By Isaiah Negron
This spring, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute introduced Charles James: Beyond Fashion, an exhibit showcasing the haute couture icon’s most illustrious creations. Fashion expert and art aficionado Michele Gerber Klein, who studied James’ work for years, comments, “He was a true original. Sometimes I imagine him as a mad scientist inventing these perfectly calibrated shapes,” she said with a laugh. “He is mythic. He made only, perhaps, 1000 matrix designs in his life with which he managed to influence a vast span of sartorial history. But before this show revived him, James himself seemed to simply have disappeared – like Camelot.”
Charles James: Beyond Fashion, the largest and most comprehensive retrospective of James’s work to date was organized by Harold Koda, the Fashion Institute’s longtime head curator. “The Met did it very well. The clothes, literally and figuratively, stand on their own,” Michele remarks. “The way the dresses are exhibited defines and explains them. Harold managed to retain the purity of James’ identity and create an intimate context an audience can relate to very well.” The exhibit runs through August 10th.
Michele Gerber Klein found her calling in the fashion industry by learning to see at an early age, growing up surrounded by the fashion worlds of New York and Paris. After ‘apprenticing’ at companies like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, she went to work with her friend Joan Vass. “Our premise was that dressing well was about taste, not dollars.” Through licensing, Michele was able to co-create a $60 million company, which she named joan vass usa. “I was just good at fashion. I could predict it. And I was young and so enthusiastic,” she remembers. “It wasn’t easy to place Joan. She was too smart and too intellectual, not to mention opinionated. She was art world ‘royalty’. Her husband had been de Kooning’s close friend, which seemed to set her apart from Seventh Avenue. But the license was a very big deal. I loved her. She was true personality.”
Michele’s articles about her artist friends for BOMB and The Brooklyn Rail have been translated into several languages, taught at Columbia, archived by the Getty and quoted by scholars. “I married into the art world and I wanted to learn. Again, I started by looking,” she says. “Looking, for me, is a real pleasure. Art and fashion coexist in my mind.” A member of the Board of the Couture Council at FIT, Michele will continue her support of unique visions by writing a book about Charles James. Among the materials she will draw from are the interviews done by James’ friend R. Couri Hay and filmed by Anton Perich. These interviews will be broadcast on Public Access TV this July. “Fashion is everywhere. If you want to experience fashion, all you have to do is see.”.