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Recalling Charles James: Elsa Peretti

Elsa Peretti first served as a fit model for Charles James before becoming his muse and close friend in the 1960s and 1970s. She describes his charisma and genius, as well as his relationship and eventual falling-out with his former apprentice, Halston.

Ms. Peretti is a jewelry 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: Elsa Peretti was a fit model for Charles James in the 1960s and 1970s. She first met him through his former apprentice, Halston, who was already becoming a household name himself.

Elsa Peretti: You know, I met him through Halston. Halston said, "Elsa, Charles wants to do a fitting with you." This guy, he was a fascinating kind of person. Like crazy a little bit, but I mean a genius, a genius in fashion.

Alina Cho: Over the years, a friendship slowly burgeoned.

Elsa Peretti: I was a model at the moment, see? And then little by little, I got to be a friend of him, because I appreciate him a lot. But at the beginning, I can tell you how, for me, was dramatic to do a fitting with him. A fitting with Charles James, fitting a pair of pants was lasting like two hours and a half listening to Brahms or other classical music. And to have Charles pinning me sometimes the pin will go into my body. But I learned a lot listening to this spirit.

He made me a lot of pants. And he saw that I really appreciate him, because you always appreciate somebody if they do something that you feel in yourself, that you cannot express. This pair of pants, it was a grey flannel, I give them to my mother. And she say, "Who did these pants?" She told me that they were the best pair of pants she had in her life.

Alina Cho: James always considered the woman's shape and movement in his designs.

Elsa Peretti: He did a shape on me that I have in the country here. And he said, "Elsa, don't get so thin, because people, they should design around you, not—you should not make any sacrifice."

I mean, I don't think a designer should make a woman suffer. And Charles would make maybe a model suffer, but women, they were comfortable in the—in these clothes, you know?

He understood women, you know? He understood women. And one time I remember something funny, because I arrive at like, oh, it's very late. And he told me, "I am sure you spend a lot of time choosing what you are wearing." And it's true. And he knew exactly that I was late because I was choosing what I wore as a necklace. Which at that time, I had only two necklaces, the amber one and another one. And he said, "It's good you chose the amber." But you see, he had that kind of—I don't know—the kind of thing he understood women very well.

Alina Cho: She remembers a certain black cocktail dress that James brought to her apartment one day in a shopping bag.

Elsa Peretti: He told me, "This dress belongs in your closet." And then I wore—I wore it only once, and then he took it back and I never saw it again. It was a beautiful dress. But beautiful because the light—and then the way you could walk in it. You know, strong. It was fantastic. In fact, I went out with an Italian guy in this dress.

Alina Cho: The dress was a hit.

Elsa Peretti: I felt great. And because it was the walking that was important. The lightness of the dress, and to put it on and not to have any problems, you know? I think it's a dress that you could wear for twenty, forty years you know? I miss so much this dress.

Alina Cho: As beautiful as the clothes were, and as easy as they were to wear, James struggled in other areas. He was awful in matters of business. During this time, Halston was becoming a runaway success. Halston eventually hired James as a consultant, but the two designers could not get along.

Elsa Peretti: Halston was basically very jealous and he understood the superiority of Charles. I mean, Charles was a full-time job. He could not have all his people working just on Charles, it was impossible. I understood both of them. One asking a lot and one not—speaking about Halston—one not to be able to give enough, you know? Charles was somebody who wanted everything, everything.

Bitter was right, because nobody wanted to deal with him, because he had that famous temper, no? Bitter. But I remember him as a genius, not a bitter. And he was kind of funny, too. And then he had a lot of friends. Because all the kids at the end around, they loved him. You know, and they learned a lot of stuff from him.

Alina Cho: The partnership did not last. James's last shot ended in disaster. And just three decades after his death, his name was all but forgotten, until now.

Elsa Peretti: I never felt really sorry for him, because I knew he was very strong. But I feel sorry that he wasn't recognized. He deserved to be recognized much before, you know?

He had that kind of question in his eyes, because he'd say, "I'm so good. Why people, they don't like me?" I mean, he had so much to say. It's so sad that only now people recognize him. I wish I was a little bit more prepared to ask him a lot of things. If I knew Charles now, I will ask so many things. I would like to know about his frustration, about—about his life. He was very bitter at the end, but I was really a friend of him at the end.

Alina Cho: Peretti hopes young designers who come to see the Charles James exhibition will study his work and learn how to make stunning and practical clothes.

Elsa Peretti: I hope they will change their way of designing now, you know? I tell you, I'm really very sorry about—about how people design now clothes, you know. But he was so new in his approach. He had genius, but a lot of common sense stuff. Common sense. Linked with genius. Common sense linked with genius. I mean, you don't design a pocket that doesn't hold a pair of glasses, you know? Common sense and genius are the best.

How you follow his idea of design, that was interesting to me. Because it was not interesting to me that he was speaking about all the big clients that he had, the important clients. For me, he was working on my body and I felt that it was something very different than Halston also had, but that Charles had for sure.

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