Photo by Gleb Derujinsky.
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, a fashion designer who spent decades dressing America’s social elite, most notably Nancy Reagan, died at his home in West Hollywood, Calif. He was 92.
His death was confirmed by Rosina Rucci, the sister of Mr. Galanos’s friend and fellow designer Ralph Rucci.
During his long career, Mr. Galanos (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable) earned the most accolades his industry had to offer, including several Coty Awards (he was the youngest designer to win one, in 1954), a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and a bronze plaque on Seventh Avenue’s Fashion Walk of Fame. He dressed the famous and the socially prominent — the ladies who lunched, from Park Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue — and outfitted Mrs. Reagan on four inaugural occasions, twice after Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California and twice after he became president.
“Ronnie liked Jimmy’s clothes very much,” Mrs. Reagan said in a 2007 interview with Vanity Fair magazine. “Wearing Jimmy meant never going overboard or to extremes. Jimmy really set the standard.”
On another occasion, she remarked of a Galanos dress that “you can wear one inside out, they are so beautifully made.”
Mr. Galanos was in many ways as renowned for what he declined as what he embraced. More than any other American designer, he embodied the concept that elegance is refusal.
He evaded celebrity, never sought a broad clientele and actively shunned the fashion establishment and its press. He did not stage fashion shows. He contented himself with providing precisely executed, chaste and ingeniously cut clothing to a small and unswervingly devoted group from what was once termed “the luxury niche.”
“I’m only interested in designing for a certain type of woman,” Mr. Galanos once said. “Specifically, one that has money.”
Although his name was for decades among the best known and most revered in American fashion, he did not transform himself into a mass-market brand, as his contemporaries Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene did. While others developed less expensive collections and long lists of licensees manufacturing products under their names, Mr. Galanos stuck to designing costly luxury clothing.
“There was an establishment quality to Galanos, a sense of privilege around his clothes,” Harold Koda, a former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, told Vanity Fair. “A Galanos projected knockout glamour, absolute luxury, but the lightness of his handiwork prevented the clothes from ever looking like costume.”
Mr. Galanos authorized just two licenses — one for furs and one for perfume — between 1951, when he opened Galanos Originals in Los Angeles, and his retirement in 1998 from a business he believed had become irretrievably crass.
“How many women can wear just a patch over their crotch and bra?” he asked in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily at the time. “Aren’t you embarrassed when you see a young girl walking down the street practically naked?”
Exposed is something no woman ever felt in a Galanos design. The simple shapes he favored were as much engineered as designed and were, for all their technical complexity, not ostentatious.
“Like a master craftsman, Mr. Galanos is constantly seeking new ways to achieve different effects, to extend the range of dressmaking techniques,” Bernardine Morris, the New York Times fashion critic, observed in 1993. The French couturier Hubert de Givenchy seconded that opinion. “We don’t make them this well in Paris,” he said.
When Mr. Galanos was given a career retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1997, his work was reviewed by art critics, a sign of how successfully he had bridged the gulf between the fine and applied arts in creating designs that demanded to be taken seriously as cultural totems.
A critic for Artforum magazine went so far as to inventory the component parts of a simple evening dress from 1969: “Bodice of black over yellow silk chiffon, vertically pin-tucked; bead embroidery by D. Getson; Eastern embroidery; skirt of white silk and printed matelassé (double weave), printed in yellow, pink, pale green and brown with a black ground by Staron with a self-belt by Winton.”
Although Mr. Galanos said when he retired that he had “no plans except to relax,” in recent years he had turned his attention to photography, shooting both black-and-white landscapes and abstract works in color.
Mr. Galanos was born on Sept. 20, 1924, in Philadelphia, to Gregory Galanos and Helen Gorgoliatos, immigrants from Naoussa, a town in Greek Macedonia, who ran a restaurant in southern New Jersey. He was raised in Bridgeton, N.J., and, after graduation from the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York in 1943, found work as a journeyman selling sketches to design houses, a common practice in the days before dressmakers automatically pitched their ambitions toward universal name recognition.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.
For a time Mr. Galanos worked as an assistant to the designer Hattie Carnegie. He decamped at age 20 for California, where he apprenticed himself to the costume designer Jean Louis at Columbia Studios. With the exception of an unpaid yearlong internship with the Parisian couturier Robert Piguet and a brief stint as a ready-to-wear designer in New York, he remained in California for the rest of his career.
Yet he was never allied with his more adventurous West Coast competition, the designers from what is called the Golden Age of California who laid the groundwork for the athletic, sportswear-inspired styles that became a potent cultural export of postwar America.
While Los Angeles contemporaries like Rudi Gernreich explored futurism with topless swimsuits, thongs and monokinis, Mr. Galanos stuck to supplying the “little nothing” dresses that were his trademark to a coterie of celebrity loyalists like Marlene Dietrich, Rosalind Russell and Diana Ross, and to the moneyed elite of both coasts.
Shortly after he established Galanos Originals, Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills and Neiman Marcus in Dallas placed orders. Influential fashion editors soon championed his work, and his reputation was established.
Among his early clients was Grace Kelly. Stanley Marcus, the chairman emeritus of Neiman Marcus, once recalled that with her wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco approaching in 1956, she decided that “she didn’t have the right thing to wear, so she called Jimmy and said she needed one of his beautiful chiffon dresses” — within a week. He delivered.
When Mr. Galanos retired from fashion in 1998, he was asked what he considered to be the highlight of his career.
“The highlight of my career is simply existing for 46 years,” he answered. “The most important thing I have done is to maintain what I started out to do.”
“I never deviated,” he added, “from what was most important, which was quality.”
Correction: November 3, 2016: An obituary in some editions on Monday and in some copies on Tuesday about the fashion designer James Galanos misidentified the location of the town from which his parents immigrated. They were from the town of Naoussa in Greek Macedonia — not the town by the same name on the Greek island of Paros.