James Galanos, a fashion designer whose elegant style and high-quality craftsmanship made him the couturier of choice for Nancy Reagan and for America’s social elite for a half-century, died Oct. 30 at his home in West Hollywood. He was 92.
Mr. Galanos’s friend and fellow designer Ralph Rucci confirmed his death to Women’s Wear Daily but did not provide additional details.
Throughout his career, Mr. Galanos crafted ready-to-wear gowns and sheer chiffon skirts that drew favorable comparisons to the finest garments of French haute couture. While turning a Galanos garment inside-out to inspect its workmanship, the Parisian designer Hubert de Givenchy reportedly declared, “We don’t make them this well in Paris.”
Mr. Galanos, who in 1951 founded Galanos Originals in Los Angeles, earned most of his industry’s top honors, including several Coty Awards, which were considered the Academy Awards of American fashion until they were discontinued in the mid-1980s; a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America; and a spot on the Fashion Walk of Fame on New York’s Seventh Avenue.
For many years, the wiry designer worked out of a nondescript warehouse in an industrial section of Los Angeles, controlling each aspect of his company’s production process. He selected fabrics, traveling to mills in France and Italy, made up to 1,000 sketches for a single garment, and took his pieces on the road, holding trunk shows for exclusive audiences at venues including the Plaza Hotel in New York.
“I’m only interested in designing for a certain type of woman,” Mr. Galanos once said. “Specifically, one that has money.”
He sought customers who could fit into his slender skirts and sometimes strapless tops — and who could afford to spend upward of $10,000 on an evening gown or beaded black dress.
His work drew some of the best-dressed women of the latter 20th century: entertainers Grace Kelly, Rosalind Russell, Marlene Dietrich and Diana Ross, as well as first ladies Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Reagan, who met Mr. Galanos in the late 1940s when she was still an actress known as Nancy Davis.
Her husband, President Ronald Reagan, “liked Jimmy’s clothes very much,” she told Vanity Fair in 2007. “Wearing Jimmy meant never going overboard or to extremes. Jimmy really set the standard.”
Mr. Galanos outfitted her for four inaugurations — twice when Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California and twice when he was elected president — and became newly renowned after the 1981 presidential inauguration, when the first lady wore a 14-year-old white Galanos sheath dress that was hand-embroidered with crystal beads.
Although Mr. Galanos’s work won admirers well into the 1990s, his disdain toward new, more promiscuous trends led him to quit the business and close Galanos Originals in 1998. In recent years, he focused on photography, shooting black-and-white images of landscapes and making abstract works out of colored construction paper.
“Once everyone started wearing blue jeans, I knew it was time to get out of the business,” he told Women’s Wear Daily in 2007. “What happened to the days when a woman could turn heads in a restaurant by the way she was dressed?”
James Galanos was born in Philadelphia on Sept. 20, 1924, and grew up in Bridgeton, N.J. His parents, immigrants from the Greek island of Paros, ran a restaurant. Information on survivors was not immediately available.
The only boy of four children, Mr. Galanos told People magazine in 1980 that as a child 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.”
After graduating from high school, he moved to New York, studied at the Traphagen School of Fashion, sold sketches to Seventh Avenue clothing manufacturers and briefly assisted the designer Hattie Carnegie.
The promise of more lucrative work lured him west to California, where Mr. Galanos apprenticed to the costume designer Jean Louis.
After a two-year apprenticeship in Paris under designer Robert Piguet, Mr. Galanos stepped out on his own. His quick ascent to the heights of luxury fashion — his first show in New York drew $400,000 worth of orders — was driven mainly by his masterful use of chiffon.
“No one has ever manipulated silk chiffon quite the way Galanos has,” fashion critic Carrie Donovan wrote in 1984 for the New York Times magazine, praising in particular a 1951 rose-printed V-neck that Mr. Galanos made from the material. Ever since he designed the garment, she wrote, “Galanos has handled this fine, sheer fabric in an original manner, often pleating it and treating it the way one would a lightweight woolen.”
Mr. Galanos said that at its peak, his company made only several million dollars each year. Yet instead of selling chic chiffon, fur or embroidered garments for the masses, he chose to keep his company small — to maintain it as “a snob operation,” as he once put it — and to keep control of his own name.
He licensed it on just two occasions, allowing others to place his name on furs and on a fragrance.
“There have been people who wanted to buy my name,” he told Newsweek in 2007. “I said no. I’m Mr. Galanos. I didn’t believe in the continuation without me. . . . I always felt, ‘Look, you are who you are, and if you sell your name it doesn’t mean anything anymore.’ ”
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