Known as “America’s First Couturier”, Charles James was a British-born fashion designer who attended Harrow School, London, in 1919 with Evelyn Waugh, Francis Cyril Rose, and Cecil Beaton, with whom he formed a longstanding friendship.
James opened his first hat shop in Chicago in 1926, at the age of nineteen. Two years later, 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, where he began his first dress designs.
He then returned to London, setting up shop in Mayfair, and was primarily a self-taught designer. He showed one of his most successful collections in Paris in 1947. Christian Dior is said to have credited James with inspiring The New Look.
By the 1950s, he spent most of his time in New York. He looked upon his dresses as works of art, reworking original designs, and ignoring the sacrosanct schedules of seasons. Most famous for his sculpted ball gowns made of lavish fabrics and to exacting tailoring standards, James is also remembered for his capes and coats, and his spiral zipped dresses. James retired in 1958.
By the late 1960s, James was living at the Chelsea Hotel, and spending his nights at Max’s Kansas City and Studio 54, rubbing shoulders with Andy Warhol, Candy Darling, Truman Capote, Antonio Lopez, and Lou Reed. Artist Anton Perich first met James during this late period of the designer’s life. As Perich recalls, “I met Charles James in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel. I thought that he was Henry James, the great, long-deceased writer.
“Everything was possible in the quantum world of the Chelsea Hotel. He was extremely elegant, mysterious, and strange. He dressed like Mapplethorpe, and had a rebellious attitude like Patti Smith. He wore a black leather pants and high heel boots. His hair shoe-polish black, and a visible rubber band uplifting his chin. I thought that Robert and Patti were his children. An ideal punk family residing at the Chelsea Hotel.
“Later I learned from R. Couri Hay that he was a greatest fashion designer alive. Soon after, Couri and I embarked on a twenty hours video trip with Charles.”
Perich speaks with The Chic about his time with Charles James during this late period of the designer’s life, a period which coincided with the rise of punk. Perich recalls, “I came to New York via Paris, with two rolls of film and two contact sheets. I spent there almost five years, but did not do any photography, except those two rolls, Including the two of my perhaps best photos ever.
“I think I went to Max’s Kanas City my second or third night in New York. Probably bought my first camera the next day. The reason was, I discovered the Back Room at Max’s. There were all the icons and idols of the Underground. There was Andrea Feldman, Candy Darling, Cyrinda Foxe, Jane Forth, Jackie Curtis, Taylor Mead, Susan Blond, Danny Fields, Apollonia van Ravenstein, Donna Jordan. Later on there were Lou Reed, NY Dolls, Wayne County, Gerard Malanga, Piero Heliczer.
“They were all sitting in an otherworldly deep-red, bloody light of the Flavin’s neon cross. A cutting-edge scarlet laser by Forrest Myers looked like an electric halo hovering over all the demi-gods and demi-goddesses. Everyone looked majestic in the deep cigarette fog.
“With my camera I studied the hands holding cigarettes. I was so excited and inspired. Warhol wasn’t there around that time. After he was shot he was scared to go to Max’s, so the atmosphere was like waiting for Godot. (He surfaced a few years later at Studio 54.)
“Soon I met Warhol at the Factory at Union Square West, where my French friend Michel Auder and his American wife Viva took me (I could not imagine then that a few years later I would move my studio and residence there, in such opulent/Spartan place.)
“I had some wrinkled photos in my packets, and I showed them to the greatest living artist in the world. It was like showing them to Pope. He liked my photos and said that he would publish them in the next Interview magazine. So, instantly I became a contributing photographer, publishing my photos in Interview on and off for years.
“In the same time I worked part time as bus boy at Max’s. I was there all the time, and I would usually work when someone wouldn’t show up. So I had the two most glamorous jobs in New York. Everyone wanted to be at Max’s and everyone wanted to be featured in Warhol’s Interview.
“The Back Room at Max’s was my studio. Sometimes I would even plug my lights in. Later, I shot some film and video there. That was an early Punk era, and everyone was angry in style. The stars in the Back Room looked much better than the stars in Hollywood. There were many types of gender. Everyone was beautiful and narcissistic . There was so much self-adoration and self-fetishism. It was thick in the dark pink atmosphere. You could cut it with a knife. My camera was the knife. There were very few cameras in the world then.”
Perich began collaborating with R. Couri Hay on a video project documenting Charles James at the Chelsea Hotel. As Perich recalls, “In the movie Charles talks candidly and seamlessly about his life and his art. It is very difficult to take them apart. Then, in his seventies, he talked with great passion about his youth and adventures, He was a magnificent rebel. Still rebel, but immaculate, pedant and elegant. He was sharp, eloquent, fast as a snake, had venom. He bit Diana Vreeland for ignoring and suppressing his masterpieces. Bit Halston for ungraciously taking so much from him.
“I started photographing Charles when I and Couri were shooting videos with him. Altogether, I didn’t take too many pictures of Charles and his work, perhaps a few essential ones, I think. Charles knew a lot about photography. Cecil Beaton worked with him. I am sure that Cecil taught him something.
“I was astonished watching Charles dressing a model. Noticing how much tenderness it took. The way Charles put his hand on the model to fix a wrinkle. Or perhaps to discharge the sensual electricity. I learned from Charles how to gently touch the model with my camera, to ground the storm in my studio.
“Another thing I learned from Charles was that models don’t have to move while wearing the dresses. The smallest displacement is the best. The sumptuous model Matuschka was wearing a sumptuous bra when Charles asked her how does it feel. She said wonderful, arousing, that her breasts were still there, but slightly displaced. Charles’s dresses were made to make you aware that you are wearing them. Charles made it possible by slightly displacing every detail of the body. Like dynamos, his dresses are generating a sensual excess of pleasurable friction.
“Charles was not just an architect of the feminine. He was a civil engineer of the feminine. His dresses took longer to make than an average luxury villa, and as much expensive. His dresses have intersections, overpasses, fast lanes, yield signs, tunnels, exit ramps, green lights, stop signs, tulips blooming in medians.
“Charles made dresses to be worn inside out, unisex dresses, and dresses made of the new materials. He made the first soft parka in the Fifties. He dressed the most beautiful and richest women on the three continents.
“One of his black dresses was lined with the rich color of tropical birds. Other dark color dresses were lined with chartreuse. Here the master rebel meets the madman in full brilliance and uncontrolled obsession.
“American Couture before James was mostly insignificant, provincial. All the ladies were dressed in Paris. James changed the American fashion landscape. His work gave courage and confidence to the young American designers. He was the first American fashion designer to be admired and highly respected by the French designers.
“James fought a long battle with Diana Vreeland, and American fashion establishment and won. He is now at the Metropolitan Museum. He is an inspiration.
“In his Halcyon Days some great photographers shot Charles and his work. I noticed how different they are from my photos. Well, they were taken a few generations apart. My photos don’t display any decorum. No opulent and rich settings. Only the dirty and dusty Chelsea stairwell. No angelic colors of the Forties. Only harsh, heavy black, as if shot in some deserted alley. My models were early punk models, looking dangerous, dark and unimpressed. The girls that would rob you, or slash your face with a box cutter. The models that could run away wearing Charles James, and never come back. It was a risk working with them.
“I guess I wanted to update the Charles James look. A new flesh and blood wearing the timeless designs. Charles liked it very much. He embraced the punk look and attitude, and dressed like an elegant rebel. He had many punk friends at the magic Chelsea Hotel lobby.
“James was an American eccentric and aristocrat, like Taylor Mead, or R. Couri Hay. Obviously, he could not get rid of being chic. Everything about him was refined. He could not hide it. Even the black shoe polish in his hair accentuated it.
“Chic is a highly charged word. It can have many interpretations. You are chic, or you are not. There are no shades of chic. Chic people don’t exaggerate it. They restrain it.
“It is like breathing. Chic is an attitude. Perhaps underlined by a bold stroke of an accent, or dress. Perhaps how you wear your underpants, or your shades. It is also about what objects you are surrounded by. It is not inborn, but it starts the day you are born. It takes a careful grooming. It remains dormant, and it is activated by someone noticing it. Unlike style, it is more about the invisible.”