Drexel Remembers Galanos, the Quiet King of Fashion

James Galanos, left, appears with former First Lady Nancy Reagan in 2007. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

He was for decades after World War II perhaps the best of the greatest of American fashion designers but the brilliance of James Galanos, who died in 2016 at 92, seemed to have faded from memory but is being restored with a show of is work at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where he was born.

James Galanos: Design Integrity, on view in the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery at Drexel University, doesn’t answer the question of why Galanos is underrepresented,” The Wall Street Journal said in a feature, noting that it does, however, establish “a baseline for his importance,” that endures.

Two years ago, the university’s Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection (FHCC) received more than 700 couture-level ensembles, plus thousands of sketches, swatches, and photographs, from the James G. Galanos Foundation.

That now encompasses the James G. Galanos Archive at Drexel University, with the exhibition the first outing of pieces pulled from the Archive with more set to come, bringing back his work that adorned famous actresses, First Lady Nancy Reagan and customers grateful it was ready-to-wear.

Organized by Clare Sauro, FHCC Director and Chief Curator, with Cara Fry and Monica Stevens Smyth, the show contains approximately 60 pieces, the oldest dating to 1953, two years after Galanos launched his own house at only 27.

He earned his way up in the industry, the only son of Greek-born parents. His mother, Helen Gorgoliatos, and his father, Gregory Galanos, a frustrated artist, ran a restaurant in southern New Jersey, where Galanos said he had his first glimpses of well-dressed women.

He said he grew up shy, learned to work hard from an early age, an ethic typical of Greek parents passed on to their children. Galanos recalled that he was “a loner, surrounded by three sisters. I never sewed; I just sketched. It was simply instinctive. As a young boy I had no fashion influences around me but all the while I was dreaming of Paris and New York.”

Ironically, as his talent became recognized after fitful starts, he disdained the Parisian influence, which endeared him to women looking for something they could actually wear instead of staring at models on a runway with fashion that seemed unattainable.

Impatient and eager to get started in a hands-on way after being educated at New York’s Traphagen School of Fashion, he worked for Hattie Carnegie, the Paris house of Piguet, and Davidow in New York but left because he wanted to create originals.

He headed west to be a sketch artist at Columbia Pictures, where his talent impressed Jean Louis, its chief designer, who lent him $200 to produce his first collection. The label read Galanos Originals, the paper noted.

THE PERFECTIONIST AT WORK

I’m always trying to invent a seam that is intricate, intelligent, but that works,” Galanos is quoted in wall text.

The exhibition continues through four sections that address the themes of black, drape, tailoring, and textiles. Galanos excelled in each of these, the paper said, and displayed a special mastery over silk chiffon, a fabric of unruly softness that disses all but the most precise designers. “Precision is everywhere on view, from the simple jewel necklines that curve like celestial rings around the throat, to long sleeves that narrow into perfect pools at the wrists,” the review said.

His elegant subtlety may have hindered his legacy, ironically because he wasn’t a showman looking for illustration, but a master designer looking for eternity for his designs.

His innovations were often hidden within the dress, in sly cut and imperceptible, airtight construction. For this reason one wishes the exhibition had provided more information in its overly-spare labeling—some history about the pieces, some explication of, and insight into, those ‘intricate, intelligent’ Galanos seams,” it added.

A Galanos – and that’s what it was called – often had bold but brought-in textile choices and color combinations. “Galanos took the most scrumptious silks, wools, and velvets Europe had to offer and brought opposites—hard and soft, tight weave and loose, glitter and matte—into connubial bliss,” the review added.

At his passing, fashion icon Iris Apfel, now 97, told Women’s Wear Daily that, “Galanos was one of the most brilliant designers I’ve ever come upon. He should sit in the pantheon. His clothes were American couture. His clothes were made as well as the finest houses in Paris. It was a sensual experience to put on one of his dresses because the inside was so exquisitely made. You could turn them inside out and they were gorgeous. He was very advanced. He walked to his own drummer. He didn’t play around with trends.”

Sonja Caproni, fashion director for I. Magnin in the 1970’s and 1980’s, which carried Galanos’ designs, told WWD that, ““His perfect workmanship and dedication made him so successful and the fact that he never did a second line.”

She added: “He never had licensees or any of that. He did furs and perfume, but his clothes really were a work of art. Every one of them was fit by him and fabricated by him. I don’t think there was any such thing as a hands-on designer like that. Many times it was even better than what we could buy in Paris. It was so close to couture. You really couldn’t make a mistake if you wore Galanos.”

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