With the annual Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala just past, and the buzz of who-wore-what and who-was-seen-with-who ebbing, the question hanging from the lips of fashion fanatics and followers now is, who is Charles James?

The subject of this year’s special exhibition at the Met’s Costume Institute, which the gala opens each year, the name Charles James is being heard and spoken for the first time by many in the world of fashion.

Where past exhibitions have been built around household names in the business, such as Alexander McQueen and The House of Chanel, when not honouring an era or overarching movement in fashion, curators at the Costume Institute took a bold turn to highlight a forgotten leader in design — a man easily argued to be the first couturier of our time.

A maverick of his time, James approached fashion as an artist, daring to initiate the unprecedented and experiment with the avant-garde, and from this British-born American-bred designer’s audacity was generated an unparalleled vision for haute couture. In memory of James legacy as an artist, the exhibition title, Charles James: Beyond Fashion was chosen — said to be the title James himself selected for the autobiography he never would write.


After a visit to the exhibit — on display until August 10th — it’s impossible to deny: when delving into the history of the evolution of the industry and examining its relation to the current state of fashion, the legacy of Charles James surfaces. A visionary designer with no formal training to speak of, James’s is — as the Costume Institute’s ongoing exhibit clearly demonstrates — amongst the greatest designers to have worked in the tradition of haute couture in America. His fascination with complex cut and seaming spawn key design themes that he elevated throughout his career, seen in pieces including James’s wrap-over trousers, figure-eight skirts and dresses, body-hugging sheaths, spiral-cut garments, poufs, and ribbon capes.

James was an artist who chose fabric and its relationship to the human body as his medium of expression,” explained Consulting Curator at The Costume Institute, Jan Glier Reeder in a press statement. Reeder organized the exhibition along with esteemed fashion scholar, Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute. She continues, “in fact, a devoted James client once said, ‘…his work went beyond fashion and was a fine art’.”

To examine and bring to light the brilliant career of the 20th Century Anglo-American couturier, 75 of the most notable designs created by James between the 1920s and 1978 — the year of his death — along with archival pieces including sketches, pattern pieces, swatches, ephemera, and partially completed works collected from his last studio at New York’s Chelsea Hotel, have been put together on display.  Dressing the first-floor special exhibition galleries, as well as the recently inaugurated Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery in the new Anna Wintour Costume Center, the exhibit traces the innovative architecture of James’s designs, including the stunning ball gowns that decorated the forms of celebrity clients such as Austine Hearst, Millicent Rogers, and Dominique de Menil from the 1940s on through the 1950s.

Overall, the exhibition sets out to delineate James’s transformation over the decades and explore his design process, specifically his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct revolutionary ball gowns and experimental tailoring — both influential to designers working today. Video animations in both exhibition locations will illustrate how the desginer fashioned anatomically considered dresses that sculpted and reconfigured the female figure — the keystone of his vision for couture.


Charles James was a wildly idiosyncratic, emotionally fraught fashion genius who was also committed to teaching,” said Koda of the designer’s passion. “He dreamt that his lifetime of personal creative evolution and the continuous metamorphosis of his designs would be preserved as a study resource for students. In our renovated galleries, we will fulfill his goal and illuminate his design process as a synthesis of dressmaking, art, math, and science.”

An enduring legacy was of great value to James, and he spent much of his later years aiming to preserve his work in one location. Originally placed with the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, the designer’s collections were transferred to the Metropolitan Museum in 2009, crowning the Met’s Charles James holdings the most definitive body of his work in the world and the most comprehensive collection of its kind to be held at a museum.

Currently enthralled with all things Charles James, FILLER looks at the contemporary designers that have graduated from the late-great designer’s couture school of thought and the overlapping similarities between the old and the new.


The James Connection:  While Assoulin’s dramatic cuts and colours do not often come in gown form, they offer a take on the same striking sculptural characteristics James is famed to have innovated. Like the couturier, Assoulin’s pieces are made for the modern woman, diverging by offering sophisticated separates that easily transition from day to evening. Poignantly, the designer has been said to aim to make dressing up in a ball gown feel like wearing sweats, and vice versa.

For Fall/ Winter 2014, Assoulin’s collection highlights this idea of elegant nonchalance by pairing many of the looks with casual Superga sneakers. Her latest collection also introduced a menswear influence into the mix with classic Prince of Wales checks, which appeared on a slim column skirt, as well as a vibrant rainbow of streamers draped over a strapless black dress — oh so Charles James. The whimsical fantasy of Assoulin’s creative vision is easily traced back to James’s experimental era of couture, and judging from what we have seen so far, we have a feeling the fairytale has just begun with Assoulin.


The James Connection: The devil is in the details with Font’s designs, much like that of Charles James. And sealing the bond between these two designer even tighter is their spectacular love for the grandiose. As a designer and the creative vision behind Spanish fashion brand DelPozo, Font has been known to gravitate towards feminine signifiers like flowers and bows — also rampant in the collections of James.

Other correlations include the geographical similarities found in each designers career with each men dividing their careers between Europe, their native home, and America, their experimental stomping ground. Font is quoted as saying, “New York is a window on the world,” and we are positive, James would agree.

Font’s latest collection immediately calls to mind James. Inspired by the work of artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, French landscape painter and portrait painter, combined with a facination with the architecture of cathedrals, the line showcases daring volume, subtle frills, clean poplin cottons, raffia skirts, sheer elements and floral gowns, a collective of details that speaks to Font’s couture roots, and an unconsciously alignment with American’s first couturier.


The James Connection: While both of UK origin, it’s clear that Ana Sekularac and Charles James have more than just a country of birth in common. More, it’s a flare for the sartorial that connects these two.

Born in London, Sekularac studied at the London College of Fashion and set up her own label immediately after graduation. Her calling card in the business is creating semi-couture pieces for everyday life. A hip take on James’s own M.O, the young designer plays with the feminine figure as the late-great designer once did. (See the Sekularac’s statement origami trench coat and 3D signature dress.) Sekularac, like her predecessor, also has a flare for the dramatic and prefers using lush colours and textures in her collections. Experimentation, equisite detailing and tailoring that accentuates the feminine structure is a steady theme in the British designer’s work. That alone is proof that the foundation of Sekularac’s creative vision — seeped in couture — stems from great fashion mavericks before her such as James.

 Published May 30, 2014