For those who knew him or his work, James Galanos was a top-flight American designer whose craftsmanship rivaled that of his European counterparts.
Galanos, who died Sunday at the age of 92, was remembered for his exactitude. Plans for services or a memorial were not yet available Monday.
In September, the James G. Galanos Foundation gave nearly 700 ensembles to the Fox Historic Costume Collection at Drexel University. Galanos’ alliance with the Philadelphia school was due in part to his hometown roots. Photographs and other ephemera from Galanos’ career will also be given to Drexel’s James G. Galanos Archives, according to Clare Sauro, director and chief curator of the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection.
“We are constantly amazed at the quality of the textiles. It is one of the things that you read about. Until you actually see them up close — rack after rack after rack of these garments — it is absolutely astonishing the variety and the textures and the colors. They’re just incredibly sumptuous and beautiful,” she said.
Hoping to have a retrospective of Galanos’ work in two years’ time, Drexel plans to purchase more tailored mannequins since the designer was partial to really thin models, Sauro said. “There are a few things young designers across disciplines can take away from his legacy. He had a very clear sense of who he was and what he wanted to accomplish. This could be read as prickly and standoffish, but really he was just dedicated to his craft. If anything distracted him from his craft, it wasn’t worth it. I think the single-minded focus, attention to detail and the integrity are something designers and aspiring designers can really take to heart — to be the best that you can be and don’t try to be like everyone else.”
Iris Apfel first met Galanos in the Fifties when he frequented Old World Weavers, the textiles business she ran with her husband, Carl.
“Galanos was one of the most brilliant designers I’ve ever come upon. He should sit in the pantheon. His clothes were American couture. His clothes were made as well as the finest houses in Paris. It was a sensual experience to put on one of his dresses because the inside was so exquisitely made. You could turn them inside out and they were gorgeous. He was very advanced. He walked to his own drummer. He didn’t play around with trends,” she said.
Sonja Caproni, fashion director for I. Magnin in the Seventies and Eighties, which carried Galanos’ designs, said, “We had a very large Galanos business. It was just enormous. I think our trunk show figures with him were larger than any other designer at that time. I remember them going over $1 million at times. In today’s dollars, that would really be a lot of money. He had dedicated customers who would wait for him. Twice a year they would really wardrobe from him. They would buy 10, 15 outfits which would add up quite a bit.”
“His perfect workmanship and dedication made him so successful and the fact that he never did a second line,” she added. “He never had licensees or any of that. He did furs and perfume, but his clothes really were a work of art. Every one of them was fit by him and fabricated by him. I don’t think there was any such thing as a hands-on designer like that. Many times it was even better than what we could buy in Paris. It was so close to couture. You really couldn’t make a mistake if you wore Galanos.”
Marylou Luther, editor of the International Fashion Syndicate, recalled, “When I first went to work at the L.A. Times, there were two big names at that moment. Norman Norell once funnily said, ‘You have to be up for wearing a Galanos. For a Norell, you can just go into your closet.’ I totally adored what Galanos did as an American designer, not only being creative but seeing him with his customers. He had the most loyal clients.”
“He spent his life in California so he became like an exotic flower,” said Stan Herman. “He would come to New York to show his collections in the hotels in a very high-end manner where Norell did showroom shows. Galanos’ shows were for the ladies mostly. He was the first designer other than maybe Norell or Mainbocher who chose gorgeous fabrics from Europe and he essentially competed with the European designers. He eventually became more of a custom, couture designer. He was a little more relaxed in his designing. He didn’t have the deadlines that we have now. Sometimes he would come to New York maybe six weeks after everyone had shown. The press treated him reverently. He is certainly one of the major branches in American fashion. But like people who choose to be on their own, he never really fit into the big trunk of the tree.”
Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, also pointed to his craftsmanship. “What Galanos was really best known for apart from dressing Nancy Reagan, within fashion history he was best known for craftsmanship that was the equivalent of couture craftsmanship on the part of an American designer. He made a real point of hiring people for his atelier, who either had worked in couture, or had done couture level work for the Hollywood studios. Although the clothes were essentially for the most part off-the-rack, everything was done so exquisitely — the embroidery, the handling of the material like a chiffon. He and his people could handle it all so beautifully.”
But Ellin Saltzman perhaps summed Galanos up best: “He was a genius and his clothes were perfection for his clients.”