Born: Sandhurst, England, 1906
Died: New York, U.S., 1978
Charles James briefly attended the University of Bordeaux before moving to Chicago where he began to design hats. In 1928 he moved to New York and then on to London. Whilst in London James designed a small collection of dresses. He then moved back to New York bringing the collection with him.
James travelled between the two cities until 1934 when he moved to Paris and opened his own haute couture business. Designing in terms of shape and sculptural movement, James took inspiration from Madame Gres and Elsa Schiaparelli. While in Paris James formed close friendships with many prominent couturiers including Christian Dior and Paul Poiret.
In 1939 James returned to New York and founded his custom house Charles James Inc. James was also offered a job at Elizabeth Arden, where he worked exclusively until 1945.
James regarded his creations as pieces of art. He would spend years on a single sleeve and months on a seam. Each season he would re-work original designs, the components of which were interchangeable. He retired from his label in 1958 deciding instead to devote his time to art. However, he continued to design through collaborations.
In 1962 he designed a mass produced collection for E.J Korvette. But he found it hard to adapt to the needs of mass production preferring the environment of personalised couture. The following years saw James invent new techniques for dress patterns, design jewellery and also furniture.
In 1970 James worked alongside illustrator Antonio to make drawings of all of his work creating a permanent record of his designs.
Around this time a new generation of designers were discovering James’ talent. Halston sought out James and employed him in his studio. The partnership was a disaster and quickly ended. James spent the rest of his time living in New York, where he died in 1978.
In 2001 New York City created the “Fashion Walk of Fame” along 7th Avenue. Bronze plaques were placed in the sidewalk honouring Charles James and fellow American designers.
Considering his designs as being works of art, James’s style was bold and innovative. Sartorially skilled, each of his designs were created with an exact shape, being worked with heavy silks and fine fabrics. A structural genius, Charles James created some of the most complex dresses of the century, most notably his lavish ball gowns, capes and coats.
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’ and was the designer honoured in the 2014 MET Gala.
Charles James Biography