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Galanos: Out of His Shell

NEW YORK -- Part of what made James Galanos an important designer also made him legendarily difficult: his persistence in thinking he could always do it better. But those who hope he has mellowed in the four years since his retirement are in for a...

NEW YORK — Part of what made James Galanos an important designer also made him legendarily difficult: his persistence in thinking he could always do it better. But those who hope he has mellowed in the four years since his retirement are in for a disappointment.

“How many women can wear just a patch over their crotch and a bra?” he asked over lunch at the Pierre, shaking his head in contempt. “Aren’t you embarrassed when you see a young girl walking down the street practically naked? Fashion is geared only to young people today. All we see is Levi’s and bare bellies to the point of nausea. There are no clothes for elegant women. Let’s face it, some of the things you see in the paper are absolutely monstrous looking — and I’m not squeamish. God knows I made sexy clothes in my day, but there’s a point when you have to say, `Enough, already.”‘

Galanos, it is apparent, hasn’t quite gotten fashion out of his system. During an interview while he was in town last week to present the women’s wear award at the Council of Fashion Designers of America bash, the designer frequently peppered his recollections of his early years on Seventh Avenue, in Paris and starting his business in Los Angeles with more contemporary questions, like “Who makes a dress with a sleeve today?” and “How many women have beautiful arms?” These are rhetorical questions, of course, but the 77-year-old poses them because his interest in what motivates young people to take up the needle-and-thread trade has only increased since he gave it up.

Oddly enough, he has recently taken a liking to Rick Owens, the poster child for the latest rough-edged Los Angeles fashion movement.

“I met him at Les Deux Cafes,” Galanos said, referring to the restaurant owned by Michele Lamy, who is Owens’ companion. “It’s one of the in places in Hollywood, right now. I think he has a lot of talent.”

That’s quite a compliment coming from Galanos, a designer who, during his 47 years in business, established a reputation as America’s closest approximation of a French couturier, creating most of his gowns by hand with an exacting standard for quality. But he retired in 1998 because he no longer could tolerate the casual, deconstructed direction fashion had taken. His positive assessment of Owens’ work is even more surprising when considering the disgust with which Galanos seems to continue to regard American fashion well into his retirement.

“I miss it, even now,” Galanos said. “It’s been some time, but I finally sold my building in Los Angeles eight months ago to a group that invests in real estate. I was lucky that I got rid of it. But I’m really a little lost in the sense that I have no direction. I’m old, but my spirit is like that of a 20-year-old.”

This brings the designer back to recollections of when he was 20. He had already been in New York for a few years, having grown up in New Jersey, knowing since he was seven that he wanted to be a designer. He had left design school after a year, less impressed with his courses than his professors were with his talent.

“Schools don’t mean anything to me,” Galanos said. “Schools don’t make you a designer. You either have it in you or you don’t. I’m not an artist. I’m not a painter. I’m a designer and I learned to sketch as a little kid. I learned to get across the idea of what I wanted by my sketches.”

So he started selling them to the big manufacturers along Seventh Avenue.

“I was very shy and timid,” he said. “And these were tough business men. They were good at getting the best out of everybody. Bill Blass worked for a big house, even Geoffrey Beene was working for a big house, but they never got credit until designers became more clever and said they wanted the credit.”

By chance, Galanos was contacted by a former instructor a few years later, offering to introduce him to a young Russian entrepreneur and his wife who wanted to open a custom salon, preferably with a young designer who would be inexpensive. Galanos brought his portfolio to an impressive office suite in the Empire State Building and was quickly offered a five-year contract by the businessman, Lawrence Lesavoy. He was sent to California, where Lesavoy had made several contacts with tailors and manufacturers.

“But the situation didn’t progress too well,” Galanos said. “I spent a year there sitting around because the couple divorced. I was sad and unhappy, and I was very sensitive. Whenever I was blue, I’d call Lesavoy up. He became a surrogate father to me and offered to send me to college, `anything you want,’ he said.”

Galanos, who was about 22 at the time, wanted to go France, so Lesavoy arranged for him to live with a family in Paris and study at the Beaux Arts Academy. He arrived right after World War II, but found little to please him at the academy in terms of fashion design, “and I didn’t even know what the Chambre Syndicale was.” So he and his host family started ringing up designers, looking for an apprenticeship.

“I didn’t speak French and there wasn’t much around because it was right after the war,” he said. “The first designer I wanted to see was Balenciaga. I don’t know why because I certainly wasn’t very knowledgeable about him. That didn’t happen, so then I called Balmain. He was out of town. At Jacques Fath, there was nothing. So then we called Robert Piguet, who was the one that impressed me the most, and they said to come.”

Even though Piguet liked his portfolio, Galanos said it wasn’t until he offered to work for free that he got the job. “That did the trick,” he said.

Marc Bohan was Piguet’s top assistant at the time and treated him rudely, although one of the suits that Galanos designed for the house became the success-foux — the wild success — of his first season there.

“Years later, when I had become established here and we met again, he became much nicer to me,” Galanos said.

His loneliness and shyness caused Galanos to move back to New York, first taking a job on Seventh Avenue for a coat and dress firm called Davidow, which specialized in wearable interpretations of Chanel. But he wanted to design high fashion, and when he couldn’t find anything in New York, he moved back to Los Angeles, where he met Jean Louis and got a job as his sketch artist at Columbia Pictures.

“All I wanted was a job, but he encouraged me to go into business,” Galanos said. The costume designer introduced him to Madame Marguerite, a seamstress who put together his first dozen looks that were shown to West Coast buyers in 1951. “That was the beginning of Galanos Originals.”

That was also the start of a career that eventually helped Galanos break out of his shyness, an attribute that was replaced with an occasional reputation for being difficult — or at least stubborn. He still relishes an anecdote about sending a buyer from Saks Fifth Avenue away and later, when his clothes became successful at Amelia Gray on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, how Adam Gimbel tried to woo him to the store with the moon and the stars.

“I reminded him of the buyer from New York who thought I was a little pretentious,” Galanos said. “She was annoyed by the fact that I put her up to a test about quality and so forth. She didn’t like that very much, but I had great faith in what I was doing and I knew what I was talking about. One thing I always understood was quality, and I never cheated on that.”

Galanos stuck with Amelia Gray and, through her, was introduced to a young actress, Nancy Reagan, who helped the designer achieve wider recognition when she wore his designs to four inaugural balls — two for Ronald Reagan’s election as governor of California and twice when he became president. From the designer’s perspective, First Lady fashion hasn’t been the same since.

“I don’t even remember what Mrs. Clinton wore,” he said. “I thought Mrs. Bush looked very charming. It was a red dress and it was very nice, but she isn’t interested in clothes. She’s not a fashionista. But one can’t criticize someone if you don’t see them all their life — it’s unfair. I always thought Mrs. Clinton looked nice. I agree there’s been a change of hair too often, but she has eventually settled on a look that works. I just wouldn’t put them on the same level as Mrs. Reagan or Mrs. Kennedy.”

Typical of Galanos. If it wasn’t good enough for his standards, he walked away. He used to stage elaborate shows at the Plaza Hotel, and at the Ambassador before that, with at least 150 looks.

“I made big collections, but I exhausted the editors. They said, `Jimmy, I can’t absorb it, or I can’t afford it,”‘ he said. Rather than edit them down, “I stopped showing in the Eighties.”

“For several years, I didn’t even read Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue,” Galanos said. “The advertising was better than the editorial. I’m not thrilled with the magazines now, but then I’m not thrilled with a lot of things today. You have to understand, my era was totally different. I started in the Forties and worked into the early Nineties. But when it became too much of a hassle, I decided enough was enough.”

He has since spent a lot of time traveling. Paris for the summer and Salzburg for the opera festival. Winters are spent at his home in Palm Springs and Galanos took two cruises last year with friends. The second one was for 17 days, through Scotland, Norway and Newfoundland, but he was less than impressed with the Norwegian cruise liner.

“I hated that cruise,” he said. “There were 2,000 people on eight levels. I hated the look of that boat. I’m pretty much of a loner anyway.”

So if cruising isn’t for him, what then? Galanos has taken up photography. He seems to have an instinctive feel for it, although he describes the pastime as “the only thing I am doing to kill my time.” The strange thing is, he might just have reached a point in his retirement when he again says, “Enough is enough.”

“I miss the idea of creativity, but I don’t miss the business side,” he said. “I don’t want to go back into business, but if something interesting comes up, I just might start designing again. I have had a few people who are interested.”””