Born Sandhurst, England 1906
Died New York, 1978
With a British army officer for a father and an American for a mother, it is perhaps not surprising that James lived a peripatetic life, criss-crossing the Atlantic, never having a real home and spending most of his years living in hotels. After Harrow, he moved to his mother's home town, Chicago. At the age of nineteen he set up there as a milliner, calling himself Boucheron. Despite an unnerving habit of fashioning his hats on the heads of his customers, he was quite successful and was able to move to New York in 1928, where he made hats and a few dresses for private customers.
By the end of 1929 James was in London and in the next ten years he ranged between Europe and America: 1933 saw him back in the States; in 1934 he established a salon in Paris; in 1937 he was living in London at the Dorchester and in the same year he showed for the first time in Paris, Poiret is reputed to have said to him, ‘I pass you my crown. Wear it well.’ Although he had been deposed many years before, Poiret recognized James' quality. So did Balenciaga, who called him 'the world's best and only dressmaker’, and Dior, who claimed that James had inspired his 'New Look'. By 1940 James had returned to New York and set up as Charles James Inc. He began a very fruitful, though not always smooth, association with Elizabeth Arden. He designed clothes for her exclusively until 1945, when they dissolved their partnership.
In 1947 James was back in Europe, showing in Hardy AMIES’ salon in London and also in Paris. But for the next ten years he worked largely in New York. In 1958 he retired from couture and he spent the 1960s lecturing and conducting seminars at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Pratt Institute. He was also famous for his informal, all-night sessions at his studio or hotel. He was always obsessive about documenting his work and over a ten-year period the fashion illustrator, Antonio, made drawings of all his masterpieces to be kept as a permanent record. In this way James spent the last few years of his life, living in the seedy Chelsea hotel, drug-addicted and suffering from diabetes and kidney disease, and finally dying there of pneumonia.
Charles James was fashion’s Michelangelo. His clothes were sculptural. He was also its Leonardo, for his mind worked like an artist’s and an engineer’s. His work was in the classic couture tradition and yet his approach was thoroughly radical. He designed unique creations for individual customers and yet used the same design over and over again. He saw himself as a couturier and yet, as early as 1949, tried to set up machinery for the widespread merchandizing of his designs. His 'Charles James Services', which unfortunately failed, was the forerunner of the present-day 'designer's label' industry. He was an innovative genius who did not believe in fashion seasons or looks. Whereas other couturiers changed their designs every six months and discarded the old in favour of the new, he worked on his designs for years. They remained on the market, not just for a season, but for decades. He developed about two hundred thesis designs with an intellectual, almost scientific, precision and logic and these were the basis of all his work. He created a master pattern, or ‘sloper’, which he viewed in the same way as one would the basic chassis in the automotive industry’. This was his design module, with interchangeable parts for every section of a garment (sleeves, bodice, armhole etc.) which could be combined to produce thousands of variations. He worked over his designs for many years, calling dresses back to be modified in the light of new discoveries and, in many cases, never finishing them.
In the 1920s and 1930s he developed spiral draping, a spiral zip on his famous ‘Taxi’ dress, a ribbon ball dress, a figure-eight skirt, and the directional white-satin, padded, quilted jacket which Dali called ‘the first soft sculpture'. In the 1940s and 1950s his tailoring became severely mathematical in its precision and he perfected the grand ball dresses for which he is probably best remembered. They were very stiff and very sculptural, with superbly-built bodices and foliate forms for necklines. They came to their apogee in his clover-leaf ball gown of 1953, of which James said, 'I had intended it to be the last and final statement and it was composed of several parts previously developed as separate designs’.
This complex, contrary and eccentric man had no illusions about his worth. He knew he was the greatest couturier of the century. He saw his clothes as works of art whose rightful resting place was a museum. He saw himself as a fashion researcher and viewed everything he did with ruthless logic. All my seams have meaning’ and cut in dressmaking is like grammar in language’, two of his many comments, reveal his attitude to fashion. All that mattered to him was his work. He sacrificed everything to it. Quarrelsome, vituperative, self-destructive, his relationships with friends and colleagues were often disastrous. Forever in litigation, either suing or being sued for piracy, breach of contract or misuse of designs, he often made his customers wait for years for a dress to be delivered — and they had to pay him huge amounts of money. He was a tragic figure, but he was a truly great (possibly the great) designer, Mainbocher’s view — ‘If the right dresses are put next to one another they would be like a scale on the piano. Each grows into the other' — seems perfectly to fit the oeuvre of Charles James.