Sitting on a card chair in a noisy corridor at the Fashion Institute of Technology might seem pedestrian to some, but not for John Galanos, who did so with his trademark élan last week.
Dressed in a navy pinstripe suit and white-collared shirt, the designer gamely agreed to answer a few questions after an event in his honor, and an unusual one at that. The West Coaster was back in Manhattan, thanks to the philanthropist Doug Simms, who has given the school 18 Galanos-designed pieces that belonged to his mother, Marie. In turn, seniors in the fashion design department's associate of applied science class drew inspiration from Galanos' work for their spring exhibition.
"It's always nice to be remembered. I'm out of fashion now, but I keep in touch," he said.
FIT marked the occasion Wednesday with an event that featured models in seemingly contemporary full loose dresses, as well as more fitted ones and sequined dresses and gowns, all of which Marie Simms, a Queens-born model-turned-mother, found use for when her husband relocated the family to Las Vegas in the Fifties to run The Flamingo.
Galanos thought he had met her in a Beverly Hills boutique, but he was more familiar with the actual pieces. "They're in fantastic condition. I remember every one of them. It's a pleasure to see them. They're like my children."
But make no mistake, the designer is not wallowing in the past and has since delved into photography as a serious pursuit.
"I had my career. I never looked back. I only look at tomorrow," he said.
After thriving in a career that spanned half a century, the nonworking life took some getting used to. "When I retired, I didn't know what to do with my retirement. It wasn't as wonderful as I thought it would be. Travel the world? Well, I'd done that all those years of working," he said. "I was really quite depressed for a while until I found myself and decided what to do with myself."
He decided to try his hand at photography — something he had tinkered with and enjoyed as a boy. After seeing some of his artistically inclined photos, fellow Palm Springs resident Michael Childers, who has shot scores of Hollywood players like Clint Eastwood, George Cukor and Catherine Deneuve, encouraged Galanos to keep at it. He said he shoots black-and-white landscapes, but prefers color abstracts and to "invent things." Apparently, the fastidiousness the 83-year-old once used to make clothes for discriminating women like Marlene Dietrich, Dorothy Lamour, Judy Garland, Diana Ross and Nancy Reagan is now being used for images. "I work right out of my kitchen. I have special little lighting and little tricks I've learned so people don't know what I'm doing," he said. "I will continue with my photography and research. I haven't pushed myself too much in too many galleries, but eventually I will. I won't take second best. I'm holding out."Serge Sorokko Gallery in San Francisco has already staged an exhibition of his work. "I'm building quite a catalogue," he said. "I have enough work to show at three galleries at once, but I don't want to overdo it."
Restraint can be a good thing, not that that is something today's designers abide by. Asked about the plethora of ancillary merchandise that seems to go hand-in-hand with being a designer today, Galanos said, "You can't do all of these things and expect to be good. The diffusion lines look like their main lines — give or take a little. They're failing as far as I'm concerned. That's why the stores have too much merchandise and have too much that looks the same. They have their couture lines and secondary lines and third lines. Make up your mind. What do you want to be?"
Young designers didn't earn his praise either. "First of all, every young designer you see is basically copying from things that were done in the Fifties and Sixties," he said.
However, Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga passes muster, as does John Galliano. "There are some wild things being done by designers with their shows and what have you," said Galanos, singling out Galliano as a prime example. "They're magical in terms of their quality of making clothes. Of course, they do all that for publicity. They're not wearable. I look at those clothes and laugh at them.
"Let's face it, no woman of style would wear those clothes. It's fashion, yes. But it's not elegance," he said more matter-of-factly than critically. "They are creating these things for publicity purposes. To me, it's a waste of time and money. It's harder to make a great black dress without having all those other things hanging down."
And today's screen sirens don't exactly floor him with their red-carpet looks. "Most of the time these gals can't carry their trains. They don't know how to walk in those dresses. There was a time when women did."
All in all, Galanos is disappointed with the general appearance of American women. "There's a lack of elegance in the world, unfortunately. My career was in the late Forties, Fifties and Sixties, when women were women. They dressed to kill. They were elegant," he said. "It was a pleasure to go out with them dining and what have you. Today you go into a fancy restaurant and everyone looks boring. It's very rare that you see someone and say, 'Wow, they look terrific."During his stay in Gotham, Galanos made a point of lunching at La Grenouille each afternoon. "If anyone dresses up in New York, they go there. They always talk about fashion's returning to the elegant. It would be nice if it were true. Most women have lost their sense of elegance. And you don't go in there [La Grenouille] any which way. You put forth effort."
Despite his remark about having seen the world through work, he still ventures overseas. Paris, Milan, Capri and Venice are some of the spots he has breezed through during five European trips in the past few months. Galanos said he never tires of seeing places he likes, such as the City of Lights. "Paris is so beautiful. No matter how many times I've been, I still discover things," he said. "And Milan. I enjoy going there."
An annual sojourn to Greece to see his 95-year-old aunt is on his calendar for this summer. The Philadelphia-born Galanos, whose family hails from Macedonia, said he enjoys going back to his roots.
Asked if anyone ever set him straight with sterling advice early on in his career, Galanos said, "I was very independent. I'm sure a lot of people did, but not so much on my work. It was probably more about how to conduct myself — to be open to ideas and people. You have to grow into that. I had big ambitions to do what I wanted to do, and I accomplished that in 50 years in business. That speaks for itself. But I decided my time was up. Life changes, new things happen. I felt I had had the best time and I wanted to go out on top."
With his signature nonchalance, he sums up where he stands: "Life is life. You grow old."