When this year's Met Gala marked the opening of The Costume Institute's Charles James: Beyond Fashion exhibition, all eyes were on designer Zac Posen. Posen's been known to channel James on more than one occasion, most recently citing him as the inspiration for his Fall 2014 collection. I decided to drop by for Sunday at the Met when I heard the designer would be sitting down with exhibition co-curator Jan Glier Reeder to discuss James' work and his influence on Posen's own designs.
Immediately after taking a seat on the stage, Posen remarked at how The Costume Institute played a part in shaping his career; as a teenager in high school, the designer interned for three years under then-curator Richard Martin. But when it came to discovering Charles James, he credits artist Rene Ricard (who passed away in February) as having introduced him to James' work. This discovery would play a huge part in defining Posen's design esthetic, who at only 33 years old has become a favorite of the international fashion industry and consumers with his masterful command of draping and structure - both results of having studied James' work.
Some of the most famed Zac Posen designs to have graced both the runway and red-carpet involve pin-tucking, a decidedly Jamesonian technique. When Reeder asks what first drew the designer to this technique, he quickly cuts in "Control. Control, contour, freedom."
The next slide pops up and it's James' Coq Noir Evening Dress, which Reeder passionately remarks is her favorite. Both she and Posen muse at how the asymmetrical bustle was daring for the time period (the dress dates back to 1937). In discussing the 3-dimensional approach to designing on a form rather than on paper, Posen is suddenly inspired to coin a term: "Emotional Engineering". He uses this concept to define what he believes is the similarity between he and James; more than their designs, it's a matter of process. He explains that by draping fabric on a body, continually experimenting, eventually the structure will "resolve" to leave you with cuts. This process also supported James' aversion to using side seams, which has carried into Posen's work.
We move on James' Diamond Evening Dress. Posen gushes,
"She's just so strange! It's like sophisticated sex."
The audience laughs along, affected by his excitement. Posen and Reeder go on to dissect the garment's construction, both surprised to discover nuances they've never noticed before (Reeder thinks the back symbolizes femininity a la O'Keefe, and Posen points out how the lines create an illusion of simultaneously accentuating and slimming curves).
In reference to a James-designed suit, Posen points out how the designer would apply corrections to the female from by finding the most flattering cuts in a garment, essentially using them to reshape the body:
"He was a plastic surgeon - with fashion."
He talks about the Met Gala and designing Ditta Von Tesse's stunning red-carpet gown. He speaks passionately on how he was inspired by her half-moon manicure, the delicacy and precision in how she applies her own makeup. (I make a mental note that I must attempt my own half-moon mani).
The conversation spontaneously evolves from The Gala to the psychological aspects of wearing a ball-gown, as Posen realizes that one reason "the girls" love a big gown is that it protects their personal space. He explains that "imagination and high-art" can become "function and utility". A ball-gown doubles as a bodyguard? I'm floored. I know that all girls (including myself) feel like they are magically transformed into more of a lady the moment they put on a voluminous gown, but now I really understand the reason behind this phenomenon. Not only do we feel like we're transported to a time when women were treated more delicately, but wearing a gown actually elicits a more gentle approach even today; consider how, well - hard - it would be for someone to sneakily press his crotch against your backside with a huge bustle in the way (pun intended).
I can't really remember what prompted it, but at some point during these observations Posen starts "vogue-ing" in his chair, and the audience bursts into applause. It's an endearing glimpse at the designer as a funny, charismatic guy in spite of his success.
As the conversation slowly comes to an end, Posen adds a few final thoughts:
"We're in the age of appropriation" he says, commenting how he's vowed to strike words like "modern" and "edgy" - which he says have become overused terms to describe fashion that carry no specific meaning - from his vocabulary (I agree and immediately vow to do the same). He offers wisdom to the aspiring designers in the crowd, saying that if you're designing you need to be wearing your own clothes to understand how they make people feel and admitting he did the same in his "younger days". He finishes with an impactful reflection on design, explaining that it's "not about the results", but about finding the best possible process.
"It's about the experience."