Fierce at 40: Wayne James’ Journey Through Four Decades of Fashion
The Wayne James fashion label will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2027. And to mark that milestone, much is abuzz at Wayne James, Ltd: A researcher has been retained to cull the designer’s major press reports, beginning with the March 1, 1987 Washington Post article announcing his first collection showing in New York’s SoHo while in his last semester of law school at Georgetown; James’ Carnival Seasonings line has been expanded and rebranded as Wayne James’ Seasonings for Men; a fashion historian is preparing a feature on the designer’s remarkable contributions to African American fashion history; and on July 3, 2023, James will launch CELEBRATION, his new French-made fragrance. Two more fragrances will be launched by 2027.
“One of the reasons for my longevity in this fickle industry called fashion is my autonomy—forty years after my debut, I still own 100% of Wayne James, Ltd.,” James said. “Over the decades, I’ve witnessed designers touted as ‘The Toast of 7th Avenue,’ ‘The New Darling of Fashion,’ ‘The Next Big Thing,’ fall by the wayside of New York’s at once famed and infamous Garment District,” he continues, “But I’ve never had backers and investors. So, I’ve always answered first and foremost to my artistic vision and to my customers. Yes, my garments are lined in silk. And yes, I use New York manufacturers even though they are more expensive than overseas ones. And yes, I insist on exquisite linen. But so what? It’s what I want, and its what my customers demand. And no boardroom bores can tell me otherwise.”
And it was Wayne James’ “boss-moves bravado” that inspired him to first launch his condiments line 30 years ago, in 1993, and now his fragrance, CELEBRATION, in 2023. And between those two benchmarks have been the designer’s Manly Manners books on modern male comportment (2016, 2017); his foray into filmmaking, yielding the 3-part, 6-hour docufilm on Cuba titled The Grandeur of Golden-Age Cuba (2022); and his internationally acclaimed Middle Passage Monument Project, which, in 1999, earned him the International Humanitarian Award in Paris, France.
“Fashion is, by definition, an ever-changing industry,” James said. “You can’t be a successful designer and be stagnant. We must constantly invent and re-invent—not only fashion, but oftentimes ourselves—if we are to remain relevant in an ever-changing environment.”
In many ways, Wayne James was tailor-made for fashion. His paternal great-great-great-great-grandmother, Africa-born Azontha (1785-August 3, 1857), who arrived to St. Croix from Africa onboard a slaving vessel at the tender age of 13, was a seamstress [and therefore, in those days, a designer] at the Annaly Plantation. Azontha was so devoted to her profession that she took the plantation’s manager to court in 1821 for attempting to make her cut sugarcane rather than create garments. James’ mother, Evelyn Messer James (1931-2022) was one of five sisters, four of whom mastered the art of dressmaking such that they could make, “freehand,” the glamorous designer garments they would see gracing the pages of Vogue in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. And James, one of 10 children, saw his five beautiful, elegant sisters, the tallest of whom stands 6’2”, getting dressed in the latest fashions.
“I grew up surrounded by beautiful people wearing beautiful garments. The best fashion magazines and beauty products were always in the house,” James said. “So, it was only natural for me to gravitat towards the beauty industry.”
By the age of 14, James had already achieved his adulthood height of 6’4”. And with his wide shoulders, long neck, and elegant carriage, it was only a matter of time before he found himself immersed in the world of modeling. His body was built to showcase clothing.
“At age 15, Ralph Wilson recruited me to join C.C. Models [Caribbean Couture Models]. In those days, back in the mid-to-late ‘70s, anybody who was young and beautiful joined C.C. Models. In many ways, modeling with C.C. was our first rendezvous with the beaty business,” James recalls.
During the latter half of his high school years, James worked part-time at The Jeans Shop [Caribbean Clothing Company], owned and operated by Mark Ferdschneider and Tom Miller. And it was there that James got first-had experience with the business end of fashion: selling. Young James even accompanied the store’s owners on a buying-trip to New York, the owner’s allowing him to place a few orders for collections that he thought, based on his retail experience at the store, would sell well.
“My tenure at The Jeans Shop was invaluable,” James said. “I learned that simplicity sells. That clothing must be designed to fit different body-types. That most people aren’t built like fashion models.”
An English literature major during his undergraduate years at Bradley University, James graduated at the top of the department in 1983. But while at Bradley, while burning the proverbial “midnight oil” as he read Shakespeare and Milton and Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, James honed his fashion skills.
“Each year, during Garret Week [a week to honor Bradley’s first Master’s Degree graduate, African American scholar Romeo B. Garrett], James would choreograph an on-campus fashion show and curate the campus’ most beautiful students to model for the event.
Thus, when James entered Georgetown’s Law Center in the fall of 1984, it was with a singular mission: to earn a Juris Doctorate in order to become a fashion designer. And from the first semester of his first year of lawl school, he started organizing what would become Wayne James, Ltd.
“I knew that I had a one-shot opportunity to make my entrance into the fashion world. And if that didn’t work, I would have to, regrettably, practice law,” James said. “So, I decided to build my first collection around the hand-knitting tradition of the descendants of the Incas. And to get the wool and the knitters, I went high up into the Andes Mountains of Ecuador to engage the Otavalo natives to craft the collection of sweaters, sweater-dresses, and sweater-skirt sets. The result was a never-before-seen collection that was at once rustic and urbane, colorful and hued, classic but modern,” James said. “I relied upon their age-old traditions of working with wool, and I combined that with my worldly sensibilities,” James said.
After travelling to Ecuador—with his textbooks—for weeks at a time in the midst of the fall and spring semesters of his second year of law school, James had his precious samples. And in the summer of 1986, just before beginning his third and final year of law school (and after doing a summer law clerkship with one of the judges of the Territorial Court of the United States Virgin Islands), James conducted the first official fashion shoot of his career, relying upon many of his C.C. Models friends, Lisa Galiber, who had gone on to model in Miami then Copenhagen and Italy before gracing the pages of French Vogue and the front cover of London’s Caribbean World, serving as muse for James’ collection and fashion shoot. Cornell University-educated photographer Harvey Ferdschneider, brother of Mark Ferdschneider of The Jeans Shop, was flown in to St. Croix from New York for the photoshoot.
Photos in hand and collection samples in boxes, James started his last year of law school in the fall of 1986. And in February of 1987, Virgin Islands Director of Tourism Leona Bryant called a contact at the Washington Post and asked her to introduce James to the paper’s fashion editor. James’ interview in the Washington Post was published on March 1, 1987, generating a buzz on the campus of the venerated university.
“I showed my first collection on March 30, 1987, at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery at 99 Spring Street in SoHo,” James recalls. “I asked some of the most picturesque Georgetown undergrads to be my models, and they were thrilled to do it. The New York fashion press showed up for the showing, and I was on my way as a designer,” James said.
A week later, on April 6, 1987, New York’s esteemed Bergdorf Goodman bought the exclusive New York rights to James’ first collection.
“After the showing, I was staying at the St. Moritz Hotel, Central Park South. I made the appointment to show the collection to Bergdorf’s designer sportswear buyer Pat Henderson. She had studied costume design at New York’s F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology), so she was more than a buyer; she was a designer and a buyer,” James recounts. “When I showed her the collection, she let out a scream: ‘Oh my God! These are gorgeous! The colors!’ “
Henderson then got on the phone and called her mother: “Here in my office, right now, is this tall, elegant, handsome, Georgetown law school student and his hand-knits. They are so beautiful, I want to eat them!”
Immediately after her brief chat with her mother, Henderson pulled out a Bergdorf Goodman purchase order and hand-wrote an order on the spot.
“I can’t give you as big an order as Macy’s. But what I can give you is Bergdorf’s name. And the name ‘Bergdorf Goodman’ will open doors for you in this business. But I’ll need to get the exclusive Manhattan rights to the collection. Agreed?”
James agreed. And it was a decision he would never regret. He would forever be able to say that his very first account was the great Bergdorf Goodman.
“While in the throes of pulling the collection together, and amidst all the angst associated with abandoning a prestigious legal education to embark instead upon a career in fashion, I had asked God to give me a sign that I was making the right decision,” James said. “And the contract from Bergdorf’s, the nation’s premiere retailer of designer garments, was my sign. I started out on the top. Bergdorf’s had, and still has, no equal.”
James went on to sell his garments in fine stores around the world, and his career has been chronicled in practically every major fashion publication, from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and UPI (United Press International), to Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) and the Daily News Record (DNR), and from Elle Magazine to Ebony, Essence, and Jet, to GQ. By James’ side during the early years was his dear, dear Georgetown friend, Shahryar Hakimi.
“Just when things got so hectic that I felt like I needed a clone, Shahryar postposed his practice of law to help me build the company. We worked side-by-side for five years (1990-95). I am a designer today because of Shahryar’s invaluable contributions to Wayne James, Ltd.,” James said.
“Introducing a fragrance is no small undertaking,” James continues. “But it’s a great milestone for a design house. A peacock must have a fanciful tail; a bull must have a formidable horn; and a designer must have a fabulous fragrance. I have started the conversation with Bergdorf Goodman regarding that venerable retailer serving as the situs for the New York launch of CELEBRATION.
“The journey from fashion shoot to fragrance has been a most fascinating one,” James said. “And I couldn’t have done it alone. Surviving and thriving in the arts is no walk in the park. There have been lots of lifelines thrown by friends, family, and strangers alike, And I’ve always remained committed to the mission: to create beautiful things.”
CELEBRATION will be officially unveiled on July 3, 2023, in recognition of the 175th anniversary of Emancipation in the Danish West Indies. CELEBRATION will be available in select stores worldwide and online at www.WayneJamesLtd.com
One thought on “From First Fashion Shoot to a Fragrance: The 40-Year Journey of Fashion Designer Wayne James”
This is wonderful! Genius! Hard work, perseverance and faith works. And he has always stayed true to his roots.