Text and Images from "The Fashion Makers," by Barbra Walz, 1978.
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.
Small, slight and pixie-ish, James Galanos is the keeper of the couture flame in America. “I’m the last of the dinosaurs,” he says wryly.
His clothes are in the grand Paris tradition. “No way to copy them,” a manufacturer once observed who made his living by unauthorized “adaptations” of other people’s designs. “They’re much too complicated inside.” Sometimes they’re complicated outside too, as Galanos mixes beads and tweeds and chiffon in a pyrotechnic display for a woman who wants a suit like nobody else’s. But he is best known for his almost mystical handling of chiffon in seemingly simple but superbly floating evening dresses that rival those of the acknowledged master, Alix Grès, in Paris.
People say his collections would “knock them dead in Paris,” but Galanos prefers to live in California, where he has assembled a skilled workforce which he refers to as “my League of Nations.” It included people from all over Europe, some from South America and a number of Japanese “who are so meticulous they can cope with anything” -- even the intricacies of a standard Galanos dress.
His fanatical attention to the art of dressmaking has won him a small but devoted following of women who can afford life’s luxuries. The late Rosalind Russell, one of moviedom’s few achievers of best-dressed status, was a leading admirer--and a friend. But most Galanos fans lead nonprofessional lives, albeit of some elegance. “When I can’t get to Paris, I find Galanos things work quite well for me,” said Deeda Blair, wife of the Washington lawyer. Betsy Bloomingdale, wife of the founder of the Diners Club, and Betsy Pickering, the ex-wife of a Greek shipping magnate and a former fashion model, are typical clients. Both are tall, slender, imposing beauties who can carry off a Galanos style with élan.
“When someone says one of my styles looks like a couture dress, I feel gratified,” the designer says. He is using the word “couture” in its original sense. Today, if a designer makes two collections, one casual sportswear, the other more expensive dresses, he will refer to the higher-priced group as his couture. A store often calls its top-priced department its couture. Galanos and other purists do not use the word in this way. They mean the haute couture of Paris, whose work has the same relation to the usual mass-produced dress as a fine Chippendale chair does to an aluminum-and-webbing lawn chaise. An haute couture style can require five or six fittings and is made to order; a Galanos style is made in sizes and generally fits without any adjustment except at the hemline.
Galanos prices are comparable to those of haute couture. “My clothes do come in at the highest prices in this country.” About the cheapest Galanos you can find at stores like Bonwit Teller costs a thousand dollars. More often women pay two thousand or three thousand for one of his dresses. “They’re for women of wealth who are fussy about quality and are willing to pay for it,” the designer says of his clothes. He tries to see they get taste, quality and design for their money. He designs on the model--a sketch doesn’t mean too much to him. “I like to play with the fabric--the more I work with it, the more I see what it can do. The shape constantly changes and I am never satisfied--until the last day I am changing the style.”
He runs his business like a one-armed paper hanger with acres of work in front of him. While Paris couturiers have armies of assistants, plus people to take care of the business end and other people to sell the clothes, Galanos supervises each facet of his collection. He does a lot of the work himself.
A notoriously retiring man, he grows eloquent when he describes his work. It is, after all, his life. To acquire fabrics which inspire him, he travels to Europe three or four times a year. Italy and France are his main sources. Occasionally he will have something made up specially for him, as when he ordered Tibetan prints designed by Tzaims Luksus. The fabric designer had walked over the Himalayas and spent two years in Italy. “He brought back an astonishing collection of prints,” Galanos recalls. “I didn’t really know what to do with them--I ordered them for their artistic value. At times I wanted to give up and just hang them on the wall, They really weren’t meant for clothes. But I eventually worked it out and they proved quite successful.”
After his collection is completed in Los Angeles, Galanos packs it up and takes it New York for its presentation to the fashion world. This happens twice a year, in February for the spring-summer collection and in August for fall-winter. It is his showcase for the world. The showings are several months later than those of the designers in this country and a week or so later than the French collections. Galanos always has the last word.
After the formal presentation, which is done with no music and no commentary, the crucial phase begins: the selling. For the next two weeks, he works with store buyers. Galanos is his own sales force. That’s not the end of it. After the clothes get to the stores, he often arrives himself to help guide the customers to the right choice. Many rely on his judgment. Sometimes there’s a formal showing in the store. He prefers to work with his clients privately, bringing along a favorite model to try on the clothes. He dislikes charity shows, where society women get involved in the modeling and the fashion presentation becomes part of an evening’s festivities. “I did them early in my career,” he says, “but it’s a lot of extra work and it hardly results in much business. Buying clothes is something women take seriously and they don’t want to have a lot of distractions going on.”
A rather unusual fashion show was the one presented by the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1976. It recapitulated his twenty-five years of fashion designing and it inaugurated a three months display of his clothes at the school. Earlier there had been a retrospective on the West Coast. He has become a part of fashion history.
Galanos knew he was going to be a designer since he was twelve years old. He sold sketches to Seventh Avenue manufacturers and served an apprenticeship in Paris before he opened his own house in California in 1951. Now he is the guardian of the tradition of haute couture. He provides the fashion world with a touchstone for the best.