B. July 18, 1906 D. September 23, 1978 Birthplace: Sandhurst, England
Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics Award, 1950, 1954 Neiman Marcus Award, Dallas, 1953 Woolens and Worsteds of America Industry Award, 1962 The Genius of Charles James, Brooklyn Museum and Art Institute of
Chicago, 1982-1983 Charles James, Architect of Fashion, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1993
Charles James's designs can be described as a seamless union of art, architecture, engineering, and fashion. Although he was not prolific (he created a mere 200 designs over his entire career), his garments influenced decades of fashion design. He was known for his ball gowns, and one could draft an extensive list of his most recognizable designs. For example, his "Clover-leaf," a gown which consists of a four-petalled skirt which fluidly erupts from a tiny corseted bodice, has been featured in numerous publications and collected by museums. Other noteworthy designs include the "Taxi," "Figure 8," and "Ribbon." James used color and garment structure to attain his signature look. His use of color was innovative and masterful. One of his techniques involved layering different colored chiffons to achieve depth of color. As for garment structure, James engineered garments to create highly sculpted clothing which was comfortable to wear.
Unfortunately James's personal and professional life was never as glamorous or successful as his designs. Born in England to an American mother and English father, he was expelled from Harrow School. He attended the University of Bordeaux for a short time. He moved to Chicago in 1924 where he worked in an architectural design department and at the Herald Examiner newspaper.
James entered into design in 1926 as a milliner under the name Charles Boucheron. He opened three shops in Chicago before moving to New York in 1928 where he started another shop. During the 1930s he moved among London, Paris, and New York designing under various names including his own.
During this period either his ventures went bankrupt or his difficult personality eroded his working relationships, sabotaging the business. He developed a paranoia of people plagiarizing his work. His suspicions that his business associates were trying to steal or misuse his designs led James to initiate numerous lawsuits for piracy and breach of contract. He spent more of his life in litigation and conflicts over his designs than designing.
He often clashed with his collaborators. For example, he designed for Elizabeth Arden until 1945, when personal conflict between the two ended the business relationship after James had completed only one collection. Similarly, a collaboration with Halston in the 1970s ended in personal conflict after one collection.
His relationship with customers was equally tumultuous. Often, he would fail to deliver a dress, or he would borrow back a dress and give it to another client. Women paid a premium for his exclusive designs, only to have him sell them to be mass produced. Certainly James is known today for his design genius rather than his business acumen or rapport with clients.
Repeatedly, James entered into relationships to produce ready-to-wear clothing. As early as the mid-1930s, he sold original pieces to Marshall Field's, Lord and Taylor, and Saks Fifth Avenue. From the originals, the retailers would produce copies. His 1955 venture with Samuel Winston to manufacture a line of clothes ended in a lawsuit. During the 1950s he designed lines of children's wear and maternity clothes. In 1962 he designed a ready-to-wear line for Korvettes.
James retired from couture in 1958 and spent much of the 1960s lecturing. He continued to embroil himself in lawsuits long after his retirement. After years of drug abuse, he died of pneumonia at the Chelsea Hotel in 1978. See also: Halston.
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