WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – James Galanos, the California fashion designer who was known for his elegant, meticulously constructed dresses and created both of first lady Nancy Reagan’s inaugural gowns, has died. He was 92.
Galanos died Sunday in West Hollywood, said fellow fashion designer Ralph Rucci, a longtime admirer and friend of Galanos.
“I loved him very much,” Rucci said. “There could never have been a Ralph Rucci without Galanos.”
Galanos trained in Paris in the 1940s in the fashion house of Robert Piguet, and the French couture tradition of bringing the best materials and highest-quality handwork to the making of garments stayed with him all his life.
“It’s what’s inside a dress that counts,” he told The New York Times in 1981. “If you can turn a dress inside out and see that the workmanship is clean as a whistle, that’s quality. … Quality is more important than wildly innovative styles.”
Such handwork didn’t come cheap, and the designer’s well-heeled customers among them stars such as Rosalind Russell and Diana Ross got used to paying $2,000 or more for a blouse.
He had nothing good to say about the fashions he saw in public in later years.
“We’re living in a blue-jean world with itty-bitty tops,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006. “What a bore. These women look dirty. They look unkempt. The masses are a mess. Whoever perpetuated the bare-belly look ought to be hanged.”
He had garnered notice quickly after he opened his first shop in Beverly Hills, California, in 1951. A collection he brought to New York in 1953 “immediately attracted the attention of the connoisseurs in the fashion field. His styles had individuality and freshness,” according to The New York Times.
In 1954, he moved his business into larger quarters and at the tender age of 30 won the prestigious Coty American Fashion Critics Award.
Reagan liked other designers, too, including Adolfo, Jean Louis and Bill Blass. But it was no surprise that the incoming first lady would select Galanos to design her 1981 inaugural gown. He had designed her inaugural gown when she became first lady of California 14 years earlier.
Reagan requested a one-shoulder style, and Galanos complied, coming up with a white lace over silk gown with elaborate embroidery and beading that Galanos said took workers several weeks to apply.
“I wouldn’t ask anybody else but Jimmy,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006. “It was just a natural. I don’t know of any clothes that were made as well as Jimmy’s.”
As is the custom, the 1981 gown was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
“I really shy away from all the hullabaloo,” Galanos told The Philadelphia Inquirer shortly after the inauguration. “I just don’t take to it. … It’s nice to get the extra attention, but my reputation was made a long time ago.”
Reagan was back in Galanos at the 1985 inauguration, this time in a long-sleeved, beaded white gown with art deco-inspired details. In 1986, she attended the wedding of Britain’s Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson in a sea-green Galanos silk dress and matching coat.
Such costly clothes raised comments from critics, but like other first ladies, Reagan was able to borrow outfits or get discounts from designers happy with the publicity that a White House connection brought.
With his attention to detail and high prices, Galanos never commanded the big following of contemporaries such as Blass. He did bring out a line of fragrances, but he largely remained aloof from mass production.
“I established myself on my own and I’ve avoided becoming part of a conglomerate the way many designers do,” he told The New York Times in 1981. “I do my own selling, designing, and I deal with all the buyers. I inspect every garment before it goes out. I don’t care what other designers say, when you have 15 factories making your clothes, you lose control.
“I’m not in this for the money. You can’t drive two cars at once and you can’t live in five homes at once. I choose to live in two rooms, but I make sure they are the most comfortable two rooms around.”
He officially retired in 1998. But, finding himself somewhat bored after a couple of years of traveling, took up photography and art, particularly collages.
“It’s my salvation for the moment,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006. “I manipulate color. I invent things. It gives me pleasure.”
In 1984, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. He was added to New York’s Fashion Walk of Fame in 2001.
Galanos was born in Philadelphia in 1924 to Greek immigrant parents and said he knew from a young age that he wanted to be a designer. He studied for a time in New York before moving to Paris and his internship with Piguet.
Reagan told the San Francisco Chronicle her first Galanos “was a short black dress it sounds so simple with a white collar and white cuffs. I think it was $125. I was so thrilled to have a dress by him.”
“I create a line with youth in mind, for I know that all women like to look youthful,” Galanos told The New York Times in 1954. “I do not believe in following trends, and consequently I never come out with anything radical. Detail is an essential in all of my designing.”