PaperCity Magazine

May 2014 - Houston

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MODEL IN TOP PHOTOGRAPH, KELLY BROWN FOR PAGE PARKES MANAGEMENT. HAIR AND MAKEUP TONYA RINER FOR BEAUTY FOR REAL. FASHION EDITOR MEGAN PRUITT WINDER. ART DIRECTION MICHELLE AVIÑA. A JAMES[IAN] NARRATIVE H ow did visionary American couturier Charles James come to indelibly impact one of Houston's most treasured residences, as well as the style of the women who lived there? Seth Vaughan considers it all in advance of The Menil Collection's "A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James" exhibition, opening May 31. Dominique de Menil first came to know Charles James when a New York neighbor asked her to deliver a note expressing the neighbor's desire to never see or speak to the couturier again. This brought Dominique into James' orbit for the rest of his life. Not only would their relationship have sartorial implications for Dominique, but it ultimately resulted (at the recommendation of her husband, John) in James being engaged to decorate the interior of their Philip Johnson-designed house on San Felipe Street in Houston — the only interior James ever realized as a professional commission. This unique history is what The Menil Collection explores in the upcoming exhibition "A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James," curated by Susan Sutton (May 31 – September 7). The designer is also the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute's "Charles James: Beyond Fashion" (May 8 – August 10) — the inaugural show in the newly renamed Anna Wintour Costume Center that will kick off with the annual Met Gala. But here at the Menil, visitors will see a more complex picture of James' aesthetic, beyond his fashion design, thanks to the visionary's unique relationship with the de Menil family. WHO WAS CHARLES "Unrelenting" and "single-minded" perhaps best describe the iconoclastic Charles James. He was born in 1906 at his family's home Agincourt in Camberley, a small town in the southeastern English county of Surrey. His mother was a patrician American from Chicago; his English father, educated at Eton (which James' grandfather helped a young Winston Churchill be admitted to), was an instructor at Sandhurst's Royal Military Academy. Charles was steeped in luxury from an early age. At age 13, he was sent to England's Harrow boy's school, where he became chummy with the pre-teen Cecil Beaton, Evelyn Waugh and Sir Francis-Rose. It was here that his first flair for excess (in this case, intimate relations with a classmate) would meet with admonishment, with his immediate expulsion in his third form. After an interlude at the University of Bordeaux (as a primer to Oxford) came to naught, he moved to America and settled on millinery after unsuccessful stints in Chicago pursuing architectural design and working at the Chicago Herald Tribune. This indelibly influenced his impending transition into clothing design and shaped his creative methodologies — adopting techniques (such as sculpting directly atop forms) and cultivating an appreciation and fluent use of structural materials such as millinery wire and stiff buckram. He soon grew tired of hats and sought out a more compelling form of creation. In 1928, he began making garments. His success was immediate, due to the astonishing confections he would dream up in utterly heartbreaking color schemes. For his mille-feuille- like evening-gown skirts, he often layered some 50 pieces of tulle atop one another; the result was a sumptuous tonal amalgamation. James further explored color through almost oppositional choices of hue for the linings of his restrained dinner jackets. But the signature fascination of his work was form in all its nuanced glory. His interest in garment creation can be likened to that of an artist; it became the sole focus of everything he would create in his lifetime. Unlike most fashion designers, his couture was not reactionary, nor envisioned as specific to a season. Instead, he created from an unyielding desire to construct a pleasing garment for his clientele. In fact, he famously made clothing only for those of whom he approved. As is often the case for the highly strung and perfection- obsessed, James was often underwhelmed when the lady who commissioned a gown arrived at his studios for a fitting. Because of the frantic pace and crazed environment James preferred, said fitting might only take place hours before the occasion for which the piece was being made. For better or worse, James was entirely unconcerned with practical considerations. He found them banal and irrelevant compared to his devotion to his many sublime, astonishing works. It was James who, in 1937, devised the first quilted puffer jacket. His was eiderdown filled white satin, which Salvador Dalí called the first piece of soft sculpture. The Victoria & Albert paid a then- record sum for it. It was the silhouette that James magnified and manipulated in all its variations, through medium and a dazzling technicality of cut, construction and finish. He famously worked and reworked pieces by himself to perfectly create the drape or movement he sought. In fact, for a 2011 exhibition at the Chicago History Museum, fully grasping the interior construction of a gown without disassembling it required a CAT scan. He chose his materials like an artist, utilizing whatever was necessary to achieve a desired look. Thus, disparate features such as zippers can be found in gowns with a boned bodice — an entirely unorthodox pairing at that time. Yet parallel to the art behind his work was his prescient awareness of the technical developments and modern demands of clothing. His Taxi dress, its name derived from the wear's ability to don it in the backseat of a cab, is an example. He also realized a measurement system for patterns of mass-produced clothing and, after the birth of his first child, designed a line of children's clothing that was not only practical but sensitive to the manner in which a child moved. (One fan Photographed exclusively for PaperCity by Scogin Mayo, April 2014, at The Menil Collection's Richmond Hall, Dan Flavin permanent installation. Zac Posen's Charles James-inspired duchess satin ball gown $13,990, to order at Saks Fifth Avenue. Contemporary 20-carat diamond bib necklace in 18K white gold, and circa-1960s Bulgari bracelet, both price upon request, at Tenenbaum & Co. A 1929 portrait by Cecil Beaton shows James as stoically vain, lost in a world all his own. COURTESY METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, PHOTO BY CECIL BEATON, THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE AT SOTHEBY'S

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