Friday, November 11, 2016

James Galanos: California Couture, Part I

James Galanos will be known, not only as a California designer for the stars and first lady, Nancy Reagan, but also as one of the few American couture designers.  In light of Mr. Galanos recent passing, I am sharing this biography that was written as part of my graduate thesis.  I have divided it into two parts, to make this post less lengthy.


James Galanos was the son of an artistic Greek immigrant and although originally from Philadelphia, Galamos grew up in New Jersey. Born in 1924, at a young age he had a passion for fashion design. By the time he was 18, he had enrolled in the Traphagen School of Fashion in Manhattan (the origin of Fashion Institute of Technology). Within a year he was working for Hattie Carnegie in a position without any artistic challenges.

Galanos had been sketching all of his life so he did not feel the need for more art training and left that job. Working for himself, he started by selling free-lance designs to New York apparel companies. His earliest backer was Lawrence Lesavoy, a Russian textile businessman. He sent Galanos to California to start a new fashion business there, but due to Lesavoy’s divorce, the business venture failed.  Galanos could not design the collection as was planned. Instead he waited in Los Angeles for the divorce to be settled. In his early twenties at the time, he found part-time work as an assistant to the movie costumer, Jean Louis at Columbia Pictures, a relationship that would help to start his career.

Following that first business failure, Lesavoy sent Galanos to Paris in 1948 to study fashion design at the Beaux Arts Academy. While in Paris, he was able to secure an unpaid internship with Robert Piguet, the French couture designer most famous for his designs during the 1920’s. At Piguet he worked with Marc Bohan and other young assistants who would later become well known Parisian designers. This experience would have a profound effect on Galanos aesthetic, which reflected his study of French couture.

The Parisian internship was short lived however and Galanos returned to New York again and looked for work. He was hired by the Davidow suit company, known for soft, unlined, textured wool Chanel-styled suits, however these were not in Galanos’s style.  Galanos decided to return to Los Angeles again in 1951. At the time the luxury business for movie stars was seeing a rise in popularity.

Galanos' leap to fame is recorded as coming from design commissions for Rosalind Russell. She first saw his designs in the studio of the costumer Jean Louis. After working for Russell, Galanos created his first true fashion collection in 1951 at the age of 27, financed by a loan of $200 from Jean Louis.

He took his first sample dresses to New York for market week. There, this collection was a terrific success.  He returned with orders worth $400,000. Following this inspired beginning, Galanos worked for 46 years as the designer for his own company. He would continue to create fashion until 1988 at the age of 73,  At that point, he retired to Palm Springs, where he continued to socialize with his clients and friends.

In the early 1950's, Amelia Gray of Los Angeles was one of the first shops to carry his designs. Her shop's location on Wilshire Blvd. brought in famous Hollywood starlets who bought those early designs and samples. Galanos’ long friendship with young starlet Nancy Reagan began during that time. She actually made the original comment about being able to wear his clothes inside out because they were so perfectly sewn. Her first dress from Galanos cost $125.

Mrs. Reagan’s support for him included wearing his gowns at each of her husband’s inaugurals. She wore two gowns while her husband was the governor of California and then two more when he was president of the United States during the 1980’s. Galanos’ gown for the 1981 inaugural was a one-shoulder sheath with silver-white beading. This was a dramatic departure from the traditional styles worn by previous first ladies and helped to establish Mrs. Reagan’s stature as the First Lady.

By 1954 his reputation as a designer was so well established that he won the Neiman Marcus Award in early fall and the Coty Award later that winter. Only 30 years old, he was the youngest winner of this top honor. By 1959 he would be inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame. Although remarkably young, the quality of craftsmanship in his gowns won him the acclaim.

His working process began with a drape of uncut fabric on the fit model. This French drape technique resulted in gowns with careful draping and amazing bias fit. If beading was used, the pattern was drawn directly on to the fabric with chalk; then the beading was applied by hand by former MGM costume makers. His own arrangement of bead texture and color was used. He could spend days perfecting a beaded layout.

During the 1980’s Galanos became known for heavily textured beading and embroidery, often blending the beads into a printed design on the textile. It was only after this process was complete that the gown was then sewn. Using this method, it could take weeks for a garment to be completed. Time consuming techniques such as this launched his reputation as one of the few true American couture designers, even though he was not officially preparing custom made garments for his clients.

end of PART I

The black lace gown shown is from Ricky's Treasured Finds, a vintage couture shop:
photo by Ricky Serbin

Examples of Galanos beaded designs:

No comments: