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Recalling Charles James: Paul Caranicas

Paul Caranicas knew Charles James in the late 1960s and 1970s through the illustrator Antonio Lopez, who sketched hundreds of James's pieces during this time. Caranicas explains James's artistry and distaste for business and offers amusing anecdotes from these later years.

Mr. Caranicas is a painter.

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: Paul Caranicas knew Charles James through famed fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez. Over a ten-year period starting in 1964, Lopez drew every garment James ever designed. They worked closely together, and Caranicas was there with them much of the time.

Paul Caranicas: They would go to the Chelsea, to his stu—. He had three studios at that time and eventually only two, and they would get a model. And Charles would dress the model the way it should be, because sometimes his clothes are hard to—it's hard to tell how they're supposed to fit. He would fix the clothing up, and then they would bring a model of their choice—they had favorite models—and they would draw them. If there was no female model available, it didn't matter because Charles's clothes fit on everybody. It didn't even matter if you were short or tall or fat or thin; the clothing always fit in some way. And he would often just put the clothes on himself and show us the way the clothing was supposed to fit. And you could put it on, anybody could put it on, and it fit.

Alina Cho: Lopez would then draw what was clearly a sight for the eyes.

Paul Caranicas: What I remember most about them is the colors. They're just so gorgeous. The colors are, like, so—he had an incredible sense of color. They were not what you'd expect. You'd turn the dress—you'd turn the corner of a dress and it would be a color you would never have expected. Which was kind of great.

Alina Cho: Sumptuous colors aside, James was known for his unique patterns, which many describe as "mathematical."

Paul Caranicas: He had this whole theory about there were certain points in the clothes that had to be there, and they had to be precisely there, in order for the draping of the cloth, of the dress, or the coat, or whatever it is, to fit. And it worked.

Alina Cho: These were garments so masterfully produced, Salvador Dalí even called one piece by James "the first soft sculpture."

Paul Caranicas: I considered him a sculptor. Nowadays it's maybe a little bit different because people collaborate a lot and you get people to make your things. But back then, an artist had a vision, and he wanted to realize it. So he was basically in the wrong profession, as far as I'm concerned, because, you know, you have to collaborate with a million people when you're making clothing, including the marketers and the merchants. So that was his point of view. It would be, like, the "merchants," as he would call them, were impossible. You know, they were—they just did not agree with him. And so then he would get very frustrated and very angry.

Alina Cho: But that mentality did not serve James well in business.

Paul Caranicas: Merchandising. You have to know what that involves, how it's going to happen, who you're going to collaborate with, who you're going to kowtow to. You know, all those things are very important. And he just didn't have it.

The state was in disarray, the state of his business. But I was aware, because he let me know in no uncertain terms, about all the past, from the fifty—the forties, the fifties, maybe even the thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties, and all the people he had dealt with during those times, and the people he hated, including Halston and Diana Vreeland. They were like his archenemies. He would call Halston a dressmaker and Diana Vreeland a witch.

Alina Cho: James's temper was famous. Part of the problem was he was always right.

Paul Caranicas: It was very hard for him to accept the fact he—that other people thought they knew better. I remember going to the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, with him. And he was having his first major retrospective, and the curator of the show—I remember her name, Trop Blumberg—Mrs. Trop Blumberg—because he enunciated it in disdain to her, when he saw that she had hung something in the wrong place. It was a drawing that she hung in the entrance, as you came into the museum, and he felt it shouldn't be there 'cause it was a drawing by Antonio. So he took it off the wall. It was the opening night that night, and he walked out of the museum with it. He said, "This is mine, and I'm not having it here." And we had to chase him down the street and convince him that he should take it back and they would put it in another place. And he said, "Mrs. Trop Blumberg did it." It went back up, but not where she had put it. But yeah, it went back up. He was fine with having it where he wanted it.

Alina Cho: There were also tender moments that Caranicas will never forget.

Paul Caranicas: We had a birthday party for him—it was his last birthday—at the studio. And that was kind of great. We had a great studio on 18th and Broadway, and it was 3,500 square feet of space, you know, two stories high. It was a wonderful studio. And all our models, they used to stay with us. You know, his models, rather, used to live with us. And Charles loved that. You know, he loved that atmosphere. And so he was thrilled that we had a birthday party for him, and it was a great party. We had dinner, and we had a birthday cake, and a lot of the models came and, you know, I think he really enjoyed himself.

Alina Cho: Caranicas recognizes at least one aspect of today's culture that James would've appreciated.

Paul Caranicas: Well, I think, you know, the gay part is very important, because he was married and he had two kids. He wasn't able ever to be comfortable with that when he was young. I think later he was; he was fine. But I think, you know, that comes with our century, or the twentieth century. And the twenty-first even more now. He didn't live into that. But I think he would've been very happy to see that part of what became, with gay rights and all that stuff that happened in America. He died just on the cusp of all that, you know? It was, I mean, Stonewall had happened, but not much after, so—but I think he would be very happy about that. I mean, it just wasn't—you know, that's the way it was, in those days. I mean, you could be gay, but you couldn't be out.

Alina Cho: And what does he think of James's legacy now?

Paul Caranicas: He was ahead of his time, in some ways. I mean, it doesn't matter if you're successful during your lifetime, if you're gonna be successful forever. What's the difference?

If you look at it from a point of view of the American dream, yes, it's a tragedy he didn't become like the most fa—. He didn't become Balenciaga. But so what? He's becoming it now.

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