Call it a kind of post-mortem Cinderella story. A designer—in this case, Charles James, who dressed society’s most beautiful swans in the 1940s and ’50s—dies forgotten and penniless in a squalid room in New York’s then-seedy Chelsea Hotel.
Decades later, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute not only plucked the American couturier from obscurity, but secured his reputation as one of fashion’s great geniuses, alongside the likes of Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, and Cristobal Balenciaga.
At the show’s opening gala, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein announced that he had bought the rights to the label’s name, and rumors swirled about an imminent brand revival.
The Costume Institute has a gift for bringing moribund labels back to life; a couple years before the 2014 James retrospective it helped relaunch the house of Elsa Schiaparelli, a contemporary of Coco Chanel whose surrealist inventions (a lobster dress made with Salvador Dalí, a hat shaped like a shoe) the Met juxtaposed with Miuccia Prada’s postmodern provocations.
Now, it looks like James may be back on the market soon, too, with—according to a report on Page Six—American designer Zac Posen playing a big role in its revival.
On the surface, Posen is an obvious choice to help steer Charles James back into the limelight. Not only is he a showman, with a gig offering barbed bon mots as a judge on Project Runway and some of the most celebrity-filled runway presentations at New York Fashion Week, but he also does retro high-octane glamour unlike anyone else in contemporary American fashion. (Indeed, his insistence on creating larger-than-life ballgowns season after season as more and more shoppers clamor for 24/7 yoga pants is almost Jamesian in its single-minded pursuit of beauty.)
Yet, despite his penchant for mid-century eveningwear, Posen is the wrong person to help resuscitate the Charles James name. Furthermore, his alleged appointment—indeed, pretty much everything about the James revival—points to a deeper problem in the fashion industry, and in the moguls and businesspeople who are running the show.
First, the news (if indeed true) demonstrates fashion’s unimaginative and superficial ideas when it comes to reviving historic brands: James made some pretty gowns; so does Zac Posen! Yet, James did much more than create floofy evening dresses. He made innovative clothes for city women on the move, like a wrap-over trouser that looked like an early version of a skort and a spiral-cut “wrap” dress that preceded Diane von Furstenberg’s invention by almost 40 years.
His dresses presented stunning feats of engineering and imagination, weird and insect-like sometimes, with undulating suspended skirts that could weigh as much as 10 pounds, but felt, according to his clotheshorses, like nothing. Posen’s dresses—exquisitely molded and crafted as they are—just don’t live up to that level of ingenuity, and they aren’t resolutely modern like James’s were.
Second, it’s hard to see what Posen will bring to James that will offer something new and distinct from his own namesake brand—well, besides celebrity. Even James’s most fanciful creations pushed fashion forward, while Posen’s look back, infused with romantic nostalgia. A technical wizard like Ralph Rucci or Azzedine Alaïa, or a wildly inventive pattern-cutter like Junya Watanabe or Chitose Abe of Sacai, would have more in common with James’s experimental ethos.
Posen does do some lovely red carpet gowns—which, no doubt, is one of the reasons Weinstein has reportedly enlisted him, so he can promote the revived Charles James by having the stars of his films wear them to premieres and award shows.
Yet in this increasingly casual, economically squeezed world, do we really need another Posen, Marchesa (whose designer is married to Weinstein and will also be involved with the James brand), Elie Saab, or Dior?
What purpose does a revamped Charles James serve? If anything, the world needs more mid-range brands that actually serve women’s day-to-day needs—not elevated demi-couture that only a fraction of the 1% can buy.
Also, reviving a long-moribund brand is very, very tricky. (Just ask Schiaparelli, which is now searching for a new designer after just three seasons.) It’s one thing when a designer such as Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, or Christian Dior hand-selects a successor and ensures that his brand will live long after he retires or dies, or when a designer such as Coco Chanel creates a brand that she herself re-launches and remakes endlessly during her long tenure.
But even such classic labels like Bill Blass (all-American sportswear) and Halston (1970s chic) have failed to make money and gain traction once their founders have gone.
The fact that Halston—easily the most influential designer in the history of American fashion, whose streamlined looks still haunt the runways of such minimalist masters as Narciso Rodriguez and Donna Karan and whose pop sensibilities have shaped Marc Jacobs—could not get off the ground despite repeated attempts speaks to how difficult it is to translate a designer’s singular vision for another audience, another time.
If Weinstein (who, by the way, was behind the last disastrous Halston relaunch) wanted to create a successful brand that women will truly wear—or that women will dream about wearing—then he would hire someone who would push James’s vision further, not keep it enshrined, intact, perfectly preserved.
In a perfect fashion world, he and other businesspeople will be looking for the new Charles Jameses of the world—the ones who will reshape our perceptions of clothes, art, and commerce—instead of dredging up the ghosts of the past.