Charles James (18 July 1906 in Sandhurst, Berkshire - September 23, 1978 in New York City) was a fashion designer known as America's first couturier. He is considered a master of cutting and is known for his highly structured aesthetic.
Early lifeHis father was a British army officer and his mother a Chicago "patrician". In 1919, he attended Harrow School, where he met Evelyn Waugh, Francis Rose, and, most importantly, Cecil Beaton, with whom he formed a longstanding friendship. He was expelled from Harrow for a "sexual escapade".
At the age of nineteen in 1926, Charles James opens his first hat shop in Chicago, using the name of a schoolfriend, "Charles Boucheron".
In 1928, he left Chicago for Long Island with 70 cents, a Pierce Arrow, and a number of hats as his only possessions. He later opened a hat shop above a garage in Murray Hill, Queens, New York, beginning his first dress designs.
CareerFrom New York James moved to London, setting up shop in Mayfair. He also spent spent time in Paris in the early 1930s, studying, but was primarily a self-taught designer.
James showed one of his most successful collections in Paris in 1947. In the 1950s, he spent most of his time in New York.
According to Harold Koda, The Costume Institute curator in charge, James "transformed fashion design" and his "many advancements included the spiral cut and the taxi dress (created in 1929 and so easy to wear it could be slipped on in the backseat of a taxi)." James also "championed strapless in the Thirties; invented the figure-eight skirt, the puffer jacket and the Pavlovian waistband that expands after a meal, and was an early proponent of licensing." Christian Dior is "said to have credited James with inspiring The New Look."
James looked upon his dresses as works of art, as did many of his customers. Year after year, he reworked original designs, ignoring the sacrosanct schedule of seasons. The components of the precisely constructed designs were interchangeable so that James had a never-ending fund of ideas on which to draw. He is most famous for his sculpted ball gowns made of lavish fabrics and to exacting tailoring standards, but is also remembered for his capes and coats, often trimmed with fur and embroidery, his spiral zipped dresses, and his white satin quilted jackets.
In 1954 James married Nancy Lee Gregory, a well-off girl from Kansas 20 years younger than himself; the two were married for 10 years and had a son and daughter. After the birth of his son, Charles James Jr. in 1956, he also produced a children's collection.
He designed the interior and several pieces of furniture for the Houston home of John and Dominique de Menil.
After returning to New York City from Paris, Scaasi worked for James for two years. James retired in 1958. Homer Layne, a graduate student at that time, was "James’ assistant for several years until his death in 1978."
He died alone, of bronchial pneumonia, at the Chelsea Hotel, in New York City, which had three sixth-floor rooms for James' work space, office, and apartment.
In 2014, his work was the subject of the opening exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center called Charles James: Beyond Fashion. At a preview of the exhibit, Elettra Wiedemann modeled a replica of the Clover Leaf ballgown James originally created for Austine Hearst. It was the dress James ranked as the best of his creations. At the preview event, the Costume Institute "detailed the designer’s significance today and showed a 1969 video of a James-led retrospective fashion show." 
At the Galleries
How Charles James elevated American fashion.
by Judith Thurman May 5, 2014
I have never met any of the lucky women who owned a dress by Charles James. A college friend, though, had an aunt who wore a James to her engagement party, in the late nineteen-fifties. It must have been one of his last creations, since he went out of business in 1958. “Imagine that! A James in the family!” my friend said, as if she were speaking of a Vermeer. “I’ve always wondered what happened to it.”I’ve always wondered what happened to James. His name draws a blank outside the fashion world, although Christian Dior called him “the greatest talent of my generation,” and Balenciaga, a miser with his enthusiasms, considered James “the only one in the world who has raised dressmaking from an applied art to a pure art.” But by the time this compliment reached James’s ears he was living at the Chelsea Hotel, nearly destitute, and estranged from all but a few devotees. They were mostly members of a wild younger generation that included Halston, a former protégé, who briefly gave James a job and, in 1969, produced a retrospective of his work in an East Village night club. James turned on him, though, as he had on so many friends and benefactors. He was demanding at his best, and substance abuse heightened his volatility.
Like Proust, who gave his mother’s furniture to a brothel, James sometimes lent a couture outfit to a club kid. But he also liked to model the clothes himself; his physique was elfin. Diana Vreeland recalled meeting James in the late nineteen-twenties, when he was voguing on a beach in the Hamptons in women’s hats of his own creation and “beautiful robes.” He was about to make his début as one of those boy wonders who have played an outsize role in the history of fashion. And there always was something of the boy wonder about him: a puerile sense of entitlement that did him in, a prodigious imagination that never gave out, and a conviction that he was immortal. James died at seventy-two, and at the end of his life he was wizened and frail, but he still had the luxuriant dark hair of a matinée idol. His grudges were luxuriant, too. He had so much bitterness to discharge, so much glory to recall, and such philosophy to impart—a whole science of couture—that he talked through the night to whoever would listen.
James’s years of obscurity never shook his confidence that posterity would give him his due, and, sure enough, the largest James retrospective ever mounted, “Charles James: Beyond Fashion,” opens on May 8th at the newly refurbished Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show’s curators, Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder, and its conservators, Sarah Scaturro and Glenn Petersen, have, in effect, rescued, restored, and annotated a lost gospel. Reeder, a James expert, spent three years demystifying a biography that James embroidered. Her catalogue essay is the first reliable chronology of the life and the work, and James’s range will astonish anyone who knows him only through a few photographs by Cecil Beaton. One of those images—a classical frieze, in which eight swanlike beauties are posed in a grand salon—is on the cover of the catalogue. Each ball gown is a pearly cascade of satin or taffeta, undergirded by an armature of bone, padding, or tulle.
By rights, he should be remembered, like Chanel, as one of those revolutionary pragmatists who changed the way that women dress. But James was often too early to get credit for his breakthroughs. He introduced an A-line coat ten years before Yves Saint Laurent, who had just taken over at Dior, made headlines with the Trapeze dress. It must also be said that Chanel and Saint Laurent focussed on women’s lives, while James fixated zealously on their proportions. “The feminine figure,” he believed, is “intrinsically wrong,” i.e. not platonically ideal by his standards. His mission to correct its flaws with a nip and a tuck, an arcing seam, a buckram implant, a cushion of air between skin and cloth diminished his relevance, even as it enhanced his prestige as an anatomist. The young find remedial fashion intrinsically uncool.
Charlie James, as he was known to his familiars, was born on July 18, 1906, at Agincourt House, not far from the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, England, where his father, Ralph, was an Army staff officer. The baby was named in honor of his late maternal grandfather, Charles Wilson Brega, a Chicago shipping and real-estate magnate. His daughter Louise had met Ralph on a world cruise with her family; he was returning from a posting in China.In 1910, the Jameses moved into a sixteen-room mansion in London. At five or six, Charles began composing for the piano. He was sent to boarding school at eight, and, at fourteen, enrolled at Harrow, though he left before graduation, with dismal grades. He later suggested that his departure was precipitated by a “minor escapade,” although Reeder found no official record of it. James was openly gay from his late teens, she notes, and for the friends in his clique—Beaton among them—beautiful manners and bad behavior were the essence of chic. They shared a taste for fancy dress, makeup, and dramatics. (In the nineteen-thirties, James became a successful costume designer.) Ralph James considered his son a disgrace, and the antipathy was mutual. James turned to fashion, he explained to a correspondent, “out of a compulsion to be involved in a business of which my father disapproved.”
By 1924, James was living in his mother’s home town, and working for Commonwealth Edison, in a desk job arranged by the company’s president, a family friend. When the flamboyant teen-ager staged a fashion show—of batik beach wraps—at the office, he was reassigned to the architecture department, where he absorbed some of the technical concepts that he would apply to couture. In 1926, however, he did something unthinkable for a member of his class, male or female: he opened a millinery shop. Ralph forbade his wife and daughters (one older, one younger than their brother) to patronize it. Louise sent her friends, however, and the doyennes of Chicago society loyally helped to underwrite the ventures of her prodigy. James shaped his hats directly on clients’ heads, cutting, twisting, and scrunching the felt or straw into whimsical shapes. A red cloche had a Jack Russell’s cocked earflap; a turban molded to the skull suggested Amelia Earhart’s flight helmet.
Most American couturiers have been, at best, middle class. Adrian was the son of a milliner, Norell of a haberdasher; Mainbocher worked in the complaints department at Sears, Roebuck; Galanos’s parents ran a Greek restaurant in New Jersey. Debonair Bill Blass, the son of a travelling salesman, could recall a time when he and his lowly ilk were asked to use the service elevator. James’s connections gave him a ready clientele for the couture business that he launched in 1928, when he added a line of clothing to his hats and opened a salon in Manhattan, on the second story of a former stable owned by Noël Coward. Beaton promoted his work in Vogue, and James, who had considerable flair as a huckster, seduced the fashion press on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1929, he was back in London, preceded by his reputation. Lady Ottoline Morrell became a client, and Virginia Woolf first heard of “the man milliner who was dropped by Heaven” through her friend Mary Hutchinson, a cousin of Lytton Strachey. “So geometrical is Charlie James,” Woolf reported to her lover Vita Sackville-West, “that if a stitch is crooked, Vita, the whole dress is torn to shreds, which Mary bears without wincing.” Hutchinson wore a James blouse for her portrait by Matisse, at the artist’s request. But, she later recalled, “Charlie was sometimes so entranced by the shape he was ‘sculpting’ over one’s own” that when a dress arrived “it was impossible to get into.”
James’s entrée to Bloomsbury was sponsored, in part, by his Harrow schoolmate Stephen Tennant, the gay aesthete who was a model for eccentric characters in novels by Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. James ran up a fetchingly polymorphous wardrobe for him that included slinky beach pajamas. Tennant gushed in a letter to Beaton about an “ineffably limp” dress shirt in creamy satin and the “stunningest” black trousers, which “seem glued to every fissure & ripple of thigh & bottom.” Yet, if James flirted with cross-dressing, he didn’t let his female clients take the same liberty. He claimed to prize character above beauty in a woman, but he was an absolutist in his reverence for an old-school ideal of femininity.
Between the two world wars, James owned exclusive salons in Paris, London, and New York. He tacked between them, stretching his resources (which is to say borrowed resources) thin. Financial improvidence eventually destroyed his business, and his artistic scruples—the only kind he possessed—routinely jeopardized his deadlines and contracts. Balenciaga’s couture ateliers produced some three hundred ensembles a year. James managed to create fewer than two thousand in the course of four decades. He once reworked a sleeve so many times that the labor and the materials invested in it supposedly amounted to twenty thousand dollars. The cost of such obsessiveness couldn’t be recouped, even at the astronomical prices that the world’s best-dressed women were happy to pay, while his opportunism strained their good will. The Countess of Rosse, a devoted patron, once brought a rich friend to James’s atelier. He told her, “I couldn’t possibly make anything for a frump like you.”
No one, least of all James, has ever accounted for his artistry as a tailor. Apparently, he spent time in Paris studying his trade, though where or under whose aegis is uncertain. He thought of his vocation as sartorial engineering, but Harold Koda believes that there was more instinct than science to James’s craft, and Richard Martin, the late fashion historian, dared to suggest that James “pretended to give serious thought to the structural elements of the dress, but a study . . . shows that he simply applied more and more layers until he achieved the needed density and shape.”Instinct and reason, however, are both aspects of spatial intelligence. James could visualize a complex pattern in three dimensions, then wrap or drape it directly on a body. The manipulation of material was one of his signatures, and he had no qualms about distressing it, or combining classic luxury fabrics with funky synthetics, like a fuzzy white plush that resembled wet feathers. The architect of the Pantheon’s dome would have admired his cantilevered skirts, one of which, belonging to the Petal dress, had a circumference of nearly eighty feet. James’s masterpiece, by his own just assessment, was the famous Clover Leaf ball gown. I tried but failed to follow the cutaway drawings that illustrate its construction—it had thirty pattern pieces and weighed ten pounds—or Reeder’s description of “the semi-bias in the asymmetrical outer layer” and the “sequence of undulating curves, that work in symphony . . . with top and bottom curves undulating in opposite directions.” For a 2011 James show at the Chicago History Museum, the curators resorted to CT-scan technology to expose the bones of a James under its flesh. A photograph shows three bemused-looking technicians grappling with what looks like a supine débutante who wound up in the E.R. after the ball. It is actually James’s Swan dress strapped to a gurney.
Koda told me that “to really understand” a James “you have to take it apart.” But his catalogue essay, “The Calculus of Fashion,” does an excellent job of noninvasive deconstruction. And if you strip a James to its foundation what you find is sex. The true function of fashion, James said, is to arouse the mating instinct. The Broadway star Gertrude Lawrence was quoted as saying that she had never bought anything more respectable than a James—or as “utterly indecent.” His Taxi dress, of the early thirties, spiralled seamlessly around the body and clasped at the hip. (Later models zipped across the torso on a rakish diagonal.) The dress got its name, James explained, because he wanted to design a garment that a woman could slip into—or out of—in the back of a cab. A deceptively austere sheath, like the Coq Noir, of 1937, swaddled the figure like a mummy’s wrapping, but James bunched the excess silk at the back, forming an obscenely gorgeous labial bustle. A James gown invites you to imagine the lobes and crevices of the nude body beneath it, and it wasn’t for the faint of heart. “Elegance,” he wrote, “is not a social distinction but a sensual distinction.” Gypsy Rose Lee, the queen of burlesque, was a favorite client.
Upper-class life carried on during the Depression with an insouciant disregard for the general misery. Vreeland and her husband, a banker, who were living abroad, kept a liveried chauffeur for their Bugatti. By the end of the decade, James was juggling fully staffed couture ateliers in London and in Paris, where he stayed at the venerable Hôtel Lancaster. His friend Jean Cocteau lived across the hall, and Cocteau’s influence is apparent in a series of grosgrain opera coats that Beaton photographed against a background by Christian Bérard. The coats were an experiment in using humble materials for exalted purposes, and they have an aura—stark, dreamy, faintly vampiric—of costumes for a Surrealist chatelaine.
Cocteau also allegedly saved James from a suicide attempt, which was not his first. In Chicago, James had tried to kill himself over an unrequited love, having taken pains with the décor of his death scene: flickering candles, gilded mirrors, an ether-soaked handkerchief. “Racked by the pain in his nose,” Reeder writes, he was rushed to a hospital that his grandfather had funded. In some respects, however, James had an unusually robust survival instinct. He decamped from Paris for London in August of 1939, then sailed for New York.
The Second World War was a golden age for American fashion. Stylish women who had shopped in Paris were forced to become locavores. James opened a couture salon on East Fifty-seventh Street, but he also established relationships with leading retailers. In 1941, B. Altman mounted a show of his trouser-skirts. Wearing pants was still largely taboo for middle-class women—slacks were acceptable on the factory floor and for the construction jobs that women had stepped up to fill—but James devised a clever solution for the conflicting demands of comfort and propriety. The skirt was essentially a bifurcated sarong, threaded between the thighs. It freed the legs and their stride, but a crossover front panel dissembled their separation. A sporty knee-length version anticipated the culotte; a resort-wear evening ensemble came with a midriff-baring top. The respectable and the indecent were never far apart.New York was tonic for James. He liked to deplore the vulgarity of garmentos, but he was nothing if not a man on the make. He found a kindred spirit in Florence Nightingale Graham, a former nursing student and makeup salesgirl from a small town in Ontario who had reinvented herself as Elizabeth Arden. James was her walker in New York and Chicago, although his mother failed to get her into the society pages—she was “trade.” When Arden became engaged to a Russian prince, James designed her trousseau. She shared James’s ambition to correct women’s flaws, and in 1943, when she decided to expand her beauty business to include custom-made clothes, she hired him to head the department. Their partnership ended in bickering over money and credit for his designs (she was not the first or the last of his associates whom he accused of piracy), and she was incensed by a backlit red vase that he had placed prominently in the window, giving her tony establishment, she felt, the air of a bordello. But, thanks in part to Arden’s patronage, James met Millicent Rogers, Babe Paley, Marietta Tree, Slim Keith, and Austine Hearst, among other glamorous clients, who inspired and subsidized some of his greatest work. Hearst commissioned the Clover Leaf gown for Eisenhower’s Inaugural ball, though she had to wear something else—it wasn’t ready.
When the war ended, James hired Japanese-Americans recently liberated from internment camps to staff his new atelier, on Madison Avenue. They worked, he wrote, on “my most important bigger clothes, ball dresses and such”—including the sumptuous baroque gowns in an advertising campaign, photographed by Beaton, for Modess sanitary napkins. The idea was “that any woman at a difficult moment can imagine herself a Duchess,” although, at a difficult moment, you could never have squeezed a James gown into the stall of a ladies’ room. The Japanese had “a special quality of precision” that James found lacking in the New York labor pool. Harold Koda, however, told me that James was a selective perfectionist. He violated the integrity of his fabrics, and, Koda said, “I was shocked to discover how shoddy some of his seams are.”
After the war, French fashion regained its predominance, which is to say its American market. Although James was among the world’s most expensive couturiers—he charged seven hundred to fifteen hundred dollars for a dress—he fulminated at the disproportionate profits and the obsequious coverage that his counterparts in Paris were reaping. The problem, as he saw it, was partly a lack of competition from an American fashion industry enfeebled by mediocrity and rife with plagiarism. To encourage native talent and originality, he joined forces with Michelle Murphy, of the Brooklyn Museum, and he created the prototype for a dress dummy whose figure held the promise, he thought, of transforming the fit of American sportswear. The Jennie was a slim but realistic modern Eve, with a small bust, a convex tummy, and a slouch. It never caught on commercially, though James’s advocacy did have a lasting consequence: He persuaded Millicent Rogers to donate twenty-four of her James gowns to the Brooklyn Museum. Her bequest set a precedent for treating couture as art—and as a tax deduction.
James’s career was approaching its zenith. In 1950, he won a prestigious Coty Award, the first of two, and, in 1953, the Neiman Marcus Award—fashion’s Oscar. (He startled the black-tie audience by appearing in jeans at the ceremony. “The bluejean is the only art form in apparel,” he explained.) He also branched out into other fields. The philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil hired James to decorate their house in Houston, designed by Philip Johnson. James’s voluptuous biomorphic furniture and hot color scheme—fuchsia, crimson, and tobacco halls; pewter, gold, and chartreuse upholstery—eroticized the modernist architecture. Johnson excluded the house from surveys of his work.
But no departure was more radical for James than his church wedding, in 1954, to Nancy Lee Gregory, a wealthy divorcée from Kansas, twenty years his junior. Some of their friends suspected venal motives, though James insisted he had married for love. “My wife knew I was homosexual,” he said in an interview years later, adding that “all of society is double-gaited.” When a son, Charles, Jr., was born, in 1956, James celebrated his new status with a collection of children’s wear. One of the pieces was a baby’s cape, in robin’s-egg blue, eccentrically cut, like the carapace of a tortoise, with front-set armholes designed to limit an infant’s “flailing.” Princess Grace of Monaco ordered eighteen items for the layette of her daughter, Caroline.
A late marriage and fatherhood sometimes mellow a restless bachelor, but they seemed to exacerbate James’s disaffections. The fine print of his financial dealings, documented by Elizabeth Ann Coleman, the curator of an important James show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1982, trace the death spiral of a grandiose enterprise out of control. The business had been diversified into a labyrinth of corporations that handled contracts for couture, ready-to-wear, faux furs, costume design, maternity fashions, the children’s wear, prom dresses, accessories, and other projects, many unrealized, including a foundation. In the first year of the marriage, when the couple was living at the Sherry Netherland Hotel, and James had just leased a sprawling new atelier, Charles James Manufacturers recorded revenues of $112,963, against expenditures of $310,266.
Bitter litigation with his licensees contributed to the brewing debacle. For much of the next four years, the couple lived on the run from their creditors—a list of their addresses includes more than a dozen hotels in New York, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Chicago. In 1957, days before the birth of their daughter, Louise, the Internal Revenue Service seized the contents of James’s showroom; a year later, city marshals raided his office, and the business sank under its debts. Nancy’s money was gone, and Charles was using amphetamines prescribed by Max Jacobson, the infamous Dr. Feelgood. “I do not know,” James said, “if I did right to marry and ruin Nancy, but . . . the necessity of success and achievement came first.” Nevertheless, their mutual tenderness survived divorce, and Nancy helped to preserve the James legacy. But she took the children and moved back to Kansas.
James landed at the Chelsea in 1964. The maids refused to clean his squalid rooms, which he shared with a beagle named Sputnik. He continued to produce custom clothing for the occasional client, but, fuelled by speed, he indulged in an orgy of blame. James ended his fifty-year friendship with Beaton over a perceived disloyalty, accused the Brooklyn Museum of stealing materials that he had left there for storage, returned his awards in a fit of pique, and denigrated Vreeland for a long list of slights.Yet, in destitution, James discovered a talent for generosity as a teacher. He embarked on a series of projects focussed on “fashion engineering” with the Art Students League and Pratt Institute, and he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a textbook on the same subject. His young friends saw him as a link to the heroic age of couture. Antonio Lopez, the illustrator, preserved a record of James’s work in hundreds of drawings. Homer Layne, a Pratt student from Tennessee, became his chief assistant and the steward of his archives, which he gave to the Met last year. The photographer Bill Cunningham documented the late-night “seminars” at which James held forth on “the fine points of couture, the follies of the rich, and ‘the plagiarists of Seventh Avenue.’ ”
James never produced the textbook, and he never finished a memoir he was writing, which he intended to call “Beyond Fashion.” But in 1974 a British magazine published his autobiographical sketch, “A Portrait of a Genius by a Genius.” That is how he had lived—with a messianic faith in his uniqueness—and that is how he left the scene. On Friday, September 22, 1978, the day before he succumbed to pneumonia and heart disease, an ambulance was called to the hotel. “It may not mean anything to you,” James told the medics, “but I am what is popularly regarded as the greatest couturier in the Western world.”
Layne spent the weekend clearing out the rooms before the hotel could seize their contents. James owed six months of back rent. ♦
When the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute opens “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” on May 8, the exhibition will have 70 outfits, making it the largest show devoted to the designer, who died in 1978 at age 72. Among them are the Taxi dress, designed in 1929, which wrapped around the body and fastened with Bakelite clasps, so that a woman could slip into it while in the back of a taxi, and the Clover Leaf dress of 1952, which did not touch the floor but undulated while the woman walked.
There is also a black silk bias-cut dress designed 20 years before that, with short kimono sleeves, a deep V-back and two black silk streamers that fluttered in the back, at the waist, as the breeze blew.
That was the dress that I wore on the night of June 20, 1975, nearly 40 years ago. That night, I was Charles James’s walker.
I went with the designer, as his date, to the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse for the opening of “Charles James,” an exhibit of 215 of Charles’s drawings of his designs (and 50 by Antonio Lopez, the fashion artist, and his collaborator, Juan Ramos), along with one of Charles’s famous curvaceous Butterfly sofas that resembled a woman’s buttocks, first designed in 1950 for Dominique de Menil. Other clients included Lily Pons and Gypsy Rose Lee, Babe Paley and Millicent Rogers, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and Jeanne Bultman, the wife of the artist Fritz Bultman.
Jerry Hall was in the caravan that drove to Syracuse that night with Mr. Lopez; Mr. Ramos; Homer Layne, Charles’s assistant and pattern maker; Sputnik, the designer’s beagle; and me.
By day, I was the editor of Art Direction magazine; by night, I was a fashionista. I haunted vintage shops like Harriet Love, and dressed up at midnight to go to Max’s Kansas City, with feathers woven in my hair. I had wanted to publish Juan and Antonio’s work, and told them I wanted to write about fashion. They introduced me to Charles, who wanted a writer to help him do his autobiography.
I first met him at the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan, in his bedroom/studio, Room 624. He was not an intimidating man. He stood 5 feet 6 inches, just an inch taller than me. His hair was a gleaming black, and his dark eyebrows were bushy, his eyes friendly and highly intelligent. He spoke with an English accent. The room had a mysterious scent, unidentifiable and slightly medicinal. Charles made his own perfumes, often using civet and ambergris. He also burned fragrances from Floris, the English company.
Sometimes we would go to the workroom, down the hall in 618, which was filled with dress forms, a sewing machine and a cutting table placed over a bed. That was where Mr. Layne, then in his 30s, made patterns, from 1970 until Charles James’s death. “I did the cutting and sewing,” said Mr. Layne (now retired after a long career working for the designers Tom and Linda Platt), adding with a laugh, “When he sold something, he’d give me $500, and then he’d borrow back about half of that.”
But Charles was generous in other ways. “One time, we were shopping at Sy Syms, and he saw this coat — a camel-color wool coat, a winter coat with a tie belt — and he bought it for me,” said Mr. Layne, who also walked Sputnik, drove Charles around the city and made their meager lunch of boiled rice sealed in a plastic bag, then adding vegetables to it.
“He didn’t care about food,” Mr. Layne said. Twice a week, they would go to a nearby restaurant he remembered as the Wild Mushroom, where Charles would eat a burger, and Mr. Layne the sautéed chicken livers and onions. But on those days, when they had so little money that boiled rice would be all that they could afford, I would excuse myself, and go home.
(In 2013, Mr. Layne sold a collection of more than 100 items of the designer’s clothing, accessories and ephemera to the Met, for a sum neither would disclose.)
It was not always easy to be a friend of Charles, and Mr. Layne survived — with a submissive grace — the designer’s mercurial personality.
One such feud involved Halston: In 1975, Charles wrote an article for Metropolis magazine, accusing the younger designer, whom he had known since 1958 and who had hired him to help re-engineer some clothing, of plagiarism after Halston didn’t include Charles’s name on the label. When Charles wasn’t attacking Halston in print, he would attack him verbally, to me. He would call Halston “that thief, that copycat.”
He also accused Diana Vreeland, the longtime editor of Vogue and then a special consultant to the Costume Institute, of purposefully ignoring him. “If he thought you had crossed him, you were off his list,” Mr. Layne said. “He felt that Diana Vreeland was in a conspiracy to keep his work out of the magazine.” ( His clothes had not appeared in Vogue since 1957.) He wanted me to write an article that would be critical of Ms. Vreeland, but I wanted to concentrate on his talent, not these furies.
I was sometimes at the studio at night, when Antonio was drawing a model, maybe Eija Vehka Aho or Nancy North. I would ask Charles how he made the skirt flare, or shaped a bodice, and he would explain calmly and meticulously. “He was vain,” said Paul Caranicas, an artist who was Mr. Ramos’s partner from 1972 to 1995, when Mr. Ramos died. “And if you paid him attention, he wouldn’t be cranky.”
To keep Charles amiable at the Everson show, Mr. Ramos and Mr. Lopez invited me to be his companion for the evening. I was to keep him constant company, flatter him on the drawings and smile benevolently as people came up to congratulate him. I was to prevent him from mentioning either Halston or Ms. Vreeland.
I went to his workroom so he could choose a dress for me one June day, a week or two before the opening.
“Try this,” he said.
He held up a brilliant orange silk satin dress, with slender straps, a snug bodice with a décolleté neckline and a tight form-fitting skirt to just above the knees, where a white stiffened satin band, reaching to the floor, flared out. I squeezed myself in and couldn’t breathe or walk.
“The dress is fantastic,” I said. “But I can’t wear it. It’s structured. It’s formal. It’s too small. It isn’t me.”
He designed the dress in 1974 as a gift for Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas, a sculptor in Manhattan and occasional patron, finishing it a few years later. (Ms. Strong-Cuevas said that the dress was so tight on her, she broke the zipper once.)
He asked me what I liked.
“The 1920s and ’30s,” I said. “Black, preferably, bias-cut, no structure and easy to move in.”
Days later, I went to the workroom, and there was the 1932 number. It was the most beautiful and erotic dress. The fabric slithered over the body, just barely touching the skin. Air circulated between the body and the dress, so when the silk did brush against the skin, it felt like a caress. I was ecstatic. “That’s me,” I said. Charles looked pleased.
On the night of the opening, Charles went in early to inspect the show. He was not happy.
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Mr. Caranicas said, “Antonio’s drawings were framed, and Charles had a vision of how he wanted them hung, on black lacquered panels, triptychs.” One of the triptychs was in the wrong place. “Charles took it off the wall,” Mr. Caranicas said, “and started going to our hotel with it. We saw him leaving with it, and we got into the car, and Juan jumped out of the car, and persuaded him to return it, so it was hung where he wanted it.”
Charles wore a navy wool blazer and tan pants that night, Mr. Layne recalled, store-bought. “He never made anything for himself,” Mr. Layne said, except once, a swimsuit when he went to Capri, in the 1920s.
Floating in the black dress and Manolo Blahnik black silk shoes, I circulated next to Charles, and at dinner, nudged him (gently) to eat a bite or two of food. Ms. Hall, tall, lithe and bubbling with that outsize Texan charm, swanned about the museum, wearing another Charles James dress, under a glamorous white eiderdown jacket from 1938. I gaped at the jacket, and said to Charles how wildly beautiful it was. Halfway through dinner, as plates were being cleared from the table, Charles said, “I think you should wear that jacket now.” He went over to Ms. Hall, asked her for the jacket, and then held it out for me to slip on.
It was my first and last time wearing haute couture. It was a singular moment, to be clothed in pure silk, inside and out, head to toe, a white puff of a jacket over a slink of a black dress. I was in a state of bliss.
The next day, I was back to my own clothes: jeans, Indian cotton gauze top, sandals.
That summer, I met with Charles maybe once or twice at the Chelsea. In October, my phone rang.
“This is Charles James,” the English-accented voice said.
He had called to invite me to a black-tie dinner, somewhere in New York, with Juan and Antonio, the next night.
“Oh, Charles, thank you so much,” I said. “I would love to go with you, but in the last month, I have fallen in love with a wonderful man, and tomorrow night, we’re going to a Knicks game.”
There was silence at the other end.
Finally, Charles, who was once married and was the father of two children, said, in a warm voice, “I wish you happiness.”
But this was not the end of my relationship with him.
My boyfriend, Gerry Sussman, an editor at The National Lampoon, wanted to meet Charles James. Gerry loved the Knicks, but he also loved clothes. He sometimes had his sports jackets custom-made, and certainly his tuxedo.
Gerry understood Charles’s genius. But he also wondered about his hair, still jet black despite the advancing years. What kind of dye did the designer use? Was it shoe polish? No, it was a black commercial hair gel, Mr. Layne said.
Gerry was such a fan of Charles’s that I had the bright idea of commissioning my wedding dress from Charles. It was January 1977, and we were going to get married that June.
By then, the book project with Charles James was dormant. But Antonio and Juan often invited Gerry and me to go to a cocktail party for Charles. One day, I was visiting Charles in his studio at the hotel, where he was sewing pieces of Chinese jade, beautifully carved small pieces in clear, deep green, onto the waistband of a pale pink silk satin full-length skirt. The jade pieces were going to be buttons, to close the waistband.
Who’s that for? I asked.
“A young Chinese lady who has a lot of jade,” he said.
“Wait,” I said to myself. “I’m a young Chinese lady who has a lot of jade” (in the form of pendants, bracelets and rings given to me by my mother).
I raced home to Gerry.
“What if Charles were to design me a wedding dress,” I said, “using some of the family jade?”
“Sure,” Gerry said. “What do you think it would cost?”
“Twenty-five hundred?” I said. “He’s kind of penniless these days.”
“O.K.,” Gerry said. “But first ask Juan and Antonio what they think of the idea.”
I called Juan, left a message, and later that night he called back. I told him the idea, to commission a wedding dress from Charles, to be ready in six months, by June.
“Forget about it,” Juan said in his high-pitched but street-raspy voice. “We like Gerry.”
“What does that have to do with commissioning the dress?” I asked.
“Charles will never finish the dress,” Juan said.
That Charles James was such a perfectionist that he often did not finish dresses was not a myth. “He wanted to get it right,” Mr. Layne said. “Most clothing, you feel it pulling on your shoulder, and it’s not balanced properly. He put the weight on the trapezius muscle that runs across the ridge of your shoulders. That’s what carries the weight, and that’s why they felt so light.”
“If you want to marry Gerry, marry Gerry,” Juan said. “Wear anything. Just forget about the dress.”And so I did.