The other Charles James exhibition: Beautifully done!


The subject of an exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the inspiration behind the theme of this year’s Gala, Charles James has been headhunted from the depths of fashion history. This eccentric designer is finally given the attention and admiration he deserves. Now regarded as the ultimate American couturier, James was a true fashion artist who was inspired by Surrealism to accentuate the female form.


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When they identified the need for a certain kind of opulence to counteract the minimalism of their new home, his good friends the art collectors Dominique and John de Menil invited him to turn his hand to interior decoration. Zooming in on Charles James’ relationship with the de Menils and the designs he created for them is the ‘A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James’ exhibition at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas.


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Susan Sutton, the exhibition curator, explains to Modeconnect what to expect in the show and discusses the special connection Charles James and the de Menils shared.


Susan, what was the genesis of the Charles James Exhibition at the Menil Collection?
The seed for the show has a deep history at the Menil. Dominique de Menil mentions in a 1978 letter, just after James’ death, that an exhibition should be mounted of his work. It was a long held idea for her and one that she had started to make notes toward just before her own death in 1997.

‘A Thin Wall of Air’ presents a selection of garments designed by Charles James for Dominique de Menil. What place did Charles James occupy in Dominique de Menil’s wardrobe?
Significant. She owned at least 50 garments by James and 10 accessories.

Archiving or showing garments is reasonably easy; but what role does James’ interior decoration play in the de Menil collection?
Significant as well. James’ interior design ultimately informs a total aesthetic for the de Menils, one that pushes toward rigor and perfect-imperfect and precious-not precious. To see the James interior is to understand the art collection the de Menil’s built. It provides context for the variety of paradoxes that guided the de Menils and the risks they were willing to take – with art and their commitment to activism (two things that can seem at odds). And that design is on par with art, but art is about living – pleasure, delight, and discovery – the senses. James’ interior is thus a crucial window into the de Menils commitment to imagination and to taking the difficult path.

Do you think it was the artistic, sculptural and architectural nature of James’ designs that drew the de Menil’s to him? Were they patrons to any other fashion designer?
All of the above! James’ complexity is certainly what was appealing to the de Menils. Dominique de Menil did buy other designers, such as Dior, but James is the only designer the de Menils formed such a close relationship with and from whom we know she commissioned custom pieces. So James was unique – they worked with him as an artist, like the other artists they formed close and lasting relationships with, such as Max Ernst and René Magritte.

The de Menils supported artists by commissioning them. James was not an interior decorator, yet he was invited to dress their home? In your opinion was this, a way to support him or was he the best person for the job?
Great question. It was John de Menil’s idea to invite James to dress the interior. It is highly probable they visited James’ own salon (he had several locations over a period of time), which he did decorate, planting the first seed. It is always likely this invitation was a means to offer work and further financial support to the designer, but I think the idea to invite him stemmed from genuine inspiration.

The de Menil’s had a problem to solve – their International Modernist home, its construction underway, was beginning to feel too stark and rigorous – what to do? Who could they call on? It was really an inspired idea, given Charles James was not an interior designer, to think of putting him in the context of the Johnson house. John de Menil also had a history of inviting unconventional designers in to create an interior before: in Paris he invited Pierre Barbe to design the interior of their Paris apartment.

How do ‘A Thin Wall of Air’ and the Met’s ‘Charles James: Beyond Fashion’ exhibition differ? What role does James interior decoration play and how have you been able to use/show it?
A ‘Thin Wall of Air’ takes an intimate look at James’ unique relationship to the de Menils. It is a highly focused lens, one that looks at a microcosm of James. ‘Beyond Fashion’ takes a wide and analytical look at James – it is a monumental study of the designer and seeks to understand the methods of James. At the Menil, we wanted to explore a symbiotic relationship between interior and clothing,




client and designer and James’s poetics as an artist. We sought to do so through evocations and tableaux referencing the de Menil House, a sense of the domestic, without trying to recreate it.

We set James’ garments and furniture amidst wall colors he hand mixed for the de Menil residence, with reference to other materials – for instance the tarnished metal stands refer to the wrought iron legs of the chaise longue he designed.

James’ interior designs for the de Menils contrasted the minimalist architecture of the building. What role do you think tensions and the reconciling of apparent opposites had to play in James’ own work?
Charles James’ work as a designer is very much about reconciling opposites, frequently through mirroring or inversions, through fabric use, seam lines, and color placements. Curves in both hard and soft materials served to be the element which achieved the disruption of Johnson linearity and allowed for the interjection of curves throughout the house. James could combine the rough and smooth, the refined and raw, placing them in concert together. In this way, his intervention in the house, with its repetitive motif of a piano curve, is the reconciling element.

The relationship between James and the de Menils clearly went beyond that of a designer and client. Do you think that, as collectors of art, the de Menils understood James’ artistry better than most?
Yes, I think the de Menils did understand James as an artist better than most. They were tolerant of his unbridled personality, understanding it was his intensity that fuelled his genius. Dominique de Menil kept rough sketches and notes he made on scraps of paper, I think, because she saw traces of his artist mind in them.

I also wonder whether Dominique de Menil herself ever inspired James, could she have been considered a muse?
Interesting. I wish there was more documentation between the two of them, but yes I think so.For instance there is a coat documented by the Met as being designed especially for Dominique de Menil with an asymmetrical collar. Such avant-garde asymmetry could be inspired by Dominique herself, while also being a practical innovation. Designing for the de Menils – certainly during the time of the house, I am sure there must have been exchanges about art and philosophy. I don’t think it is coincidence his lip sofa design was said to come from Man Ray – after all he was designing for a couple who were beginning to build one of the most important Surrealist collections in the world.

James also sent Dominique de Menil books and inscribed notes to her in them. One, Gaston de La Tour: An Unfinished Romance by Walter Pater, seems especially poignant – sent it to her several months before his death. The book is from the Belle Époque era (1897), with chapters titled “Our Lady’s Church” and “Modernity” and passages such as “The worship of physical beauty a religion…” (p91). I cannot help but think James sent this book to Dominique de Menil with her very clearly in mind: The de Menils’ built their modern and forward looking collection with the thread of humanism and spirituality as underpinnings.


What role did surrealism play in their relationship?
Again, there is no documentation about any thought exchanges between the de Menils and James regarding surrealism, but James worked very much in the surrealist vein and spirit, with subtle inversions and oppositions pitted together and elements taking the place of one another – a body becomes a chair or sofa or a dress; a dress becomes a curtain or a wall. That he had been friends with artists that de Menils would have been interested in and collecting, such as Christian Berard is also telling of a mutual affinity. James’ intervention in the de Menil home is very surreal in that it lends moodiness, and sometimes dreamlike mystery.

James has been described as a selective perfectionist. Would you endorse this description?
Yes, absolutely. I would say for James the gesture must be perfect, the theory perfectly executed, the thought taken to its end. But being bogged down in the finishing details – the exquisite minutiae, no. He liked the raw and rough, which is counter to refined and meticulous perfectionism. Such volatile materials that give off power for their imperfections, that are antagonistic to perfection.

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What did you discover about James’ technique, design or creative approach while working on this exhibition?
This idea of the imperfect-perfect is one. Seams would not line up as I thought they should and we tugged or pulled at a garment’s collar or hemline seeking to make it “line up” or straighten out. Was it a slight asymmetry in Dominique de Menil’s frame? While this was a factor, we discovered it was James’ intention. Seam lines did match up, where they did with perfection, they disrupted the matching of other seams – a bit like tectonic plates. The other is James’ intense propensity for inversions and opposites and discovering the smallest details repeated in another garment – sometimes diminutive other times exaggerated.

James turned to teaching later on in his career. His dresses have been described as instructive. Do you think that way of remembering him would have appealed to him? What do you think the de Menils learnt from him?
Yes! James felt strongly about trying to educate designers and women in beauty, posture, and in what was not lazy in design. He railed against the formless clothes that could fit anyone and did nothing to accentuate or enhance the female body. The de Menils learned to pursue the difficult from James. Dominique de Menil said in an interview in 1993, “…he was always looking for exceptional matching colors, but not in the conventional good taste fashion, which was pointless to him. He really taught me how to turn my back from easy things and look for more elaborate ones instead.”

Modeconnect would like to thank Susan Sutton, Curatorial Assistant at the The Menil Collection and curator of ‘A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James’ for taking the time to answer our questions.

A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James

Until September 7, 2014
Wednesday to Sunday,
11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

The Menil Collection
1533 Sul Ross Street
Houston, Texas 77006