“James Galanos, one of the most avant-garde designers, is equally good at pure flattery—as here: navy blue worsted that looks like a charming suit, is actually a charming dress, with a white linen dickey across the front.” Photographed by Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos, Vogue, March 1, 1962.
Editors note: On October 30th, one of the great American designers, James Galanos, passed away. He is one of my personal favourites and I count the examples of his work that I have found over the years to be some of my greatest vintage discoveries. His work has an almost eerie, "ever relevant”, quality to it that I absolutely love. We have complied some of the best tributes to him that have popped up around the web and are going to run them all through the week in addition to our regular posts. I do have a selection of his work in the shop and I would love if you go peek, if for nothing more then to get an idea of his genius and talent. Thank you Mr. Galanos for the beauty you gave to the world.
James Galanos was as elegant, immaculate, and reticent as the clothes he designed.
In person he resembled a rather supercilious bird of prey, taking the world in with narrowed eyes and a raptor’s profile. He certainly did not suffer fools gladly, but he had a sprightly manner, a dry wit, and a personal elegance that recalled the careful perfectionism of Fred Astaire and evoked a vanished age of Hollywood high style.
In Los Angeles he lived in a chic mid-century folly that he had painted black and decorated with good 18th-century furniture and dramatically lit ancient Greek statuary that signaled the land of his ancestors. (His parents were immigrants from the island of Paros who settled in Bridgeton, New Jersey, where they ran a restaurant and where their son was born and raised.) In his weekend retreat in Palm Springs, surrounded by many of his clients, he lived in an environment that was as gleaming white in the desert light as his Los Angeles home was dark and nocturnal.
Galanos studied at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York in the early 1940s and was later formed at a formidable triumvirate of influential design houses. He began with Hattie Carnegie, the feisty Austro-Hungarian immigrant who produced ladylike reinterpretations of Paris couture for a patrician clientele, and who possessed a singular eye for design talent, having also hired Norman Norell, Pauline Trigère, Claire McCardell, and Jean Louis through the years. Galanos later worked for Jean-Louis himself, who was the head of costume at Columbia Studios, famed for dressing Rita Hayworth as Gilda, and both Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe in shimmering illusion gowns (Monroe serenaded President Kennedy on his birthday wearing one of them). A year-long stint in Paris at the haute couture house of Robert Piguet, known for his polite designs, polished Galanos off before he established his own label in Los Angeles in 1951.
In the early ’50s many of the big Hollywood studios were closing down their in-house costume studios. Several of the legendary designers of Hollywood’s Golden Age—including Adrian, Irene, and Howard Greer, as well as Jean Louis himself—were establishing themselves as independent fashion designers as a result, and Galanos was able to absorb some of the talented studio hands into his own ateliers. He must have been a hard taskmaster, for his clothes, as Nancy Reagan herself once noted, were as beautifully made on the inside as out. Galanos’s stately evening numbers were often lavished with emphatic embroideries by D. Getson Eastern Embroidery; his clients were not the kind of women who questioned cost. His work showed that American design did not have to be based on sportswear and ease to resonate with the customer. While his clothes were as close to the European couture as America came during the span of his career, their streamlined efficiency and crisp detailing could never have been born across the Atlantic. “My whole point of being is integrity of design,” he told André Leon Talley in 1985.
Galanos eventually established his workrooms in a vast and rambling light industrial building in downtown Los Angeles that I visited in the mid-’90s with mouth agape and eyes a-pop as he pulled out dress after miraculous dress for me to admire. As I left he handed me a masterwork from 1960: a slender evening dress of black wool boucle with shoulder straps twisted from the fabric of the bodice itself, and a gently cowled back. I was already collecting his work for my own collection, but this visit fired me on, and I now have hundreds of his superbly executed and surprisingly inventive designs, from the early 1950s when he produced wasp-waisted dresses with acres of fabric in the skirts (manipulated with highly sophisticated pleating and dressmaking techniques), through his pizzazz-y 1960s creations, his chiffon and jersey goddess dresses of the ’70s, and his wildly over-the-top creations from the 1980s, so beloved of Nancy Reagan and her Kitchen Cabinet and Manhattan’s Shiny Set, as well as the sleek, impeccable clothes that followed and that provided a perfect coda to his work before his retirement in 1998.
Several years ago I went to visit him again, staggering under the weight of five or six binders crammed with photographs of his pieces in my collection and he was rather taken aback. Galanos fitted his samples on reed-slim mannequins with no hips or bosoms, and showed them on the East Coast in exclusive presentations for clients (and the very few members of the press that he cared to entertain) at the Plaza Hotel. He had no interest in courting publicity or personal fame and he licensed his name only for a fur collection, and for his fragrance. Small wonder that by 1998 he was entirely disillusioned with the way the fashion world was moving. He also had little interest in his fiendishly expensive clothes once they left the world of his studio prototypes and were adapted for other sizes, and he was outright disdainful of client’s interventions in his original designs, as I noted when we turned the pages of those albums of mine.
“I have always been impressed with a beautiful woman, beautifully dressed, with beautiful manners,” he declared, and his style supernovas included deep-pocketed fashion plates like the actress Rosalind Russell, Maria (Mrs. Nat King) Cole, and the superb former model Betsy Kaiser, whom he met at the beginning of his career and who, like many of his clients, held on to racks and racks of his timeless clothes and wore them for decades, having maintained her sample figure through the years. They were crammed into a spare bedroom in her Palm Beach house and now I’m delighted to say that quite a few of them reside in the Hamish Bowles Collection.
But perhaps Galanos’s most emblematic client was Mrs. Ronald Reagan whose husband admired the way the designer’s well-bred, apparently conservative (albeit often slyly avant-garde) clothes looked on her. Nancy chose Galanos dresses for her husband’s two inaugurations as governor of California, but the designer rocketed to international prominence with the coruscating one-shouldered white gown that he designed for her to wear to Reagan’s presidential inauguration in 1981. Nancy wore this with long white opera gloves to sit for Horst for Vogue, firmly signally the formality and splendor of her tenure as First Lady in the wake of Rosalynn Carter’s own homespun style ethos. For the second Reagan inauguration in 1985, Nancy once again turned to Galanos who accented her petite, slender figure with a spangled white gown with the decade’s emphatic shoulders (I have a black and silver variant in my collection).
I last saw Jimmy, as he was known to his friends, in the bar of the Sunset Tower Hotel, martini in hand. With its flattering soft lighting and clientele of movie supernovas, it was the pluperfect setting for this supremely elegant man.
“ ‘The thing about Jimmy,’ said a woman to her companion moments after the show had begun, ‘is that he has an absolute genius for the contemporary.’ Jimmy, of course, is the designer, James Galanos, a wiry, quick-smiling man who works in California and comes to New York twice a year to demonstrate that he has, as noted by the lady commenting on his newest designs, a special feeling for contemporary fashion.” Illustrated by Rene Bouché with a photo by Bert Stern, Vogue, March 1, 1963.
“Sudden colours, vibrant geometries, restless silks all interfered with marvelous fling and feeling—this is the Galanos collection, striking forth to summer, prescient at every turn.” Photographed by Bert Stern, Vogue, May 1, 1965.
“Triumphs of Galanos’s new collection: a feeling of luxury and excitement so strong, ‘it was like a waft of some fascinating perfume’—said one observer at the opening. The expected beauty of cutting and construction, with a sensitive awareness of the small-bones body under the clothes. . . . The surge of talent, creative, original, even joyous: Galanos at his sizzling best.” Photographed by Horst P. Horst, Vogue, October 15, 1965.
“A seeming absence of colour, a seeming innocence of line: Galanos’s look for a woman this summer is unequivocal in its purity. Clean, cool, easy along the body. Simplicity itself. But achieved only through a fantastic mastery of cloth.” Photographed by Bert Stern, Vogue, March 15, 1966.
“Galanos triumphant. Day and evening, some of the most beautiful clothes in America.” Photographed by Bert Stern, Vogue, September 15, 1966.
”Everything hops, skips, and jumps at Galanos this year—the most beautifully made clothes imaginable, with a new buoyance and ease that couldn’t be more lovable.” Photographed by Gianni Penati, Vogue, April 1, 1967.
“From the Wow dynasty—the marvelous Galanos looks of covered dresses, belted close, with high collars in the mandarin manner.” Photographed by Bert Stern, Vogue, October 15, 1967.
“Nothing easier on eye, on body—the Galanos beauty of line.” Photographed by Alexis Waldeck, Vogue, April 1, 1968.
“What Galanos knows about the workings of cloth brings to evening such effortless beauty that his great skill is scarcely perceived—it is sensed rather than seen: the pure and perfect line infusing the most deceptively simple cut.” Photographed by Bert Stern, Vogue, November 1, 1968.
“Galanos goes soft all over—not a single hint of the construction that has gone into making these clothes and not the slightest trace of constraint. Just chiffon, Air Pleats. Smocking. Tucks. Marvellous freedom. No wonder Galanos sets such store by his craft’s most difficult skills in order to give beautiful cloth his own pure line…and this time, if possible, he surpasses even himself.” Photographed by Gianni Penati, Vogue, June 1, 1969.
“Galanos looks toward summer with a fresh far-seeing eye, and his Greek prints carry beauty of line to new softness, new proportion, and new length.” Photographed by Gianni Penati, Vogue, June 1, 1970.
“Galanos is the most special—the most single-minded of American designers—the passionate craftsman! He stands for a perfection and consistency of thinking that most people don’t believe possible in American fashion. . . .” Photographed by Francesco Scavullo, Vogue, April 1974.
“Mrs. Reagan, when asked, opted for the Red Room (red, her reported favorite color) and for her much-reported-on Galanos Inaugural dress (a clothes lover’s last chance to wear it; soon by custom, the dress will go to the Smithsonian to join the other First Ladies’ gowns on display).” Photographed by Horst P. Horst, Vogue, May 1981.
“Great style and a real change in proportion—from Galanos.” Photographed by Arthur Elgort, Vogue, December 1981.
“At Galanos, a truly memorable collection—a collection that had onlookers nearly breathless with its all-out luxury, its sophistication . . . and the most body-conscious shapes, the incredible narrowness everywhere!” Photographed by Arthur Elgort, Vogue, November 1983.
“ ‘Design is wonderful; but design with no taste level has no purpose, it becomes totally incomprehensible,’ Galanos told André Leon Talley in 1985. At the time of Madeleine Vionnet (introducer of the bias cut), fashion had a timeless quality, as well as a marvelous taste level. Today, many designers make clothes that are extreme, clothes that are simply statements of fashion news.” Photographed by Sheila Metzner, Vogue, June 1985.
“A strong Galanos collection where the level of design was matched by the level of luxury. With a strong evening statement: the ‘important’ short dress as an ongoing fashion idea.” Photographed by Andrea Blanch, Vogue, November 1987.