Preview of 'Charles James: Beyond Fashion' Exhibit

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's new Anna Wintour Costume Center opens this week with 'Charles James: Beyond Fashion' and I had the pleasure of previewing the inaugural exhibit only hours before the grand Met Ball! A remarkable star-studded fashion crowd was in attendance for the morning ribbon cutting by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Working in fashion for years, I have encountered many before but seeing all them all together at once was truly surreal! It was one major design icon after the next including; Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Giancarlo Giammetti of Valentino, Alber Elbaz of Lanvin, Jenna Lyons, Vera Wang (all shown above,) Raf Simons of Dior, Iris Apfel,  Ralph Lauren, Mickey Drexler and Michael Kors.
After the dedication all in attendance were able to preview the exhibit, located in three galleries throughout the museum which oddly are located in opposite wings. Being one of only 4 days of the year that the Met is closed to the public it was pretty fun to walk through the museum and see the galleries that I've walked countless times before which are normally backed with crowds, empty.
The exhibit itself was quite different than the costume exhibits that have proceeded it and I learned from Met curator Harold Koda, who was on hand to answer questions for the morning, that this was an intentional and purposeful goal. "The look and feel is different. Punk-to-James, a most dramatic palette cleanser" for newly named Anna Wintour Costume Center.
James' gowns spanning his 40 year career are displayed in two very dramatically dark galleries with tiny spot lights on each garment. They've implemented new technology that uses a robotic arm to scan each gown and on a foot-level screen you're shown a blueprint of the garment's construction, pattern pieces, fabrics and infrastructure. Exhibit curator Koda says that it's only "when you examine the dresses that you see the mad-architect design and what makes a James a James. Through technology it's visually understandable. Fashion students never forgot James but for the general public it's reintroducing him." The goal was to be analytical but understandable. "People will leave with an understanding that he was doing something different and special" says Koda.
(Top left image: Austine Hearst in Charles James Clover Leaf Gown, 1953) 
For me the surprise of the exhibit came in the newly named Anna Wintour gallery (also the one space throughout the show that was well lit.) There you will find James' sketches, fully sewn muslins, personal photographs, sculptures and storyboards for the autobiography he continually worked on but never produced, also aptly titled "Beyond Fashion." Through his sketches (and later in the animated videos into the evening wear) I couldn't help but be reminded of the work of American couturier Ralph Rucci and the similarities in the architecture and engineering of their designs, as well as more recently the work of Zac Posen. Clearly James' work, some of which is nearly 70 years old continues to be an influence on designers.
I have to say Charles James: Beyond Fashion is a must see. The rooms are dark, and it's definitely not your typical Costume Institute show but the opportunity to see this much of creative genius Charles James' exquisite work should not be missed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Charles James: Beyond Fashion will be open to the public between May 8th and August 10th.  And stay tuned to Fabulous Doodles because in the next day or two I'll be sharing my Met Gala inspired fashion sketches.

(All images by Brooke Hagel unless otherwise noted.)

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