The Couture Secrets of Shape - Charles James' exhibition

The Sozzani Foundation announced the new exhibition “Charles James - The Couture Secrets

of Shape”, which will be open to the public until September 8, 2019. The exhibit is dedicated

to the famous Anglo-American designer Charles James, the first American couturier and

nonetheless considered to be one of the most important and innovative American designers of

the 20th century.




The exhibition offers a selection of rare vintage prints, patterns, prototypes, dresses, tools and original drawings by Charles James, from the 1930s to the early 1970s. The American designer was famed for the extraordinarily elegant evening gowns he created for his chic and sophisticated clients: indeed, notables such as Marlene Dietrich, Austine McDonnell Hearst, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Millicent Rogers wore his creations. The true element of innovation in James’ creations is the fact that from the beginning of his career, he also designed revolutionary unisex styles. The Eiderdown Jacket and James’ other unisex designs share with his ball gowns a sculptural, architectural presence and a rigorously cerebral design process grounded in mathematic proportions. So, he's still regarded as a visionary thinker in the world of fashion, introducing lasting innovations in both technique and methodology, which with no doubt derives from his experience in the architectural field.



courtesy of Fondazione Sozzani

In fact, after studying music at the University of Bordeaux in France, he went to Chicago to work. A friend of the family, Samuel Insull, found him a position in his architectural design department, where he acquired the mathematical skills that later would become the foundation of his creations. In 1928, James left Chicago for Long Island to open a millinery shop where he presented himself as a “sartorial structural architect.” By 1933 he had designed the Taxi Dress, the Spiral Zipped Dress, and the wedding dress for Baba Beaton, photographer Cecil Beaton's sister. He presented his first collection in Paris in 1937 with great success, and in that same year he created a one-of-a-kind white satin quilted jacket described by Salvador Dalí as “the first soft sculpture”.



courtesy of Fondazione Sozzani

The curator of the exhibit is American designer Rick Owens, one of James’ greatest admirers, who wrote: «When I started my label in the mid-Nineties, my ultimate goal was to be Charles James. Complete devotion to craft, scorn for conventional prosaic comforts, but attention and respect reserved exclusively for the mega-refined and extravagant». A reinterpretation by Rick Owens of one of the archetypal gowns by Charles James is also on view.


The exhibition was inspired by the book written by Homer Layne, James’ legendary assistant and Dorothea Mink, professor of fashion design at the University of the Arts Bremen. They analysed Charles James’ remarkable innovations, revealing what made his designs so special, and suggested how designers today can apply James’s principles to their work. This unique exhibition reveals for the first time his largely invisible work in the construction of his designs. Here, the secrets of a design's early development, with images presenting both concept and composition, testify to an extraordinary creative method.

We goes beyond the evening gowns, also focusing on some of James’ unisex designs and projects created in New York at the Chelsea Hotel, where he lived from 1964 until 1978 and also a magnet for the creatives of the time: from Mapplethorpe to Patty Smith, from Warhol to Leo Castelli. In 1973 James started to write the book “The Charles James Approach to Structural Design,” which allowed a glimpse into his thinking at that time, from the slopers to his draping tools.



courtesy of Fondazione Sozzani

He died in New York in 1978. Charles James’ designs have been showcased in numerous one-man exhibits, including the one at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1993 and the one at Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014, entitled “Charles James: Beyond Fashion”.


The exhibition is open to the public every day from 10.30 am to 7.30 pm (on Wednesdays and Thursdays until 9 pm) in 10, Corso Como in Milan.


words Elena Affricani


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