Fashion

James Galanos and the Integrity of 20th Century Fashion

Drexel University's retrospective exhibition celebrates the career of the late American fashion designer.
IMAGE COURTESY OF DREXEL UNIVERSITY
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James Galanos, likely the most important American fashion designer of the 20th century, is having a homecoming of sorts in Philadelphia. Two years after his passing at 92-years-old, Drexel University is honoring the late designer with James Galanos: Design Integrity—an exhibition drawn largely from the designer’s personal archive, now permanently housed within the school’s fashion department.

Born in Philadelphia, in 1924, but raised in New Jersey, Galanos attended the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City for two semesters between 1942 and 1943 before landing an unremarkable position with Hattie Carnegie. In 1945, he briefly moved to Los Angeles where he worked under Jean Louis designing costumes at Columbia Pictures, until textile magnate, Lawrence Lesavoy, sent the 24-year-old designer to Paris.

The couture houses in post-war France were slowly but surely getting back on their feet, and Galanos found a home at the atelier of Robert Piguet. He worked under Piguet as an assistant until 1948—during the same period as Hubert de Givenchy and Marc Bohan—when he decided to return to New York.


A publicity photo for Galanos's collection from Spring 1956.

After working briefly at the popular dress-maker Davidow, Galanos made his way back to California where, in 1952, he began designing his first eponymous label, “Galanos Originals”. In what was practically on overnight success story, Galanos earned the admiration of editors Eleanor Lambert and Diana Vreeland, while women like the Duchess of Windsor, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Rosalind Russell and Gloria Vanderbilt wore his clothes.

During the four decades from the 1950s through the 1990s that Galanos designed under his own name his attention to detail, quality of materials, and craftsmanship remained unparalleled. And while he may be most remembered as Nancy Reagan’s favored fashion designer, his clientele continued to include many of the most stylish women in the United States—among them Betsy Bloomingdale, Lyn Revson, Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, Lynn Wyatt, Casey Ribicoff, Betsy Pickering Kaiser and Iris Cantor. As for his legacy, it’s one built on hard work, uncompromising vision, and integrity—one that is now being preserved for future generations to explore.

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In September 2016, a month before his death, the James G. Galanos Foundation gifted the archive of nearly 700 couture-quality ensembles to the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection of the Westphal College of Media Arts and Design at Drexel. Comprising looks from the 1960s to his retirement in 1998, the collection will be available to scholars, students and the public, offering an unprecedented opportunity to study and learn from the designer’s prolific body of work.


“We realized it would be best to attempt to keep the collection together, as opposed to giving it to numerous institutions,” says Vincent Polisano, the late designer’s nephew and president of the James G. Galanos Foundation. “The first thing was to find the top fashion schools in the country, and Drexel University was in the top three – and it made sense to try to keep [the collection] close to home.”

“It was tremendously exciting and overwhelming,” explains Clare Sauro, curator of the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection. “It was an incredible experience receiving the archive from Los Angeles—22 racks of clothing all protected in crates and shrouded in muslin—not knowing what you’d discover as we unwrapped everything.” With pieces from the 1990s, in particular, they received entire collections. “It was an amazing insight into his mind and his work.”


On display are approximately 60 ensembles, along with an array of accessories, sketches, photographs and ephemera, the majority of which come directly from the foundation’s gift. Others come from the university’s existing collection—some pieces given by Galanos, himself—as well as several recent donations.

“That piece over there, the gown with the cape, that’s mine,” notes philanthropist and former Galanos client Iris Cantor, who was on hand for the private opening preview. “That was a show-stopper! When you walked into the room and dropped the cape, everyone looked. The back was low-cut and went down to there,” Cantor says, motioning to the lowest part of her back. “It was just beautiful.”

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Asked to share some opening remarks at the preview, fashion designer and Galanos intimate Ralph Rucci offered this thought, “In Japan there is a magnificent tradition of honoring an individual of unique and extraordinary accomplishment…if we had this tradition in the United States, James Galanos would have been considered a ‘National Living Treasure’.”

Cameron Silver, the fashion director for H by Halston and owner of the Los Angeles vintage fashion boutique Decades also toured the exhibition preview. “I’ve dealt in Galanos [clothing] for 22 years, and there are so many pieces in the show that remind me of other pieces,” says Silver. “That’s the beauty of a designer who has a very distinctive DNA. Mr. Galanos had a very prolific career and his output was profound. He never sold out, or did a diffusion line or made jeans, he was a pure luxury designer.”


A sketch by Galanos circa 1985

Prior to the archive being shipped to Drexel, the Galanos Foundation hired fashion scholar Louise Coffey-Webb as its project manager to oversee the cataloging of the vast collection. “Once in a century, there comes a designer who serves to narrate a particular journey in the tale of American fashion. Such a designer is Galanos,” explains Coffey-Webb. “[He was] the only 20th century [American] designer to apprentice in the immediate post-war house of Robert Piguet, and the only American designer to sustain couture standards for four decades without selling out.”

This wasn’t Coffey-Webb’s first interaction with Galanos—she was previously involved in curating the retrospective that opened at LACMA in 1997.

“You really got a taste of how he worked singularly. He was the man behind everything,” she continues. “He went to Europe to buy the fabric and buttons, he oversaw how everything was made…he draped on the dress forms and then on the models; he did absolutely everything.”

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Former Galanos model, Jenny Garrigues (née Chillcott) fondly remembers her time with Galanos, beginning in the early 1970s. “The three of us always traveled together for trunk shows: Jimmy, Pat Jones, and me. We would fly from LA to New York for his shows at The Plaza, and we’d be there ten days at a time,” she recalls. “When it came time to meet the buyers, I’d wear the clothes and Patty would help Jimmy take the orders. We’d do the same thing in Dallas, Chicago and San Francisco.”

Hearing about the exhibition sparked a forgotten memory for Garrigues. “We were in Houston once for a trunk show and Patty and I went to a psychic. She said to us, ‘in your work you’re surrounded by fabric, and the gentleman you work with will live a very long life’. When we told him about our experience he thought we were absolutely ridiculous!”

As the steward of The James G. Galanos Archive, Drexel University is ensuring the designer’s legacy will live on, long beyond Galanos’s nearly five-decade career.


“I think it’s fabulous that a university is honoring him, and that it’ll be the permanent site for Galanos research,” says friend and fashion editor Tatiana Sorokko. “Take any outfit from the exhibition and wear it now, you’ll have ten people approaching you asking where you got it…it’s totally timeless.”

“You look at the exhibition and think ‘these clothes could have been made today’,” agrees Cantor, who wore a 30-year-old Galanos skirt suit for the occasion. “I have about 200 pieces by Jimmy,” she continues. “My husband used to buy almost his entire collection every year. Jimmy was such a genius.”


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“Contemporary designers always complain, ‘we’re not in Paris…we don’t have the resources’,” adds Sorokko. “And I say ‘remember Galanos…he did everything in Los Angeles’. He produced incredible couture clothes in America. It’s something nobody has done before or since.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Silver, “He was independently owned, by himself, which doesn’t exist today. And, as a native Angeleno I’m partial to designers who were based in LA, like Mr. Galanos, Rudi Gernreich and Holly Harp; they helped put LA on the fashion map.”


For Drexel, this Galanos exhibition is just the beginning. “Taking the collection and distilling it into an introduction was a little overwhelming, but really gratifying,” explains Sauro. “We’re already in discussions with a museum in Chicago for a potential exhibition, and we have another idea for a second Galanos exhibition here in Philadelphia, so stay tuned!”

The James Galanos: Design Integrity retrospective runs from October 19, 2018 to December 8, 2018 and January 8-27, 2019 at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, URBN Annex, 3401 Filbert Street, Philadelphia.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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