Remembering James Galanos, Who Helped Define California Glamour

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James GalanosPhoto: ALLAN GRANT/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Designer James Galanos, best known for his long-standing sartorial relationship with Nancy Reagan, died yesterday at age 92. Raised in New Jersey by Greek immigrant parents, Galanos would end up designing for some of the world’s most notable women, and along the way, helping redefine California glamour.

“As a young boy I had no fashion influences around me, but all the while I was dreaming of Paris and New York,” he once told People. While he did stints in both cities early on, the majority of his career would be spent on the West Coast, far from the world’s fashion capitals. By age 20 he was working as a sketcher for Jean Louis, the legendary costume designer behind Gilda and A Star Is Born. In 1952 he started his own line, Galanos Originals, which was quickly picked up by Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. His chiffon dresses, which came pleated, layered, or embellished, were particularly popular. (Other Galanos signatures: trailing ribbons, and lashings of fur, lots of it. The expensive kind — mink, sable, and lynx.)

His operation was proof that couture-quality work could be done outside Paris. Hollywood royalty lapped it up: Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlene Dietrich. He outfitted Grace Kelly for her wedding, and Diana Ross, another longtime client, wore his handiwork to the 1985 Academy Awards.

But his best-known relationship was with Nancy Reagan, who said of his dresses, “You can wear one inside out, they are so beautifully made.” Reagan began wearing Galanos as a young actress, and when her husband began his political career, she showed off his gowns to inaugural balls and state dinners. One of her most famous Galanos looks was the one-shoulder lace and silk satin column she wore to the 1981 gubernatorial ball. Along with Adolfo, Galanos would shape her image as a clotheshorse First Lady who, depending on your perspective, was a glittering style icon or an out-of-touch elitist. (Though Reagan admitted that even she had trouble paying his five-figure prices.)

Today’s preoccupation with “democratizing” fashion would have puzzled Galanos. “I’m only interested in designing for a certain type of woman,” he famously said. “Specifically, one that has money.” Unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t license his work or create secondary lines. Instead, he designed every piece personally and traveled with carefully self-packed trunks to personally fit his clients. “This is a snob operation and that is what we want,” he told People, referring to himself, as was his habit, outside the first person singular.

In 1998, he left fashion to explore a second career as a photographer — and never looked back. But his designs continue to exert a hold on Hollywood. In recent years, Ashley Olsen and Nicole Kidman have worn vintage Galanos on the red carpet. His designs look just as fresh today as they did back then — proof that quality never goes out of style.