CHARLES JAMES by Michèle Gerber Klein


Portrait of an Unreasonable Man: Fame, Fashion, Art
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A luscious exposé of a game-changing designer who revolutionized the fashion industry.

In her debut biography, Klein, the founder of joan vass USA, introduces readers to Charles James (1906-1978), the notoriously fabulous British-born fashion designer who sought to incorporate countless areas of study into the art of fashion. Self-described as “a legend because my work is too little known,” James started making waves in the fashion industry in the 1930s. “There were never more than a handful of Charles James matrix designs,” writes the author. “But each one is a masterpiece, developed with painstaking care and slowness, and so beautifully calibrated that one small change could throw everything off balance.” This close attention to pristine detail is what set James apart from the other aspiring designers. More specifically, it was due to his wild imagination for new ways of stitching fabric together and his wide social network. Klein organizes the chapters according to specific people who influenced James or with whom James went into business, drew inspiration from, or loved. Interestingly, Klein pushes the biographical genre by writing about her subject through the stories of those who surrounded him. Refreshingly, the result is neither a chronological nor traditional biography. However, the narrative oozes with white privilege and unrestrained, ultimately tiresome affluence—e.g., “in the ballroom, whose walls were decorated with shining floor-to-ceiling mirrors set into seventeenth-century boiserie, the elite of Paris society were seated on small gold-backed chairs around little white circular tables, lit by long narrow tapers in three-pronged silver candelabras.” Although this was certainly the world in which Klein’s subject thrived, the author could have provided deeper explorations into the designer’s cultural and social milieu. Ultimately, the book is a frothy, readable catalog of luxury; whether or not this kind of affluence resonates (or is of interest) in today’s landscape is unclear.

A biography that would benefit from acknowledging the problems with the world its subject inhabited.

Pub Date: March 27th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-8478-6145-3
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Rizzoli Ex Libris
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2018


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