James Galanos

Often hailed as one of the few American designers to rival the great French couturiers in craftsmanship and exquisite finish, James Galanos achieved his position as one of America’s premier designers through his commitment to exquisite fabrics and perfect workmanship throughout his long career. An uncompromising individualist, he established Galanos Originals in Los Angeles rather than New York’s Seventh Avenue and went on to create a successful ready-to-wear business, catering to a discerning clientele.

Galanos was born in 1924 in Philadelphia, the third child and only son of émigrés from Greece. He knew at a young age that he wanted to design dresses and was fortunate to have the support of his family throughout his early struggling career. After graduation from high school in 1942, Galanos enrolled at the Traphagen School of Fashion, one of the oldest schools of its kind in New York City. He lasted only two semesters, having grown bored with the curriculum despite coursework that included design, draping, and construction. Hoping to gain actual design experience, Galanos took a job at the firm of Hattie Carnegie. This turned out to be another disappointment, so he left and began selling his sketches to ready-to-wear firms on Seventh Avenue, with limited success.

Galanos’s acquaintance with the entrepreneur Lawrence Lesavoy led to his relocation to Los Angeles in 1946. After his failed business venture with Lesavoy left him unemployed, he made sketches for Columbia Pictures’ head designer Jean Louis. Lesavoy compensated Galanos a year later by offering to underwrite his study and travels in Europe. In 1947 Galanos went to Paris, where he secured a position as apprentice designer at the House of Robert Piguet. Galanos stayed for just one year, yet the lessons in French fabrics and couture construction he learned at Piguet had a lasting impact on his later career.

Galanos Originals

Galanos returned to New York in 1948 and accepted a design position with another Seventh Avenue dressmaking firm, Davidow, but the venture was unsuccessful, and Galanos headed back to California. With the encouragement and financial backing of his former employer Jean Louis, Galanos designed a line of dresses, which was purchased by the Beverly Hills buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue, and thus Galanos Originals was launched in 1951.

From the start Galanos garments were unique. Although they were ready-to-wear garments, Galanos Originals included many features more commonly associated with custom dressmaking—hand embroidery, beadwork, rolled hems, tucking, piping, and luxurious fabrics. Integrally involved with all aspects of production, Galanos continued to run his design business through the years. Even into the twenty-first century he traveled twice a year to Europe, where he selected fabrics. He also designed the collection, consulted with technical assistants, oversaw the workroom, and had a hand in marketing the lines.

James Galanos altering a dress. Trademarks of Galanos's ready-to-wear collection include expensive, luxurious fabrics and meticulous details more often found in custom dressmaking.

James Galanos altering a dress. Trademarks of Galanos's ready-to-wear collection include expensive, luxurious fabrics and meticulous details more often found in custom dressmaking.

Galanos designs range from meticulous day wear to exquisite evening dresses, but all feature fabrics of exceptional quality. His perfectly cut suits and day dresses, fashioned from expensive wools, silks, cottons, and linens, featuring such fine detailing as welted seams and tucking that produce a sculptural quality akin to the designs of Cristóbal Balenciaga, one of Galanos’s favorite designers. His simple wool dresses appear to be carved out of the fabric through virtuoso pleating. Galanos also has distinguished himself with his copious and accomplished use of chiffon throughout his design career. Pleating, draping, and bouillonné gathering are some of the labor-intensive hand techniques he has employed with this fabric. At times using up to fifty yards of chiffon in a skirt, Galanos has been credited with contributing to the postwar revival of the chiffon industry in France.

Galanos’s evening dresses have emphasized finesse and luxury rather than innovation. During his career he explored many different silhouettes, including full, bell-shaped skirts and dropped-waist “ballerina” dresses in the 1950s, miniskirts and caftans in the 1960s and 1970s, and off-the-shoulder sheaths in the 1980s and 1990s. His trademark silhouette, however, is a columnar sheath shape, featuring wide shoulders and a long, slim skirt. This simple, understated form offers the perfect foundation for another of Galanos’s trademarks— exquisite embroidery. In the mid-twentieth century, Galanos began to collaborate with the Los Angeles firm of D. Getson Eastern Embroidery in the creation of intricate, hand-applied beadwork, sequins, and embroidery. This collaboration produced some of the most elaborate, labor-intensive ready-to-wear garments on the market.

Despite the modest size of his business, Galanos’s adherence to quality and detail always ensured him a devoted fan base. Nancy Reagan, who became a client when her husband was governor of California, is perhaps his most famous customer. She wore Galanos gowns to four inaugural balls and countless receptions. Her selection of a fourteen-year-old Galanos gown for the presidential inauguration ball in 1981 highlighted the timelessness of his designs while bringing Galanos a new level of national attention formerly accorded only by the fashion con-gnoscenti.

From fashion critics Galanos has received almost every possible award. He won his first Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1954, followed by awards from Neiman Marcus, Filene’s, the Fashion Group, the Sunday Times, and the Council of Fashion Designers in America. Galanos designs are represented in the permanent collections of many major museums, and he has been the subject of retrospective exhibitions organized by such institutions as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (in 1975), the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York (in 1976), the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Ohio State University, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (in 1996).

Galanos is considered one of America’s great designers. His independent vision, rigorous work ethic, and continued insistence on preserving the use of quality fabrics and thoughtful cut and construction in his garments made him a unique living link between the French couture tradition and American ready-to-wear.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bradley, Barry W. Galanos. Cleveland, Ohio: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1996.

Diamonstein, Barbaralee. Fashion: The Inside Story. New York: Rizzoli International, 1985.

Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. Couture: The Great Designers. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1985.

Williams, Beryl. Young Faces in Fashion. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1956.

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