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Still, James made his mark. Shortly after word of the Brooklyn acquisition, Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani, a style eminence of very long standing, was moved to state: “To me, American fashion is Charlie James.” But with no fashion house nor any brand name left behind, James became, for the uninitiated, somewhat lost to the mists of time. “He was almost like a Van Gogh of clothing,” Lizzie Tisch told me. “He didn’t make a dime, and he was a little . . . ornery. But he was a genius.” That relative obscurity will be countered when the Institute opens Charles James: Beyond Fashion on May 8 following the gala, which this year will be keyed to the designer. After a few years of thematic adventure, the party and the museum are touching back down on classicism. A younger Harold Koda cut his teeth at the Met during the era of Diana Vreeland—a woman who herself became “the primary face” of the Institute in her role as special consultant from 1972 until her death in 1989. Vreeland, who the previous year had been removed as Vogue editor upon turning 70, was in no mood to be put out to pasture. She had, for Koda, “a very different perspective on presenting clothes.” Her pictorial and editorial responses to the ferment of the 1960s suggested conceptual themes—ones often missed amid all the beauty and sexuality. “No matter how feverish”—and Koda used the term to evoke the sheer thrill of Vreeland’s Vogue—“there was really always quite a lucid idea governing the work.” And so it became at the Met. Vreeland would rattle the viewer’s received notions by setting 19th century costume against ’70s and ’80s music and décor. In effect, she “presented” by actually making present what might have been thought “period.” And it achieved that rarest of curatorial feats—snatching Art from the ghetto of Artifact.

Charles James: Beyond Fashion, 2014

Whatever the innovations, those pre-Anna years tend now to get knocked a bit for an imagined stuffiness, but that’s neither fair nor correct. Apart from Vreeland’s decisive influence, gala chairs Eleanor Lambert (the event’s founder), and, later, Jacqueline Onassis, and later yet, even Pat Buckley, were very much “modern women” in their respective times and ways. The tribute to Wintour is that the fundraising and publicity power have exploded so dramatically as to make everything that came before seem somehow plodding by comparison. There’s a delicious whiff of old man Hearst in the equation, with Anna saying, in effect: “Give me the pictures, and I’ll give you the spectacle.” As to the gala itself: The party draws tout le monde, both to celebrate those forms and to throw them into high relief against the rest of the culture. “Hollywood adds a wonderful frisson,” Koda told me, “but so much of the evening’s visual signature is provided by the sight of these ethereal models wearing the clothes.” Gisele’s Helen of Troy brushes up against the Great and the Good. In the end, everyone else is a mere luminary. Lizzie Tisch herself sounded charmingly starstruck talking about the gala: “Seeing the museum lit up at night and with all the people watching and the outfit-watching, it’s a magical New York evening. All you have to do is make sure not to trip when going up the steps.” Koda has concerns beyond the Museum stairs: Still, he admitted he was excited—“almost giddy” was how Lizzie Tisch put it—over Charles James and the Institute’s new horizons, and also the oncoming glamour circus of the party. Koda was also lavish in his praise of stalwarts like Oscar de la Renta, and his recognition of the new generation led by people like Lizzie Tisch and James exhibit sponsor Aerin Lauder. “She’s so important generally, but to this exhibit particularly,” he said of Tisch. As for Lauder, her admirable, not-quite-commonplace dual life as working mother and entrepreneur seemed to strike Koda’s conceptual fancy, in particular. “She so embodies the James sensibility in a modern context.” ✦ MARCH 2014 • AVENUE MAGAZINE | 77

Profile for AVENUE Magazine

AVENUE March 2014  

Founded in 1976, AVENUE is a must-read among the city’s most discerning, stylish and savvy audiences. As Manhattan’s oldest society magazine...

AVENUE March 2014  

Founded in 1976, AVENUE is a must-read among the city’s most discerning, stylish and savvy audiences. As Manhattan’s oldest society magazine...

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