each stop, he would find the perfect samples of vintage Gres, he'd been seeking. He was finally having fun became joyful, as things seemed to be aligning in his favor. His dry-spell from good fortune, although short lived, was an exhausting drama. He wondered to himself, if this mysterious and revered woman, who seemed to know his future, was potentially a clairvoyant or prophet of some sort. He wondered to himself if the lunch the next day was to be a meeting with his mysterious new mentor alone, or would there be others, since her 'we' so far, was code for 'I', in her lofty vernacular. He loved that there was so much mystery involved. It felt like an adventure. He took a much needed deep breath and recalled his own strange words he had said at the conclusion of their initial encounter, this time saying, 'and so it will be'.
A sweet portrait of an angelic looking Madame Carven
Unknown to the young designer, she'd already tracked down the Maître, which was easy enough, since she knew that she was the best friend of her own recently retired Chef d'Atelier. She'd invited the two women to join her for a petit dejeuner, presumably to have a nice chat and welcomed get together as colleagues of many years might expect. Her agenda was purposely undisclosed from her invitation. A necessary secret since she needed to engage them off guard in order to get them to comply.
So the next day, when Lloyd arrived, he was instructed to wait patiently behind the closed parlor doors which had a view of the patio where he could see lunch was about to be served. He had no idea who was expected for lunch but it became obvious to him that it was not only him. He was instructed to wait for her cue to meet the women who were arriving momentarily. He wondered what magic his new mentor would surprise him with next. When the two guests arrived, they were like her, perfectly groomed and fragrant with French perfume. Mme Carven escorted them to her outdoor deck where they took their seats at the café table overlooking her impeccable meticulous garden. After enjoying an hour of pleasantry, Mme Carven with great sensitivity to the timing broached the sensitive subject. In order to suggest that the women come out of retirement and consider re-entry into the long hours of working in the atelier, she needed to choose her words carefully. Madame Grès' Atelier Chief was in her 80's and although soft-spoken she was a woman, strong in her opinion and carried a commanding demeanor. The host counted on her resistence.
Lloyd had followed the sound of voices and found a place hidden by curtains but within earshot, to observe and listen as the women chatted. As he peaked behind the drapes, Lloyd could see the faces of the women and he could see they were aghast at the suggestion that they come back to work. Mme Carven already knew that Lloyd was eavesdropping without even seeing him. So without turning her head, she waved him to join them. He knew that the gesture was the cue she had alerted him to mark his entrance. She knew that Lloyd would be able to take the conversation from there and win over the two guests in his signature charming way. Using heavy doses of deserved flattery and all of the charisma he could muster, by the end of an hour, they were almost spellbound and acquiesced. To prove that they were not push-overs to the young man and in order to honor their revered host, they insisted that if Madame Carven had not been so adamant in her support, they would hardly consider returning from leisure. In particular, to take direction from one who was younger than their youngest grandchildren. However, Lloyd was getting used to having to prove himself, to those with an extraordinary experience. It was a mission accomplished for the moment. The first of many more to come.
The following week they began to strategize the months ahead and started to work on a few ideas. But after only two days of working with the talented, but neophyte designer, the woman who had spent the majority of her career at the side of Madame Grès confessed to him, in an emotional and teary-eyed moment, saying to him as she looked him directly in his eyes,
"Monsieur, although I would not have ever believed it possible, it is my honor to continue working with someone who has proven to me that he has the instinct of Madame(Grès).
TO WALK WITH HIS ANGEL
Madame Carven became one of Lloyd Klein's greatest allies (and possibly his Guardian Angel) after meeting in 1992. One afternoon in 1995, they enjoyed a relaxing day together at her family Estate in Chantilly, France. It was a rare day outside of the hub-bub of Paris. He had been at Gres for 3 years recently completed his contract. With and tremendous respect and gratitude for the opportunities afforded to him by the owners of the brand, he returned to his own trademark name in his pursuit to have the benefit of artistic freedom of operating eponymously. The day spent together as shown in the slideshow above, is remembered by him with great fondness as one in which they shared thoughts on business, personal life and their perspective on fashion so intimately, that this day, in particular, stands out, as one of his favorite with her (ahem, them!)
The images in the slideshow above, and those in black and white below, represent various collections of Madame Carven.
In Heartfelt Tribute to
Madame Carven | 1909 - 2015
Ma Plus Grande Allièe