James Galanos died this morning of natural causes at his house in West Hollywood, Calif., according to his friend, the designer Ralph Rucci. He was 92.
Galanos was among the West Coast contingent of designers — along with Adolfo — who dressed the Ladies Who Lunch in California, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but who suddenly shot to fame when one of their clients, Nancy Reagan, became first lady. Reagan was a loyal supporter of Galanos, often wearing his gowns to state dinners. But shortly after the Reagans left the White House, Galanos left fashion. He spent the last decade or more focusing on art and photography, only occasionally mingling with the fashion world.
“I had my career. I never looked back. I only look at tomorrow,” he told WWD in 2008.
Rucci said Sunday, “He’s a touchstone, like [Cristòbal] Balenciaga. He really didn’t like to give interviews. He believed the clothes spoke. He worked. He had integrity, he had great humility. Sometimes that was misinterpreted as snobbism. No — there was a great intensity to his craft. He could see in three dimension.”
Unlike today in large design houses where designers often don’t know to what degree their original samples may be altered, Galanos knew precisely what was his. Harold Koda, former curator-in-charge at the Met’s Costume Institute likened Galanos’ tailoring to architecture, the kind of designer who piped the edges of his chiffon designs. During a walk-through of a rack of pieces donated by the widower of Rosalind Russell at the Museum at FIT when Harold Koda was an associate curator, Galanos could recognize his original designs “without even pulling out a sleeve.” “I have never seen a designer who knew immediately what was his. He ran his studio with the same level of instinctiveness, certitude and authority.”
Koda continued, “It was apt that he moved to Los Angeles because he had a sense of glamour that was different from the Francophile kind that East Coast designers would tend to cleave to.” Recalling a pair of multicolored silk brocade palazzo pajamas that Veruschka once wore for Vogue shoot that are now part of The Costume Institute’s collection, Koda said, “On one hand he was known for refined and subtle things, and on the other hand there was this boldness and this love of opulence that came through.”
Denise Hale, reached at her cattle ranch in Northern California, said for one of her birthdays, “[Galanos] gave me a very glamorous one-shouldered, long-sleeved gown in leopard print silk chiffon. It’s so beautiful, and over the years I’ve lent it to so many retrospective exhibits on his designs,” she said. “I always felt he was the perfect gentleman, understated and quiet, a rare person and not into self-promotion. He let the clothes speak for themselves. They were glamorous, perfection.’
Attuned to providing white glove service to his well-heeled clients, Galanos traveled with 15 to 20 11-foot-high wheeled trunks, all of which he personally packed with black tissue paper between each hanging look so that nothing was crushed in transit. Reading incessantly, Galanos could find inspiration for his designs in books about Tibetan culture or Chinese furniture. Travel was another well for creativity with the designer joining Rucci, Carl and Iris Apfel, Glenda Bailey and her husband Stephen Sumner, hairstylist Paul Podlucky, and Tatiana and Serge Sorokko for European jaunts over Thanksgiving.
New York clients may not have known of his post-fashion career as an art photographer. Galanos once explained his abstract work was made by taking construction paper and making color boxes, because “he would like to capture line and space,” Rucci said.
Unfailingly polite, Galanos would not openly disparage designers who fell short of his exacting standards. “He would never say anything negative. He might say, ‘I don’t understand how clothes get on the runway,'” Rucci said.
Rucci first met Galanos in 1989, while taking a break at Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills during a trunk show. “I took my jacket off, rolled up my sleeves and had taken a seat when I heard the voice. Jimmy said he wanted to meet this young designer he’d read so much about.
I thought, ‘Oh my God — it’s Galanos.’ We went upstairs to the restaurant to have lunch with [Gustave] Tassell and he became one of my closest mentors for the rest of my life.”
Galanos was born on Sept. 20, 1924 in a Philadelphia, the only son of Greek-born parents. His mother, Helen Gorgoliatos, and his father, Gregory Galanos, ran a restaurant in southern New Jersey, where Galanos first witnessed “ladies who lunch” before it became a term.
Galanos, once recalled that he was “a loner, surrounded by three sisters. I never sewed; I just sketched. It was simply instinctive. As a young boy I had no fashion influences around me, but all the while I was dreaming of Paris and New York.”
Upon graduating from high school, he moved to New York with the intention of enrolling in a fashion school led by Barbara Karinska, the Russian stage designer and costumer. When the school failed to open in the autumn, he enrolled at the Traphagen School of Fashion, but left after eight months to pursue more hands-on experience.
He took an assistant position at the 49th Street emporium of Hattie Carnegie, but that, too, failed to offer direct design experience, so he began selling his sketches to Seventh Avenue manufacturers directly.
In 1945, a former Traphagen instructor showed him a help-wanted ad from The New York Times placed by textile magnate Lawrence Lesavoy. “His beautiful wife, Joan, was hoping to launch a ready-to-wear dress business in California, and they were looking for a designer,” recalled Galanos. The Lesavoys employed him for $75 a week and dispatched him to Los Angeles, but they soon divorced and Galanos lost his job.
“Out of pity,” Galanos said, Jean Louis, head costume designer at Columbia Pictures, hired him as a part-time assistant sketch artist. Soon afterwards, Lesavoy agreed to send the 24-year-old Galanos to Paris, where couturier Robert Piguet hired him as an assistant among Pierre Balmain, Hubert de Givenchy and Marc Bohan.
There, Galanos got the experience he yearned for, meeting with fabric and trimming suppliers to choose materials, sketching and draping up designs under the eye of Piguet, who oversaw his work on a daily basis.
In 1948, Galanos decided to return to the U.S and accepted a job with Davidow, a dressmaking firm in New York. That gig was also short-lived, and Galanos returned to Los Angeles three years later to set up his own workshop, from which he designed the line Galanos Originals, which he founded in 1952. Saks Fifth Avenue Beverly Hills placed an order, followed by Neiman Marcus, and the rest, as they say, was history. Diana Vreeland, Eleanor Lambert and Eugenia Sheppard were among the editors who championed his elegant evening confections, particularly his hand-rolled chiffon gowns.
He also began designing movie costumes for Rosalind Russell and Marlene Dietrich, Dorothy Lamour, Judy Garland and Diana Ross, and his studio became a magnet for young designers from around the world. His skillful use of fabrics also included furs, and the luxury of his clothes became his calling card as he began to dress a Who’s Who of political, entertainment and social figures.
Galanos retired in 1998 and began pursuing photography. Galanos bemoaned the lack of propriety in current fashions. “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?”
He remained in the mix at Los Angeles fashion events, and in 2007, he became the 11th recipient of the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Award. Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale chaired the daytime induction ceremony on Rodeo Drive, where a plaque on the storied street commemorates his achievements.
At the following luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons, Connie Wald, Peggy Moffitt, Cameron Silver and Ralph Rucci were also present. “If we were in Japan, we’d have an expression and call him our national living treasure,” said Rucci, speaking to the crowd about Galanos. “The standard that the man upheld could only be surpassed by the man’s behavior.”
Galanos responded jokingly, “I don’t know why I’m here in the first place, but I like it.” Floating Island desserts, reportedly Reagan’s favorite, topped off the event.
Doris Raymond, owner of Los Angeles vintage resource The Way We Wore, pointed out the designer still has a following among today’s actresses. Maria Bello wore a blue Galanos dress to the Critics’ Choice Awards in January 2007, and Jessica Alba has picked up Galanos’ cocktail wear from Raymond. “His silhouettes transcend time,” Raymond said.
In 2008, Galanos spoke to WWD after another event in his honor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where philanthropist Doug Simms had given the school 18 Galanos-designed pieces that belonged to his mother, Marie.
Dressed in his signature navy pin-striped suit and white-collared shirt, the designer said, “It’s always nice to be remembered. I’m out of fashion now, but I keep in touch.”
But the designer was not wallowing in the past. “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 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 shot black-and-white landscapes, but prefers color abstracts and to “invent things.”
When 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. 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, but Nicolas Ghesquière passed 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’re not wearable. 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 said he was 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. 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.”
He ended by saying, “I had big ambitions to do what I wanted to do, and I accomplished that in 50 years in business. 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. Life is life. You grow old.”