You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who understands Charles James better than Homer Layne. A recently retired New York-based fashion designer, Layne served as James' fiercely loyal assistant for the seven years leading up to the couturier's death. After James contracted a fatal case of pneumonia in 1978, it was Layne who found him shivering in bed, drove him to the hospital, and sat by his side.
Describing his relationship with James as "almost like a father and son," Layne recalls long, fruitful days spent in the designer's Hotel Chelsea apartment-cum-studio. The days were so long, in fact, that he'd sometimes sleep in James' workroom, on a bed that had been transformed into a cutting table. Aside from James' singular creative approach, the kindness he showed Layne is what Layne remembers most—surprising, considering historians have painted James as quite the temperamental character, particularly at the end of his life. Here, Layne speaks with Style.com about James' mind-boggling techniques, his penchant for high heels and flamenco hats, and why Layne believes the couturier was a genius.
How did you first meet Charles James?
I met him in 1970 during my second year at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He came to give a seminar for the whole semester—two hours each week. It wasn't a requirement; it was optional. I went to the first session, and it was so full. It was standing room only in the classroom. But by the end of the semester, the last class, there were only four students, and I happened to be one of them.
What happened to the rest of the students?
I think they stopped coming because he'd go off on too many tangents. He would talk about some technique and then that would bring up something else and he would go on to something else. And when you asked him a question, he'd start answering, but then he'd go off on a tangent again. But he was really just trying to get it back around to answering your question.
So how did you go from patient pupil to first assistant?
After the class, he asked all four students that remained to come do a six-week internship with him. And after that, he asked me to come and work with him—to do pattern work and sewing and all that. He wanted me to drop out of school, but I said no, I wanted to get my degree. I had a part-time job, so I gave him Saturday nights and Sundays, and then Thursday I didn't have class, so I gave him a whole day during the week until I graduated. Then I started full-time.
I've heard that he wasn't always the easiest man to get along with. What made you two hit it off?
I'm not quite sure, but he said something in the Enquirer magazine that sometimes I resolved a design issue better than he did. Another thing is that I was there to learn, and I think that a lot of students who came through just wanted praise for their ideas.
What was it like to watch him work?
It was fascinating because he would pin something, then unpin it, and re-pin it until he got the exact line. He wanted to conform to the shape of the body at that point. And often he would put a piece of tape on a seam that was wide to sort of emphasize it—so it would really stand out—and then he would change it again and again. He was a perfectionist. And I think that's just right as a designer.
What would you two talk about?
He liked to talk about architecture and people that he had known, that his parents had known, that his mother had known. He adored her. He would talk about Cecil Beaton because they [had been] in school together. He would talk about clients who had already died before I started working, and what he made for them.
Were he and Cecil Beaton still close when you were working with him?
Well, [Charles James] was in a lawsuit with [clothing manufacturer] Samuel Winston, and during that time, Cecil Beaton signed a contract with Winston to do a line of clothing. [Charles James] was upset about that. But they did correspond at the end. It was after [Cecil] had had his stroke. He was in New York and he brought Charles James signed copies of pictures he had taken in the twenties and thirties. But Charles James didn't want to see him because I think Cecil's face was gone a little bit from a stroke, and Cecil didn't want to see him, either. So I went and picked up the photographs.
We've all been reading quite a bit about Charles James, the designer, but what was Charles James, the man, like?
He was very intelligent. He knew something about everything. He loved music, he talked about opera—and he did love the opera. I had never even heard an opera, so he sent me by myself several times. It's something that he wanted me to hear.
Did he see himself as an artist?
Yes, well, he considered himself a couturier, and he considered other people, like Ralph Lauren, to be stylists. He drew the line.
Why do you think James isn't as well known today as his contemporaries? Sometimes it seems as though fashion history has forgotten him.
[Charles James'] operation was much smaller, even though he dressed the same people as Dior or Balenciaga. He was always in financial struggle, and he didn't have the advertising. He didn't have a perfume. Everybody else had a perfume, and that really brings a designer's name to the public. So I think that's a big reason.
Why was he always in such a state of financial struggle?
Because he put all the money back into the business, and there just wasn't enough. Dior and people like that had backers who gave them much more money than [Charles James'] clients. [Charles James] just had a problem with his accountants, people like that. And then there's the story of the $20,000 sleeve.
The $20,000 sleeve?
He spent that much, he said, to develop and perfect the shape and fit of a sleeve so that if your jacket front was unbuttoned and you stretched your arm out, the front of the jacket wouldn't move. It would all stay in place. It was a complicated shape with a small, high armhole. He collected Civil War military uniforms, and I think he used them as a basis, because those coats actually had tails like a formal coat, but you had to shoot a gun in it, so you had to be able to move your arms. He used [the sleeve] in his suits and coats of the time.
That almost sounds a bit mad! Do you think he was a genius?
Yes, I do. I think his things were more intricate, and they really did fit the body, [despite the fact that he] had no formal training. He learned from the patternmakers and the drapers. And he used things like architectural techniques to build the structures that he'd drape over to get the shape that he wanted.
Did James' lack of formal training work to his advantage?
Yes, I think that's part of the reason he's so unique. He didn't conform to the norms. In school, they teach you just the basics—the waistline dart, the bust dart. Then you have to go from there. But I learned more from [Charles James] than I did in school. Though I don't think I could have worked with him if I hadn't had some schooling beforehand.
What is the most important thing that you learned from him?
To strive to make it perfect. And the patternmaking techniques. If he was draping a dress on a dress form and the pattern didn't fit right, he would take that pattern piece and make four layers of muslin. Then he'd put all four pieces on different grains and make them half bias, bias, straight, and crossed. He'd cut through all of those layers and pin them onto the dress, and he'd use the one that reacted the way he wanted it to—the one with the smoothest seam.
Do you have a favorite piece that you two worked on together?
Well, there's a little suit. I'm not sure if they're going to use it [in the Costume Institute exhibit] because they don't have a lot of the pieces from when I worked for him. But there was a little black suit with diagonal-waisted pants and a little wrapped jacket. I think that sort of sums up his Chelsea Hotel period. It was unusual and it was a new idea, because with the diagonal waist, if you gained a little weight, you could still fit into the pants. And the last ball gown he made was another one. It was for Elizabeth de Cuevas, and she wore it to the Brooklyn Museum exhibition opening [in 1982].
Did he pay attention to what other designers were doing, or was he more interested in art and architecture?
He noticed other designers' work. When he was in Paris, Chanel told him to make things for her. But he always knew that when something filtered down to the public, it was time to change and do something else. He knew not to follow trends.
Was James happy at the time you were working for him?
He was happy. If he was working, he was happy.
It's been written that James died more or less alone, that he didn't have friends around him. Is that accurate?
He still had friends. Elsa Peretti just had a fitting before he died, and I finished the things that were left unfinished—I wanted to do that because I felt like I was completing something that he started. But his clients were his friends. And Antonio [Lopez] and his whole group came by quite often. So he wasn't alone.
What was James' personal aesthetic? How did he dress for the day-to-day?
He liked very tall high-heeled shoes, like Cuban heeled shoes, because he was my height, 5'6". He was very slender, and he had a favorite leather jacket that he wore just about everywhere. I think the last time he was at Studio 54, he wore that jacket with a flamenco hat. A lot of the time when he went out, he'd dress very [flamboyantly]. And he always dyed his hair black. Some people say he used shoe polish, but that's not true.
Did James have a good relationship with his ex-wife, Nancy Lee Gregory?
I met her when their son got married, but [Charles James] had died already. Charles James didn't see his family very much. The children came a couple of times. Not every year. When I first met them, they were in high school. After he divorced his wife—her birthday was on February 14, Valentine's Day—he always sent a card. And he always signed it "Love, Charles." And he always said that he still loved her.
That's very heartwarming. You know, you hear all these stories about how James was such a terror, but the way you describe him makes him sound like a sweet man.
Yes, he was. One winter, he bought himself a fur coat, but then he saw that I didn't have a very good winter coat, and he insisted that I take his fur. It was a brown Alaskan fur coat. I still have it—it could use some restoration, but I still have it. He was very giving, but if he gave you a gift, it was something that he liked, not something that you wanted. It would open you up to new experiences, new things.
So how did he get this reputation for being so difficult?
I'm not quite sure. At the time that I worked with him, there wasn't much controversy. Although, he felt that Diana Vreeland was in collusion with other people against getting [his] things in magazines. I don't know if it was accurate or not. It may have just been his way of dealing with things. I guess he did feel that people were against him.
What do you think young designers can learn from James?
They can learn to be individuals, to go against the tide if it's something you really believe in. And I think they'll be awed by the construction of Charles James' clothes. Even on the daytime stuff, the seaming is incredible.