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Recalling Charles James: Homer Layne

Homer Layne was Charles James's last assistant, from 1971 through 1978. He attended a class James taught at Pratt Institute and later became his trusted assistant. Layne held onto James's designs and archives for thirty-five years before they were acquired by The Costume Institute. Layne reveals heartfelt memories of the designer and discusses the extraordinary vision behind his designs and theories.

Mr. Layne is a retired fashion designer.

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: Homer Layne was still a student studying fashion when he attended a series of lectures by Charles James. Layne would go on to become James's trusted assistant. But in the beginning, he was simply a young man eager to learn the art of haute couture.

Homer Layne: Well, I was a student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. In the fall of 1970, he came and gave one-semester seminars, like once a week. The first meeting, the room was—it was standing room only, all the chairs were filled, and people were standing around the wall. By the end of the twelve or thirteen sessions, I guess, there were only four students left, and I was one. He tends to go off on tangents. I think it was hard for a lot of the students to follow along.

Alina Cho: But Layne was drawn to James from the beginning.

Homer Layne: The first time, he brought the spiral wraparound dress from 1929. I'd never seen anything quite that simple, yet it looked complicated. So the one side of the bodice—the whole skirt wraps around the body. It's all cut from one pattern piece. Then it has a back and sleeves and a—and another side of the bodice. And you just wind it around and hook it. It's also called the Taxi Dress because one of his clients in England who had it, she said, you know, "You could really change in a—in a taxi, and not have to stand up. You could just unwind it and pull it off."

I got more interested, seeing his patterns. Because in school, they really teach you just the basics. You know, you have bust darts, side darts, waist darts. But his were somewhere else, or no darts at all, so it really fascinated me.

Alina Cho: James saw something special in Layne, too.

Homer Layne: He saw more than I thought of myself, in me, I guess. And he wanted me to stop school and come and work with him and I said no, I wanted to get my degree. So I worked with him on weeknights, on days that I didn't have classes, which was either one or two days a week, depending on the schedule, and weekends. And I would go in, like one o'clock in the afternoon and come home at midnight or something, back to Brooklyn.

Alina Cho: Layne was just starting out, and James had rules.

Homer Layne: The first thing was the dog, Sputnik. He had to have a walk. So you walked Sputnik, or rather, he walked you, because he was a huge, big beagle. And usually before I went home, another walk, and then in between, you know, I did patterns. He would draw and we would also make patterns together. And I was able to follow along and sort of jump ahead of what he was doing, and I guess he liked that. We would talk about, you know, resolutions of things that we were working on, the way he wanted it. And if it were sewing, you know, he wanted it sewn a certain way. If something didn't go right, he would just explode, you know. And maybe if you were working on a pattern, it would be ripped up. And thrown up in the air. And then, a few minutes later, you know, that was over, then you got back to work as if nothing happened. He sort of railroaded anything that he started, where it might work out. He wanted too much control. He didn't like to have other people do it. He wanted to control, which for his part was bad.

Alina Cho: But Layne believed in James's vision.

Homer Layne: Well, I thought, you know, that I might not be able to work with him, and that sometimes, you know, it was just getting to be a little bit too much. But I stuck it out because I think I realized, you know, that this was someone who created works of art, really.

Alina Cho: There was another reason he stuck it out.

Homer Layne: He was generous, and he was kind. He even bought a fur coat for himself when I was in school, a brown bearskin coat. And he insisted that I take it. I didn't know what I did to deserve it, but he actually insisted. You know, he would not take it back. And I still have it 'til this day.

He was kind and considerate. A lot of people don't—you know, the stories that go around, I don't think they have that image of him.

Alina Cho: And then, there was the love they both shared of the craft, and the joy they shared in getting it right.

Homer Layne: He liked things to be perfect. If it wasn't, he reworked and reworked and recut, 'til he got it as perfect as he could. You know, like if he wanted—making a garment, he was having a section that was giving him problems, it was bubbling too much on one seam, he would take that pattern piece, lay down, like, four layers of muslin, all on different grains, and he would cut that same piece through all four layers. Then he would take that pattern piece and try it on the... If the garment were on the mannequin, take that piece out and try all of the other pieces, 'til he found the one that was perfect, that didn't get bunching or puckering, that would make a smooth seam.

He still had garments that he produced over a span of thirty or forty years. He was always making improvements on the next one. There is one sleeve that—it's called the $20,000 sleeve. And he made suit after suit, sleeve after sleeve, perfecting the fit and the shape of this sleeve. It's curved, and it has a very high armhole, sorta like military uniforms from the Civil War because then, your uniform, you had to be able to shoot a gun. So he says that, you know, that this sleeve in this jacket, if it's open, if you move your arm, it doesn't displace the front of the jacket. Most jackets, if you do that, you know, the whole front moves over.

Alina Cho: James undoubtedly turned to architecture for inspiration.

Homer Layne: He liked architecture. So I had a car then, so we would drive all over the city. And he could tell me, you know, if a new building went up, he could tell me what building was there before. And maybe the one before that. And he liked the South Street Seaport. A member of his family, like a great-great-grandfather, actually had a business there, in shipping. So we spent a lot of time there.

Alina Cho: Layne was also there during James's feud with Halston, a fashion designer and James's former apprentice.

Homer Layne: He felt he didn't get his due recognition from Halston. He used a lot of his ideas and silhouettes and shapes, like the figure-eight skirt, the wraparound pants, the bubble top. All of those things were Charles James. And the one-sided neckline, which he did in the thirties. And Halston, you know, that was his big thing, the asymmetric neckline. And he felt he didn't get recognition. That's all he wanted was recognition.

Alina Cho: Layne spent seven years working with the master, and after James died, Layne inherited a treasure: his archives.

Homer Layne: Ultimately, a collection of about ninety pieces of clothing. I had them in two storage spaces, and my closets in my apartment were full of Charles James clothes. My clothes were on a hanging rack.

Alina Cho: He also owned a wealth of James's drawings.

Homer Layne: Over about 1600 drawings, I guess, in total. I didn't know there were that many until I got to counting. And he told me to hang onto these, because someday they will be very important and the value would grow, which it certainly did.

Alina Cho: Most of the clothes and archival materials are now at the Met so the public, too, can learn from Charles James just as Layne did so many years ago.

Homer Layne: He was really ahead of his time. I think he would say, you know, that he deserved it, which I think he does.

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