From local ready-to-wear designer to a couture legend, I'm enjoying mixing it up a bit with my designer profiles. Charles James is oft referred to as the father of America couture and none other than Christobal Balenciaga himself called him "the world's best and only dressmaker who has raised [dressmaking] from an applied art to a pure art form."
James - born in England and settling in the US in the 1920s - began as a milliner in Chicago before making the move into dressmaking. Sadly, James had a rather tragic life. His creations where more like architectural wonders, containing considered design and construction. Rather than working to the body, he worked to his vision, playing around with fabric to fashion a unique garment that could stand alone (and I mean this quite literally ... many of his dresses could stand up without a body in them!). He was known for taking his time and I read a quote that he could spend two months working on one sleeve!
Unfortunately his lack of business acumen and his flawed relationships meant he was never financially successful . In the mid 1940s he was designer for the couture collection at Elizabeth Arden but was fired after only one year. Following that he established his own couture label ... with a limited range of garments ... which continued until his retirement in 1958.
He had a select and loyal clientele, that included Mrs William Randolph Hearst (above) - who would wait months for one of his startlingly original designs. He also encouraged his clients to donate their pieces to museums once worn, so he was obviously aware of his genius, even if he wasn't able to channel that into a successful business a la Christian Dior.
I hope you enjoy these gorgeous images. The final ballgown demonstrates James' prodigious use of colour and pattern and has to be one of the most flawless gowns I've ever clapped eyes on. No wonder fellow designers gush so and still namedrop him as valuable inspiration.