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She is Haute: Gizzelle James, A Couturiere

By  Sam Mukoro
In my tireless trek around Atlanta for a tailor four years ago, I happened upon a studio at the recommendation of a friend who owned a boutique in Atlanta’s hip Midtown district. Like a breath of fresh air, her magnetic charm welcomed me and in that first experience, she showed me what being a seasoned professional was all about and what was to come as one of her clients.

Gizzelle James
Gizzelle James

Nobody in the haute couture realm in Atlanta can do ‘pieces’ quite like Trinidad born couturiere Gizzelle James whose inspiration began as a child working alongside her mother, a wedding dress couturiere. No stranger to gutsy design, she not only delights in creating couture for clients but also has a knack for breathing life into old clothes with a touch of modernity. Known for her extraordinary style and raw fashion sensibility, I recently sat down with James to find out more about the woman who helps her client’s wardrobes come to life with a little needle, thread and such.

SM:  Miss Gizzelle James, there is certainly more to your business than just alterations as I’ve witnessed as one of your clients here in Atlanta. When was your passion for fashion and design born?

GJ:  I began at a young age growing up in Trinidad. My mother designs couture wedding pieces and started me off beading wedding gowns and Alençon lace. With patience and continued guidance, my skills developed and I eventually took the family business and branched out. It’s the first love of my life and when you love something, it begins to flow naturally. I’m blessed because my creative energy has grown so much throughout the years that I’ve been in this business.

SM:   There is an old adage that says, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, and I guess this is certainly true between you and your mother. I don’t think I know another mother and daughter team who are couture fashion designers. Am I saying that correctly?

GJ:  Couturiere is the term you are looking for. That’s a person who is knowledgeable, capable, dependable and certainly confident to work on high-end fashion. Haute couture entails handling very expensive, very fine fabrics, beading, details, etc. So having experience goes without saying. I also restyle and refashion. I take pre-existing pieces and make changes according to the character of the person who’s going to be wearing them. You know, give older things a new attitude.

SM:  Very nice. There is a lot of flexibility with what you do. The term is certainly befitting for the type of custom work produced. Let’s talk more about your journey from a young lady beading gowns to now.

GJ:  Well, from that point I fell in love with designing clothing and started dabbling in this and that as relates to it. The top that I’m wearing today is one my mother and I created in the late ’80s.

SM:  Very nice. That color blue is striking.
GJ:  Thank you. Originally it was a dress that was used in a fashion show. I just cut it and made it into a top.
SM:  Okay. It reminds of a vintage Isaac Mizrahi look but now that I think about it, I think Isaac’s similar design was out in the 90’s. So you were really ahead of the curve!

GJ:  I’m a Piscean, so I daydream a lot.  Another thing too, I like to watch a lot of older movies and follow magazines.  My creative intelligence allows me to jump in to character, so to speak.  So whenever I design something, the client I am designing for is in the forefront of my mind. That has helped me a lot as far as being able to understand my clients wants and needs.

Their goal to exude confidence and look and feel good in custom clothing, especially couture, is what the Gizzelle James Couturiere brand strives to deliver. For instance, we designed gowns for President Obama’s numerous inauguration balls this year. Many of my clients are people who want to stand out and appreciate the admirable glances of onlookers when they seemingly glide through a room in their fabulous pieces. Not in a bizarre, costume-ish way but in a uniquely elegant manner. You know what I mean? Do you ever get that feeling when you are all dressed up?

SM:    Absolutely. When you tailor my suits, they are perfect. Even if it’s one I purchased from a retailer, most think its custom or bespoke because its hugs my frame like it was made just for me.  Where does your inspiration come from when you’re commissioned to create a design for a client?

GJ:    My inspiration comes from the character of the person.  I interview my clients to find out more about their personality, their fears, what they like, their favorite colors and fabrics they prefer.  If they aren’t certain what they are looking for, I basically sit back, examine their character and then I’ll think back in time, daydream a bit while creativity begins to flow naturally.

SM:  If you had to write about the rules of proper fit, what would the top three?
GJ:  Proper fit.  Number one pertains to men’s jackets. If a jacket is fitted perfectly, the client should be able to create multiple looks, not just solely with trousers.  We’ve had clients we’ve fitted suit jackets on so well that they felt comfortable enough to pair the jacket with jeans and trousers other than the pair initially sold with it.

I find this important when it comes to traveling because it reduces the amount of clothes they need to pack. My second rule of proper fit is for men’s trousers. The waist of a nice pair of trousers should be adjusted well, any looseness in the seat should be corrected, legs should be tapered but nothing too trendy and the length just right. There are so many men that run the wrong length in trousers and it makes them look so dated, you know.

SM: Yes, there seems to be no commoner mistake than that of the ill-fitting trouser. What would you consider to be the right length?
GJ: The classic length is where the back of the trouser falls at the back of the shoe and sits just where it meets the heel. The front depends on what the client wants.  There’s usually a full break, a medium break and a slight break. What’s popular now is the slight break or no break at all, depending on the confidence of the man.

SM:And the third rule?
GJ:The third is shirts. Many of my clients are primarily concerned about the fit of their collar. A shirt that fits very well around the collar means you should be able to easily place one finger inside the closed collar as opposed to three. Beyond the collar, it really depends on the person wearing the shirt. Store bought shirts are made for the masses. Although many men share the same neck size, their bodies are different so their tailoring guidelines will be different.

SM:So basically you’re saying what you do with my shirts every time I buy a new shirt and come to you for a fitting, you use a methodology just for my body type.

GJ:Exactly. We trim your shirts down and give you a close-fitted look because of your slim frame. Sleeve length has to be very perfect as well but again, it’s a matter of personal preference. Usually, my recommendation is sleeves should protrude no more than half an inch to three-quarters of an inch. You know, there are rules in fashion but there aren’t rules in fashion. There was a time when wearing white after Labor Day was considered a fashion faux pas.  Some people still follow that rule while others have abandoned it.  It really is a matter of personal preference.

SM: Is your more discerning client a male or a female, and why do you think that is?
GJ: Believe it or not, my business has evolved where I’m finding I have more men that are particular about the way they dress. There was a time where I never tapered or altered shirts for clients.

Right now I am working on several shirts for a client who’s very particular.  People are more body conscious now. They are working out more, more conscious of what they eat, so of course their bodies are more fit. So when you’re buying pieces off the rack and they don’t fall right on the body you’ve worked so hard to sculpt, you immediately take notice. Men want their clothes to fit properly not just hanging on them sloppily.

SM: Precisely. Do you have male clients you consider to be international men?
GJ: Yes, they live here and travel all over the world. I tailor their wardrobes so they are fashionable and appropriate no matter where they are in the world.

SM: If you could work with any designer, who would it be?
GJ:There are two. Both of them have passed away but they were my favorite growing up. The first is Givenchy. He was the first to bring black women and men to the forefront as far as matching bold colors with our skin tones.

The other was Yves Saint Laurent, also world-renowned. During his Rive Gauche era, he created very simple designs utilizing the color blocking method with vibrant colors. Last winter we designed a lovely yellow and black version of an Yves Saint Laurent original. There are many other designers that I admire but those two were trendsetters back in the ’80s and I really familiarized myself with their work while working with my mother. Their designs and styles were effortless and will forever influence fashion.
SM:This looks like a vintage Yves Saint Laurent T-shirt. Are you restyling it?


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