In Part 1, biography of James Galanos, I covered his early life and career. I look now into his later career and styles.
PART II: James Galanos
Galanos gowns are part of his legend but it was his simple day dresses and suits that were very popular. Galanos is known for the refined women he dressed: Jackie Onassis, Loretta Young, Gloria Vanderbilt, Nancy Reagan, Ann Getty, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli. These customers collected his beaded jackets and wore them for many years. To understand their needs, he made a point of socializing with his customers, maintaining a good grasp of their preferred styles and needs throughout his career. It was the East Coast client, wealthy and socially connected, that helped to build both his reputation and business.
Galanos’s fashion shows were major events, staged at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles and the Plaza Hotel in New York. As early as 1952 he had shown samples to buyers and customers in New York. There would be 150 gowns or more shown at these events. The atmosphere was quiet without music or dramatic scenery. He staged a hostess to call out the number of each gown as it went down the runway. It could last well over an hour for every model to appear on the runway.
The spring and summer 1965 showing lasted over two hours while 250 designs were shown. As he grew older, he eliminated those big fashion shows. During that time his fashions were sold in about 26 stores (and never more than 30). His prime retailer in New York was Martha. This store sold one million dollars worth of his designs during one week in 1985 while Galanos was in town for a trunk show. He also sold through such luxury stores as Neiman Marcus (45 years), Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bergdorf Goodman. Galanos licensed perfume and fur labels at one time, but never sold his name in a big way.
He felt he was the classic designer of his time. He knew that beauty is created with luxury fabrics and fine details, without fads or distracting and gimmicky details. His style was very simple, sculptural, and clean. The shaping of form created the garment’s unique character rather than by the use of decorations and trims. In a single collection he would have 200 dresses of different design. Even with the high number of styles in each collection he was able to produce two collections a year while he was at his most prolific.
Galanos was known for the black dresses he designed. They are considered to be perfect in fit and cut. In addition to dresses he always included a cape in every collection. Each cape was carefully engineered to retain the silhouette. His use of fabric was generous, with as much as 50 yards being used to create a swirl of chiffon.
Beading was an important part of his evening wear. Simple gowns with carefully selecting beading applications were created to make the outstanding ensemble. Nancy Reagan’s inaugural gown was one of these simple beaded shafts of fabric. It was the subtle changes in silhouette and style that gave his personal design style a classic feel. He never introduced sudden changes in his collections so they were timeless in design. He explored new silhouettes that evolved from past styles.
This attention to detail and fit made a Galanos gown couture level. Using up to four fabrics in a garment, this expensive process was unique to the American fashion scene, where cost usually dictates the process used to construct a garment. Although a Galanos gown could be bought ready-to-wear, the unique processes he used to create that gown made each piece a collector’s item. The quality of his garments is unmatched in ready-to-wear.
His design room was in west Los Angeles on Sepulveda Blvd. He employed up to 65 technicians and artisans who stayed with him for several decades. This group performed all phases of his garment design and production. Even with the technical support, Galanos was responsible for the design work from concept through final drape or design.
Recognition for Galanos also came in the form of several major honors and museum exhibitions. In 1976 his designs were shown at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The Council of Fashion Designers of America’s lifetime achievement award was awarded to him in 1985. A retrospective of his career was showcased in Ohio at the Western Reserve Historical Society in 1997, and the following year at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). An earlier showing of his work had been exhibited at LACMA in 1974. The 1997 exhibition included a catalog and video that showed Galanos at work along with his own comments on his design philosophy.
In 1988 his prices ranged from $7,500 for a day suit with blouse, to $10,000 to $15,000 for a special gown. His day dresses were about $4,000 each. Although expensive, this was much less than a Parisian counterpart. Even so, it was difficult to get his wealthy customers to pay their bills, and by the end of his career, large debts loomed from unpaid accounts.
At the end of his career he cut his expansive runway shows from his business. Instead, he continued to show the collection to small groups of buyers in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Palm Beach, Dallas, and Houston. These showings were simple, using only two models.
As the designer, he still felt the need to describe each garment as it passed by the audience. The lingering effect of his decades of designing is the timeless quality of his work. Galanos style is fashion that can be worn for years. This balances the cost and sets them apart from other American fashion designs.
Galanos was known for his couture techniques and elegant styling. As an influence, he established a level of excellence for quality and couture values that has remained. This elevated California fashion in both scope and value. Where New York might seem to be the location for sophisticated and elegant fashion, Galanos was the “odd ball” by staying with his Los Angeles location throughout his career. This fostered a relationship with Hollywood royalty that New York fashion houses could not match.
His most outstanding pieces each have unique elements of emphasis. Whether it is the twist of a silk chiffon skirt, or heavy beading on an evening jacket, the attention to detail is unmistakable. Fabric roses, heavy beading, soft and silky fabrications all make his designs timeless and unique. His fashions were for the sophisticated adult woman who did not need to expose her body. Even his daring asymmetrical shoulders and bare bodices still carry a sense of elegance and royal bearing.
The black wool jacket shown above is from my shop. The floral silk two-piece dress is still in my collection.
More on GALANOS:
Documentary Video: Galanos by Galanos
James Galanos: California Couture, Part 1
Articles on Galanos:
FlashBack, 1997: Los Angeles Times, review of Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibit
Glory to Galanos, an American Original, 1987: Los Angeles Times
I'm Not Couture, 1994: Los Angeles Times
Galanos Show Brings Out His Fans, 1986: Los Angeles Times
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Galanos: by Barry Bradley, Western Reserve Historical Society, 1996/1997