James Galanos, whose gowns were worn by Nancy Reagan, Judy Garland and Heidi Klum, was ‘America’s couturier’
James Galanos, a designer to the stars who kept a profile as low as his clients’ were high, died Oct. 30 at his home in West Hollywood. He was 92.
“He died of natural causes Sunday morning — peacefully and surrounded by his sister and family,” nephew Vincent Polisano, president of the James G. Galanos Foundation, told The Times.
Billed by some as “America’s couturier,” Galanos’ work was beautiful from afar but dizzyingly delightful up close: silks knife-pleated by hand, precisely positioned crystal beads, enthusiastic sequin play and interior seams so precisely hand-finished that fans of his work often opined that his creations would be equally beautiful worn inside out.
In a departure from today’s designer-as-rock-star, media-saturation model, Galanos was private and somewhat press shy, preferring to let his handiwork speak for itself, which it did loudly thanks to the well-heeled, high-profile clientele that picked his pieces for state dinners, red carpets, television appearances and society events on both coasts.
James Gregory Galanos was born Sept. 20, 1924, in Philadelphia, one of four children of Greek immigrants Gregory Galanos and Helen Gorgoliatos, who ran a restaurant. He was raised in Bridgeton, N.J., and, after graduating from high school in 1942 briefly attended the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City. After a stint as an assistant at Hattie Carnegie, he turned to selling sketches to Seventh Avenue clothing manufacturers. But Galanos’ real fashion education would come in Paris — as an assistant to couturier Robert Piguet — where he spent several years before returning to the U.S. in 1948.
The designer’s six-decade-long relationship with Southern California began when he came West in 1951 to work as an apprentice to costume designer Jean Louis at Columbia Pictures. That same year, he sold his first collection to Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. It was quickly picked up by other stores, including Neiman Marcus, and he incorporated his business under the Galanos Originals name the next year at age 28.
Among his early clients was an MGM starlet by the name of Nancy Davis, who would end up shaping his career as much as, if not more than, his couture-level confections shaped her Size 4 frame as future First Lady Nancy Reagan. Reagan wore Galanos gowns on countless occasions but most memorably to her husband’s four inaugurations (Ronald Reagan’s two California gubernatorial inaugurations as well as his two presidential ones).
For most of his career, Galanos was the go-to for special occasions. Judy Garland, for example, wore a black leotard and chiffon skirt of his for a 1956 TV special. Diana Ross was clad in a purple-beaded Galanos number at the 1985 Academy Awards. And Grace Kelly, in the run-up to her 1956 wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco, had the designer make her a couple of different dresses, including a white silk organdy ball gown embroidered with huge floral bouquets and a more understated blue dress that she was photographed wearing the day before the ceremony.
Stars who counted on him included Edie Adams (whose Galanos collection reportedly numbered in the hundreds of pieces), Loretta Young, Dorothy Lamour and Rosalind Russell.
Another thing that set Galanos apart was his approach to business. He not only designed the clothes that bore his name, but also picked out the fabrics, arranged sales and called on clients, often with enormous wheeled steamer trunks full of dresses in tow. Likewise, he never leveraged Galanos Originals into a Galanos lifestyle brand with the kind of diffusion lines and product extensions that have been part of fashion brand synergy for the last several decades. He reportedly entered into just two licensing deals in his entire career, one for fragrances and the other for furs.
Polisano described his uncle as someone who spent his whole life focused on his career. “From the time he was a teenage boy, he would sit in his parents’ restaurant and draw fashion [sketches] on the back of the customers’ checks,” Polisano said. “He always knew that he was going to be a designer, and he knew he wanted to be a designer of beautiful things for special people. And ever since he was a little boy, he tried to stay on course and never deviate from that.”
That focus earned him not just A-list clientele but just about every plaque, trophy and recognition the fashion industry could throw his way, including Coty American Fashion Critics awards in 1954 and 1956, sidewalk plaques on Seventh Avenue’s Fashion Walk of Fame in 2001 and on the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style in 2007, and a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1985. He was also the subject of a career retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1997, just one year before he officially retired from the fashion business at age 74. (A short film created for the LACMA exhibition called “Galanos on Galanos” can be viewed online.)
A testament to the timelessness of his work, Galanos’ vintage gowns would continue to grace the forms of supermodels and superstars including Heidi Klum, Amber Valletta, Nicole Kidman, Celine Dion and Renée Zellweger.
From his retirement in 1998 until his death, Galanos split his time between homes in the Hollywood Hills and Palm Springs, traveling and dabbling in art photography. He is survived by a sister, Dorothy Chrambanis of Langhorne, Pa., who, along with Polisano and his wife, sits on the board of the Philadelphia-based James G. Galanos Foundation, which is working to preserve the designer’s legacy.
“One of the things the foundation did — and it was one of Mr. Galanos’ wishes — was donate his atelier collection to Drexel University,” Polisano told The Times. “And they’re going to take the lead in preserving what was left in his archives.”
Over the last year, the foundation has donated more than 700 garments to the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design at Drexel, and future plans include a designated study room for Galanos’ archives, a book and something that, just maybe, will help the next, rare, Galanos-in-the-making turn a sketch scribbled on the back of a restaurant check into a career-creating wearable art.
“We’re going to give scholarship funds to people who are deserving — to help them get careers in the fashion world,” Polisano said.
Galanos’ other survivors include numerous nieces and nephews.
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