James Galanos (1924-2016) was born in Philadelphia in 1924 and raised in New Jersey where his parents, Greek immigrants, ran a restaurant. He knew since he was a child that he wanted to design dresses. After two semesters at Traphagen School of Fashion, he left in 1943 to gain practical experience in the fashion design industry.
Beginning in 1944, Galanos worked briefly for Hattie Carnegie in New York as a general assistant but, disappointed by the lack of creativity his job entailed, he soon left and began selling his fashion sketches individually to dressmakers on Seventh Avenue. Stints working for Jean Louis (head costume designer at Columbia Pictures in Los Angeles), Robert Piguet (couturier in Paris), and Davidow (dress-making firm in New York) culminated in his return to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, at which point he established his own label and found almost immediate success.
James Galanos with model wearing one of his gowns, 1965
Galanos created ready-to-wear pieces with the characteristics of couture clothing, beautiful both inside and out thanks to his meticulous attention to detail and a great deal of hand work, including beading and embroidery. He worked with luxurious fabrics, most notably silk chiffon, to design elegant and expensive garments that quickly became popular with stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, fashion editors including Diana Vreeland and Eleanor Lambert, and other fashion leaders on both coasts. In 1953 he began designing for movies, and actresses such as Rosalind Russell, Marlene Dietrich, and Judy Garland bought dresses from him. He was also popular with society ladies and politicians’ wives. Nancy Reagan met him in 1951 when she was an actress and bought dresses from him for decades, including those that she wore to several of her husband’s inaugurations, which boosted Galanos' international prominence.
For the next few decades Galanos continued to be known for the high quality and timelessness of his garments, which were often compared to Paris couture. This was in direct opposition to the growing trend in American fashion for sportswear and more casual clothing; Galanos’ dresses were glamorous without being ostentatious and, as he himself admitted, they were designed for the niche audience of the very rich. He also received many accolades from the fashion industry, including multiple Coty Awards (1954 and 1956; he was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 1959), the Neiman Marcus Award (1954), a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and a bronze plaque on Seventh Avenue’s Fashion Walk of Fame.
Galanos remained in Los Angeles for the rest of his life, retiring from fashion in the late 1990s to focus on his photography and dying of natural causes in his home in West Hollywood in 2016.
To see more of Galanos’ designs, check out the book Galanos at the Haggerty Library.