The Menil Collection opened a new exhibit this weekend dedicated to one America's greatest fashion minds. A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James is an homage to the work of couturier Charles James and one of his most supportive patrons John and Dominique de Menil. On display are pieces from Dominique de Menil's personal collection of James fashion and decor created by James for the de Menil's home in Houston.
The exhibit's opening weekend was dotted with events celebrating the work of James and the relationship he had with one of Houston's most beloved families. I had the honor of attending an incredibly informative panel discussion moderated by exhibit curator Susan Sutton and including distinguished panelists Harold Koda curator of the Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, de Menil biographer William Middleton and Lady Amanda Harlech, writer and past consultant to John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld.
Held in The Menil Collection lobby and filled to brim with eager James lovers, the discussion spanned James' early life, his impact on the industry, the artist/patron relationship he had with the de Menils, and the de Menil's perspective on his work.
Each panelists spoke frankly, but lovingly, about James' life, talent, creations, and prickly disposition, something even the de Menils acknowledge in letters quoted by Middleton. As the life and art of this genius designer was beautifully laid out in pictures and words, I, as an audience member, couldn't help but wonder if this same level of genius could blossom in today's fashion industry.
Were James and his contemporary's living in a perfect storm of commerce, art, and culture never to be seen again, or are there standard bearers in fashion right now, as Koda put it, serving as artists working in the medium of fashion?
Panelists noted that the age of James was the bridge between two major eras in history, pre and post World War I. Koda, in his brief presentation, made the point that societal upheaval caused by the war may have contributed to the acceptance of new perspectives presented by these designers. But I think it was more than just a sign of the times.
As a person working in fashion, I would have to say that the chances of another Charles James, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, and Cristóbal Balenciaga coming into being in this new industry are slim. Not because the community is void of talent, but because the mechanics of the industry have changed in such a way that super successful, eccentric, introverted geniuses willing to say "screw you" to the standard are few and far between - see Steve Jobs in tech and Michael Jackson in music. Most successful designers put their own stamp on the already existing standard, not many throw that standard out the window and start from scratch. (Alexander McQueen is my only exception.)
Unlike the time of the greats:
Investors, not socialites, are bankrolling designers Socialites, specifically the de Menils, bankrolled James and other couturiers of the time. Koda spoke of a sizable donation made by the de Menils to the Brooklyn Museum of Art for the acquisition of James clothing. The museum purchased $10,000 worth of items from James for display in their Costume Institute. Now a days, investors and large venture capital firms are the main source of funding for new designers, which shifts the focus from art to commerce.
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Fast fashion is king By the time the last model leaves the runway at Chanel, images on social media have circled the globe and fast fashion retailers like H&M and Forever 21 have already begun creating low price knock-offs. Modern designers have to create as much as possible as quickly as possible to compete with this designer imposter machine, which leaves little room for daring creativity. In James' era, fashion shows were closed to only a select few and editors were only allowed to bring a sketch pad and a pencil.
No one takes chances Celebrities have taken the place of socialites as the trend setters. They are the ones wearing high end clothing for the masses to ogle and media to critique. But, celebrities are so transfixed on Best/Worst Dressed lists that they are not willing to take chances on the red carpet. Designers depend on the celebrities to wear their clothes to major events, so they must water down their work if they want it to be worn.
The ability to bring a person into a brave new world through a piece of clothing is the lost art many of the greats did so well. James through his unbelievable construction, Chanel through her iconic fragrances and tweed jackets, and Dior through his New Look, all presented something new and undeniably them through their collections. They cared little about mass production and market appeal, but about pushing fashion into a new space. We don't have that anymore, and I'm not sure we will ever have it again.