James Galanos’ artistry is the focus of a new exhibition at Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.
Presented by the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection, “James Galanos: Design Integrity” features about 60 ensembles and is on view through December 8. The exhibition will reopen January 8 until January 27, due to Drexel’s academic calendar. From the post-war through the Nineties, the show’s body of work explores his meticulous construction and embellishment. The setting of Philadelphia is suitable for the American designer, who was born in the city. Galanos died two years ago at the age of 92 in Los Angeles.
Drawing heavily from the 740 ensembles — with some consisting of four pieces each — that comprise the James G. Galanos Archive at Drexel University, Clare Sauro, FHCC director and chief curator, said she was struck by how involved his designs were. “The thing that really startled me was the complexity of his garments and his ability to take things that you wouldn’t ordinarily think would work and somehow get the balance and the proportion just right so that it was slightly off-kilter and unexpected, but just absolutely wonderful.” she said. “Sometimes I would look at something and say, ‘OK, you can’t put those three or four fabrics together, but somehow he does.’ He has this fearless quality and assuredness that is quite remarkable. It’s consistent throughout his career. There’s a consistency across the decades — just this incredible confidence in his own ability. That was really admirable.”
After studying at Traphagen School of Fashion for some time, Galanos worked at Hattie Carnegie for a while, but became “very frustrated there,” the curator said. The most pivotal point of his career was an unpaid internship at the house of Robert Piguet. “That is where everything came together. He was allowed to experiment with the finest textiles, to do some designs and he had some successful ones. As one of assistant designers along with [Hubert de] Givenchy, Galanos was part of this breeding ground for future stars. [Pierre Balmain and Marc Bohan were also part of the crew.]”
Clients like Marilyn Monroe, Diahann Carroll, Rosalind Russell, Betsy Bloomingdale, Leonore Annenberg and Iris Cantor helped to raise his profile. Sauro noted that while established fashion types certainly remember Galanos, those in their 20s or 30s don’t know who he is. “Instead of seeing that as a problem, I saw that as a wonderful opportunity to start with a clean slate and introduce him as this really marvelous, inventive designer,” she said.
Referring to an emerald green satin evening gown with a high-neck and a blouson back from 1983, she said, “It’s so elegant and dramatic. There’s a purity to it that’s just astonishing. His colors are tremendous.” Sauro said. “There’s also this insane gold, purple, and orange lamé textile with a high beaded neckline and dolman sleeves. The back is completely cut out. It’s just unexpected — light and heavy and then this bareness in a peekaboo back. We also have an iconic all-over beaded evening gown from ’58 in a tartan pattern. Really spectacular.”
Run by the Galanos family, the James G. Galanos Foundation wanted to ensure the designer’s archives went to a university in Philadelphia, where he hailed from. Drexler has several hundred ensembles with some including individual pieces. There are also thousands of some “quite remarkable” sketches, photographs and paper records, as well as some jewelry.
In 1998, Galanos closed the book on his 46-year-old business, having won every major industry award, several museum retrospectives and established a clutch of high-profile clients like Nancy Reagan, Diana Ross and Brooke Astor. “The highlight of his career was “simply existing for 46 years,” Galanos told WWD. “The most important thing that I have done is to maintain what I started out to do. And I did it. I never deviated from what was most important, which was quality.”
And while global expansion is paramount to many designers brand building today, Galanos was more discreet, preferring to never sell to more than 30 accounts. That level of control enabled him to oversee the construction of each garment from his Los Angeles studio. “I’m not really interested in publicity,” Galanos told WWD in 1969 — and that remained unchanged for most of his life.
“Once everyone started doing blue jeans, I knew it was time to get out of the business,” Galanos said in 2007. “What happened to the days when a woman could turn heads in a restaurant by the way that she was dressed?”