At the store Alaïa met Arthur Englander, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Elizabeth Ann Coleman, a curator at the Museum of Brooklyn. “They complemented me by comparing my work to that of Charles James. But I was a bit hurt because I didn’t know James’ work,” says Alaïa. “I thought that they were comparing me to a contemporary designer, so I grimaced.”
Three years earlier the American couturier Charles James had died in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, aged 72. By that time he was a largely forgotten figure, although in his heyday in the 1940s and 50s James had been one of the most celebrated couturiers of the 20th century. Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel were patrons, while Christian Dior credited James’ work as an inspiration for his celebrated New Look collection. Cristóbal Balenciaga summarised James’ reputation well; he was, Balenciaga said, “not only the greatest American couturier, but the world’s best and only dressmaker who has raised haute couture from an applied art form to a pure art form.”
James’ gowns were highly structured and engineered, relying on an underlying infrastructure of bodices, pads and petticoats to create extraordinary wasp-waisted silhouettes that were immortalised in photography by his childhood friend Cecil Beaton. But James’ quest for perfection proved his downfall; his devotion to craft meant he lost track of commercial viability. He frequently refused to follow fashion schedules and was notorious for asking clients to return garments in order to let him continue working on them. James’ companies went bankrupt more than once and his reputation drifted. While the houses of Dior and Balenciaga lived on and prospered, Charles James exists only in the annals of history. Yet now his work is to be honoured with an exhibition at the Met’s Costume Institute in New York, opening this week.
It is an important step in a world seemingly only just rediscovering James. Yet it is not the first time that the designer has been posthumously honoured. In 1982 his work was shown at the Brooklyn Museum and it was during the preparations for this show that Alaïa met Coleman and Englander. After their meeting at Bergdorf Goodman, Coleman invited Alaïa to the museum to see James’ garments first hand. “I got a shock,” says Alaïa of his first encounter with James’ work. Shortly afterwards, Englander, who was working on James’ archives, took Alaïa to meet James’ assistant who was repairing clothes for the exhibition at the Chelsea Hotel. “The room was full of magazines from the time when James was active and I happened upon this photo of a famous down jacket in white satin, worn by Pat Cleveland,” says Alaïa. “I asked if I could make a copy of the photo and he gave it to me. When I returned to Paris I spoke a lot about Charles James especially to the writer Prosper Assouline, who eventually wrote an article on his work.” But Alaïa also started looking for garments by James and eventually found a dress coming up for auction in New York. “I called Gene Pressman, the [then] CEO of Barneys and told him: ‘It’s my birthday soon.’ So my first James garment was a gift.”
This gift was a red velvet and faille dress, which Alaïa still stores in the box it arrived in. He rarely looks at it. “It’s enough that I know I have it,” he says, but his acquisition of the dress inspired a larger collection. Alaïa now owns some dozen Charles James garments, which are hard to come by. James’ working methods meant that production was small and his work is highly sought-after. “Every fashion house has a style and the personal signature of Charles James was inspired by architecture,” says Alaïa. But this structural focus is partly responsible for James slipping out of fashion. In many ways, his garments were constructions for the body, rather than clothing. His “Butterfly” ball gown from 1955 weighs 8kg, with as many as 23m of material used in its construction. While much contemporary fashion is marked by a lightness of touch and sensitivity towards the body, James’ work was elaborate and cocooning, forcibly shaping and reconfiguring the appearance of its wearer’s frame.
“He was making pieces directly on the person and in a way you could say that he was sculpting his garments around the person,” says Alaïa. “I am fascinated by his work, as it is like that of an architect. But nowadays everything that used to be inside a dress doesn’t exist anymore – the corset, the hip pads – instead we can create a similar result with more developed materials. But his work is still really important to study for students of fashion. His constructions are incredible and the architecture of them makes them more like objects than clothes.”
Although James’ work and style is rooted in the past, it still has the power to influence. Alaïa has developed his couture independently of James, yet has nonetheless done so in a manner pioneered by James. Like his predecessor, Alaïa often rejects seasonal shows in favour of presenting when he feels he’s ready and his garments are subject to a continuous evolution, rather than starting afresh each season.
In March 2014, Alaïa staged a fashion show in his Paris studio. It fell outside of the official Paris Fashion Week schedule and was presented to only a select few clients and buyers. One of the pieces on display was a skirt made from a concertina-like triangulated fabric. Light to the touch, its structure creates volume and bounce without the need for added layers. It’s a piece that proves Alaïa’s point – what James achieved with understructure can now be realised with innovative fabrics. While James’ garments restricted the human form, couturiers like Alaïa use developments in material construction to free it. It seems an altogether more delicate approach and one more in line with the human body. While James encased the body, Alaïa loosely grips it.
With this in mind, Alaïa’s collection of Charles James pieces, all neatly boxed up in his personal archive of historical garments, are perhaps better off under lids. His treatment of the human form belongs to another era. Yet despite this, the Met exhibition will rightly recognise James’ achievements, emphasising his mastery of construction. It is a point Alaïa knows well: “When I open the boxes and look at his pieces, it still feels a little like receiving
a gift, every time.”