Buyers examine the fabric of a floor-length bridal gown with floral appliqué, veil and headpiece from the James Galanos Couture Spring 1964 collection.


HIS TIME IN THE SUN: Ten months after his death, James Galanos will be the subject of a new exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum.

For more than 50 years, the designer amassed a clientele that included Duchess of Windsor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, Rosalind Russell and Diana Ross. The designer died last fall at 92.

Born to parents who had come to Philadelphia from Greece, Galanos pitched in with his three sisters at his parents’ restaurant. After that service-oriented start, Galanos moved to New York following high school hoping to enroll in a fashion school led by Russian stage designer and costumer Barbara Karinska. Due to a delayed opening, he scrapped that plan to take classes at the Traphagen School of Fashion. Eight months later Galanos decided more hands-on experience was needed.

He officially entered the world of fashion by way of Hattie Carnegie in New York working as an assistant. The several years that followed led to posts like assisting Robert Piguet in Paris and later working as a part-time sketch artist in Columbia Pictures’ costume department under the guidance of Jean Louis. The way Galanos told it, the hiring was “out of pity,” although understatement and discretion were always his calling cards.

The Oscar-winning Louis encouraged Galanos to venture out on his own, advice he took in 1951 with the launch of Galanos Originals. Saks Fifth Avenue was the first to pick up the collection, but it was Nancy Reagan who elevated his career. In 1967, Reagan wore a Galanos gown when her husband Ronald was inaugurated as governor of California. Their friendship lasted for decades with Galanos designing inaugural ballgowns for the former first lady as well. Fashion collector Tatiana Sorokko observed, “When you look at his overall career, nobody else in American fashion has been able to achieve the same level of quality. And he produced everything in his factory on Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Until Galanos retired in 1998, he continued to create signature timeless pieces for his inner circle. He had said of that decision, “Once everyone started wearing blue jeans, I knew it was time to get out of the business,” he said. “What happened to the days when a woman could turn heads in a restaurant by the way she was dressed?”

Curated by Dennita Sewell, the Dorrance curator of fashion design, “A Tribute to James Galanos” bows Saturday and will run through January 7. More than 40 ready-to-wear and accessories will be on view including some of the designs donated to PAM by Galanos in 1990. One of Reagan’s ensembles will also be part of the collection. An even more significant sign of the designer’s personal style is now up-for-grabs — the two-bedroom Hollywood house that he lived in for many years is on the market for more than $2 million.

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