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Recalling Charles James: Christophe de Menil

Christophe de Menil—daughter of Dominique de Menil, a great art patron and major Charles James client in the late 1940s and early 1950s—knew James as a young teenager. She describes James's lavish redecoration of their Houston family home and recalls wearing his iconic "Clover Leaf" gown to a ball as a teenager. She also discusses James's influence on her own creative pursuits.

Ms. de Menil is a designer of jewelry and clothing.

This interview is one of seven comprising Recalling Charles James, an oral history of the legendary couturier in which James's former clients, assistants, muses, and friends share their stories with fashion journalist and editor Alina Cho. Produced in conjunction with the exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion, on view from May 8 through August 10, 2014.

Alina Cho: Christophe de Menil was just a teenager when she was introduced to Charles James by her mother, Dominique de Menil, an important James client from a prominent Houston family.

Christophe de Menil: My mom took me to his studio, which the one I remember is the one on Madison. And it was very glamorous, with very modest means. The floor was concrete, it was waxed like granite; it was gorgeous. And the curtains were pellon and very voluptuous, to divide spaces. And for me, you know, it was like pure theater. I had never seen so much velvet and satin and these exotic fabrics. You know, rows of them that he would unroll. They were various colors, satin. I remember mostly pale turquoise and gold.

Alina Cho: Then there were the beautiful clothes James made in his studio for clients like her mother.

Christophe de Menil: Maybe twenty things, between suits and dresses and evening gowns, evening coats, day coats. She loved his clothes, she loved his ideas. They talked a little bit about literature, but mostly about clothes and shapes and how something should be, and he paid a lot of attention to the sleeve, I'm sure you know. And the sleeve in relation to the waist.

Alina Cho: Yes, there was a mathematical precision to James's patterns. He was a designer who always strived for perfection.

Christophe de Menil: Well, he had a mannequin made for each client. And he was pretty dictatorial. He would say, "This needs to go back." And he would tear apart whatever was there, whether it was in the skirt or in the sleeve, and do it again on the spot. And, of course, to me, that was very interesting, that something could change on the spur of the moment. Entirely change.

Well, he started from probably another point of view than anybody else. He would start by taking a piece of fabric, putting it on a body, and then seeing how much does it—what does it do? What can I do with this now? You know, he would start with the actual thing, and then just build it, destroy it, build it, destroy it, until he got around the whole outfit. And he really took apart, more than anybody else ever had, took apart what he had done, ripped it up. Was very courageous, like a painter, you know, destroying his drawings.

Alina Cho: Even in designing baby clothes, James came at it from a different point of view.

Christophe de Menil: The children's clothes were extraordinary because the arms go straight out instead of being out to the side. And he said, "Babies don't hold their hands out to the side. They hold always forward." So he made some extraordinary baby clothes. I wish I had bought some. He used that also in an evening coat because he said, "In evening wear, you don't hold your arms out to the side."

Alina Cho: On one occasion, James invited Christophe to the Knickerbocker Ball. And on that night, Christophe wore what is now considered James's most famous gown: the Clover Leaf.

Christophe de Menil: He could always surprise you. I mean, when I saw the four leaf clover dress, it was in the fall of whatever year that was, when I was still in boarding school. And I always expected it to be very audacious and spacious. I don't know if you could really dance in them. I mean, the four leaf clover dress was a little bit demanding of the men, because you know, the man is kind of prisoner in the front. You know, there's the two waves in front, and the man is in there, in between the two waves of satin.

And actually, it's so well balanced, you don't really feel it, I think. I don't remember feeling uncomfortable wearing it. And it's sort of so well balanced that if you finally lose your balance a little bit, it will just hold you up, like an upturned bell, you know?

Alina Cho: Dominique de Menil and her husband, John, were fervent art collectors, and they saw in James something more than just a fashion designer. In 1950, they invited him out to Houston, not to make clothes, but to redecorate their home.

Christophe de Menil: She trusted him. And that's why she could bring him into her house and let him do whatever extreme things he felt like doing. You know, like bringing this huge green vase that was really, like, four feet high. We had never had anything of the sort. You know, it was too fanciful; we were so serious.

He would arrive around eleven and the painters would leave at twelve, which made him not happy at all. But he had set up the garage. He would put on a khaki jumpsuit, like his work clothes, but it was a very pretty khaki jumpsuit. And then he had taken over the garage to have the big boards, on which he could put many colors and try out for this room or that room. Each room had a board. And he would mix them. And then, at the end of the day, by then of course the painters had left, so it was my sister and I used to hold up some kind of light, probably flashlights, by the wall, so that they could see, Dominique and Charles, if they liked that color or not. And so he was involved from, you know, the time he first arrived 'til the end of the day.

Alina Cho: What does she remember most from James's design?

Christophe de Menil: Red. The red. He used dark blood red for a whole couch. He put blood red on the doors in our little hall, he put that famous color, which is like caramel, which he and Dominique recalled as goose shit. As wicked as could be. You see, Charles used—loved to be as wicked as he could be about making comments about colors or people that were as detrimental as possible. It just amused him.

The most brilliant idea I think he had was to raise the ceiling one foot. So from being eight and a half or nine feet—it could be figured out now—it went to ten feet, which was the more noble space.

It was pretty romantic and glamorous when he was finished. It was very glamorous. It was free. Well it wasn't any period, historical period; it wasn't Edwardian, it wasn't modern-modern, it wasn't seventeenth century. It was just what he would find and—or what he would make. And it was interesting and it was always very fitting. It was always what you'd feel comfortable with. And useful.

Alina Cho: The time James spent redecorating the De Menil home was a fruitful period. It was there that he created what is now an iconic piece of furniture: the Butterfly Sofa.

Christophe de Menil: The double-sided couch so you can put one in one part of the house, one in—one part of the living room, let's say. They fit many ways. And I just adored it. I bought the copy. So I bought four of them, two sets, from Lord & Taylor, because I loved it so much. I wanted to be sure I would have one, no matter what. And two are with my daughter and two I have myself.

Alina Cho: James taught Christophe about design and also a few lessons about life.

Christophe de Menil: He would ask me, do I know about this? And of course, I didn't. I was, you know, I was a country kid, really. Wasn't his style. But that was okay; it was good for me to, you know, see somebody who was so—I'm sure I've learned from it, to be more free in what I contemplate or try to do. If his idea wasn't working out, he had to—instead of going up this way, maybe he had to go back and around. He really made it tabula rasa. I mean, he didn't use any known ways. That was kind of fun to me, as a kid. And he liked to be a little dangerous about things or people. Charles gave me a freedom that I will always cherish.

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