Charles James: The Man behind the MET exhibition

Like all of you, no doubt, I loved watching star after star arrive on the red carpet for the MET Gala earlier this month. Although the focus has now switched to an elevator incident, I would love to draw the spotlight back to the man we were all celebrating on that night. What saddens me most about his story is that Charles James died relatively unknown.

It was only some time later that his true genius came to be known in wider circles, and now globally thanks to this little event here. Isn’t this one of the saddest things about creative genius? That so often, they are not acknowledged or realised as having been in our midst, until they passed. How must he have felt, not knowing whether his footprint would have any impact after his death? I personally had never heard of his incredible work, and it truly is incredible. It’s safe to say British-born Charles James (8 July 1906- 23 September 1978) was a master couturier, designing some of the most unique three-dimensional dresses ever made. Seriously. For a man known as the ‘Einstein of Fashion’ and who is now being spoken about with such reverence, I can’t be the only person thinking…..why don’t we all know much more about him?

Well, he  was reclusive, spending the last 10 years of his life in a Chelsea Hotel. He also was more preoccupied with the art than the business, and his clients loved this. The select few James dressed were known to willingly wait for up to a year (sometimes more) for a dress. What an incredible relationship he must have had with his customers, that they were willing to do this. What brands would you be willing to be that loyal to, in this day and age? Expelled from Harrow school in his teems, he was also a rebel who wouldn’t toe the line. His fixed nature meant he chose to ignore the seasonal calendar and instead focused on reworking some of his best pieces year after year. In this way he was able to switch key design features around the bust, corset, waist and hemline, creating members of the same design family. This method ensured a notable coherence and familiarity between his designs over the years. James was a young go-getter, opening his first hat shop at the tender age of just 19 years old. He grew to be respected by his peers but remained a well kept industry secret. Cristóbal Balenciaga called him “…the world’s best and only dress maker who has raised haute couture from an applied art form to a pure art form..” and Christian Dior cited James as his inspiration for the game changing ‘New Look’ of  1947. James’ gowns adorned the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Babe Paley, and whilst uncomfortable to wear (some used 25 yards of fabric and weighed up to 18 pounds), they were beautiful to look at – painstakingly constructed with every assistance from boning, pads, wiring and  interfacing. Confrontational in appearance yet graceful and impossibly light, these dresses are couture in all its’ finery and at its full cost. The immediate impact of this on James’ business meant sadly bankruptcy was inevitable, with costs spiralling out of control and impacting the commercial success of his brand. As a result his brand only created about 1,000 different designs.

At the MET Gala this year, although many tackled the theme with much enthusiasm, the ones who really got it right included Karolina Kurkova and Benedict Cumberbatch (Anna Wintour agrees).

 

What lesson can designers learnt from his story? Women bought a James gown because of the craftsmanship and the man behind it. Lessons we can take away from his legacy are to do what you love first and foremost,  build a relationship with the people you design for, and understand them. That they might be so loyal.

Make sure you get down to the MET and appreciate and enjoy Charles James: Beyond FashionMetropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, May 8th – August 10th, 2014.

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