Here’s what happens: The Second World War is officially on, the Nazi’s are slashing through Europe. In Vienna – strung with violent possibility and suspicions – Cornelia James, a young Austrian Jewish girl newly graduated from the Vienna Arts Academy, flees the country. She comes to England as a refugee with no clothes and no money. What she does have, is a little case of coloured calfskins.
This small stock of leather was to serve her well. She set up shop, commenced glove-making, and soon Cornelia James’ eponymous label was on the lips (and of course the hands) of every British belle. The Austrian émigré, described as “funny” and “sweet” by her employees, was possessed, in addition, of a shrewd mind. Her ingenious idea to sell brightly coloured gloves in post-war England was perhaps her making, even more so than her meticulous needlework or artistic merits. With the country in a state of economic collapse, few had money to spare. Purchasing dresses, fabrics or finding a quality pair of shoes came at too high a price, but girls of slender means could always pick up a pair of gloves. The splash of colour captured hearts and set Cornelia aside from competitors, and so it was that she got a foothold dressing ladies’ hands. As Cornelia James became synonymous with craftsmanship, the world of couture came calling, and not long after, so did the crown…
Norman Hartnell, (legend of British design, friend of Christian Dior and lifelong dressmaker to the ladies of the Royal Family) approached Cornelia to work by his side, designing gloves to match his haute couture collections. In 1947, Hartnell was commissioned to create the wedding gown for Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip Mountbatten. Along with the dress itself there was an entire trousseau to prepare, including a whole suitcase of gloves. Cornelia James made them all. The commission for the honeymoon was the beginning of a long-standing relationship with the Royal Household, culminating in 1979 when she was granted a Royal Warrant. During this time, Cornelia continued to manufacture gloves for high-end department stores in Paris as well as London, and in 1948, just a year after her first assignment for Elizabeth II, Vogue Magazine styled her as “the colour Queen of England”, placing her at the very centre of the fashionable universe.
Cornelia James herself – formidable, hardworking, fiercely adored by her staff and always remembered as speaking in her “attractive Austrian accent” – sadly passed in 1999, but her legacy lives on. Cornelia James the brand is now in the capable hands of her daughter, Genevieve, who’s sharp eye for style and business acumen rivals her mother’s. “I design all the gloves”, she explains, “but a lot of the designs we have are my mother’s. I love our vintage ones – they just have to be updated. We make them more contemporary, and they live again. Classic is classic for a reason”. One takes her at her word. Under Genevieve’s rule, not only have they retained the Royal Warrant, continuing to cater to the Queen and now Kate Middleton too, but they’ve ensnared a whole new wave of devotees.
Although one can hardly imagine a patron more illustrious than the British Monarch, the list of names Genevieve has added to their customer base reads like a who’s who of the Hollywood A-List. Forget star-struck, this, is blinding. Rihanna wears them on stage; so does Lady Gaga. Taylor Swift sports them in her music video for Blank Space; Madonna slung on a pair for a charity concert at Leonardo DiCaprio’s. Supermodels Lily Cole, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss have all donned them for photoshoots; so have celebrities Kylie Minogue and Katy Perry. Helena Bonham Carter was photographed by Tim Walker for Vanity Fair in fine net gloves. Lara Stone graced the front cover of Vogue Paris for their 90th anniversary, styled by Carine Roitfeld, also sporting the net pair. From Harper’s Bazaar to Dazed & Confused, they’ve appeared in every mainstream glossy to cutting edge mag. From Vogue China to Tatler Russia, they’ve been shot across continents. Film, like fashion, can’t get enough. They were worn by Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge, Rosamund Pike in Pride & Prejudice and Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians. The entire cast of Downton Abbey were furnished with their own as part of costume. “I like that we have a real mix of clients. I love the fact that we have the Queen, but I like running on the fashion side too.” Genevieve downplays, in possibly the most modest comment ever.
Still based in Sussex, in their little flint workshop, the Cornelia James formula for success is as simple as it ever was: highly skilled workers, superlative fabrics and first class service. This holy trinity keeps the storied English house from harm… it also sends them on some pretty wild adventures. Genevieve laughingly tells the story from a few years back, when the Queen had been preparing for a trip to Korea. Gloves were duly commissioned. These were made, and sent off. Life went on. Then suddenly, the day before the Queen was due to leave, the Palace called to tell Genevieve they had never received them – the package had been lost in the post. In a panic, Genevieve ran to the atelier and luckily found a whole set of similar ones, but since the London Marathon was on and all the roads were closed, they had no idea how they would get them to Her Majesty. After much discourse, Genevieve’s husband decided to take them on his motorbike, though when he finally arrived to the Palace, security wouldn’t let him in. “Eventually, he got chatting about motorbikes with the guards. They became friendly and in the end somehow they let him through. He ended up hand-delivering them to the Queen!” She triumphantly recounts. “After all,” she adds delicately, “our gloves are not inexpensive, and we will do anything to get it right. If you’re saying that you’re the best at what you do, you have to follow through.”
Enough has surely been said to convince you that Cornelia James gloves are coveted by the glittering beau monde. But – you say – I’m not a goddess of the silver screen or a pop star, what use have I for gloves? Take note, dear readers, woolly winter gloves should not be the only staple in your wardrobe. Think of driving gloves or wedding gloves. You ought to have them at the races, at dinners, for christenings and fancy dress. They can be practical, hiding your bitten nails or clammy hands. Plus they’re a must for Audrey Hepburn acolytes. Of course, like most accessories, gloves are hardly vital, but as Genevieve says, “it’s the finishing touch”. For the majority of us daywear has become functional, dismissive of add-ons such as gloves which had their heyday in the 40s and 50s when they belonged at every occasion. But then again, often any element (hats, heels, even jewellery) perceived erroneously as “slowing us down” are cast off in our modern age, obsessed as it is with productivity. It’s worth remembering there is such a thing as living beautifully, not just fast. Granted, women may not dress formally enough on a daily basis to warrant the use of gloves, but their elegant femininity imbues them with the same authority and voluptuousness as stockings, slips and veils. Think, if you will, of the languorous way a long glove can be removed, or is used in an act by burlesque dancers. Though eyes may be the windows to a soul, the hand is almost always the first part of someone you touch, and in a world so determined to open up and overshare, retaining a little mystery might serve you well.
So, how does this story end? I imagine with Cornelia James counting you amongst its many fans.
To find out more, please visit Cornelia James