Above: James Galanos, Dress, 1955. Silk chiffon. Gift of Mareen Allen Nichols. Photo by Ken Howie.



A retrospect of the designer’s impeccable creations

text and photos courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum

A Tribute to James Galanos is Phoenix Art Museum’s hommage to the late American designer (1924-2016). Based in Los Angeles, Galanos was one of the few to have had a successful career as both a fashion designer and Hollywood costumer. Perhaps best known as First Lady Nancy Reagan’s preferred designer, Galanos produced couture-quality ready-to-wear garments for a celebrity clientele over the course of five decades.

Featuring more than 40 ensembles and accessories, the exhibition will illuminate the designer’s influence and legacy. Included are ensembles worn by former First Lady Nancy Reagan, Sybil Harrington, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Ann Bonfoey Taylor and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. Also on view are never-before-seen photographs from Galanos’ personal archives.

Left: James Galanos, Dress, 1966. Silk crepe with bead and sequin embroidery. Collection of Tatiana Sorokko. Photo by Ken Howie. Above: James Galanos, Dress, 1966. Wool with bead and sequin embroidery. Collection of Tatiana Sorokko. Photo by Ken Howie.

“Phoenix Art Museum is pleased to present the iconic work of one of the most significant American designers of the 20th century,” says Amada Cruz, the Sybil Harrington Director and CEO of Phoenix Art Museum. “Along with works drawn from private collections, many of the objects are from the Museum’s extensive fashion design archive, which now numbers more than 7,000 objects of remarkable quality and diversity. The collection benefited from Mr. Galanos’ generosity, with his personal gift of a group of his designs in 1990.”

During a career spanning nearly half a century, James Galanos designed clothes with the skill of a Paris couturier. From his selection of the finest fabrics to his impeccable construction and finishing, the designer’s exacting standards resulted in an elegant simplicity that became a hallmark of his work. “A black dress,” Galanos once said, “reveals everything: line, cut, drape, seaming. It must be perfection.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1924 to parents who had emigrated from Greece, Galanos and his three sisters worked in their parents’ South New Jersey restaurant where he was first inspired by elegantly-dressed female customers.  “As a young boy, I had no fashion influence around me,” Galanos recalled in a 1980 interview, “But all the while I was dreaming of Paris and New York.”

Above:  James Galanos, Dress, 1987. Lace, silk matelassé and silk taffeta. Gift of Mr. James G. Galanos. Photo by Ken Howie.  Right:  James Galanos, Jacket and dress, 1988. Silk crepe and lace with bead embroidery. Gift of Mr. James G. Galanos. Photo by Ken Howie.

He began his career in 1944 as an assistant to Hattie Carnegie in New York. He then spent the next several years in a series of jobs, including as an assistant to couturier Robert Piguet in Paris and as a part-time sketch artist in the costume department of Columbia Pictures, where he worked for the legendary Jean Louis. It was Louis who urged Galanos to establish his own label and, in 1951, he opened Galanos Originals in Los Angeles, where his first ready-to-wear collection was immediately ordered by Saks Fifth Avenue.

This early success led Galanos to begin dressing some of the most famous women in the world. His clients included the Duchess of Windsor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, Rosalind Russell and Diana Ross. He is perhaps best known as the favorite designer of the late Nancy Reagan, who wore the first of four Inaugural Ball gowns in 1967 when her husband was first elected as Governor of California. Galanos and Mrs. Reagan would continue a deep friendship until her death in 2016, just a few months before Galanos would pass away.

“Phoenix Art Museum’s fashion collection includes works by James Galanos that were once worn by Nancy Reagan, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, and many Museum benefactors who enjoyed close friendships with the great American designer,” says Dennita Sewell, the Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Designer, who curated this exhibition. “Over the years, I have incorporated many of his iconic designs into the Museum’s exhibitions as an example of unparalleled American craftsmanship.”

Until his retirement in 1998, Galanos continued to design for his discerning clientele, who appreciated the timeless quality of his work, which could be worn throughout the decades, always retaining his trademark elegant simplicity. As the designer’s longtime friend, fashion collector Tatiana Sorokko observed, “When you look at his overall career, nobody else in American fashion has been able to achieve the same level of quality. And he produced everything in his factory on Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles.”

A Tribute to James Galanos

August 19 – January 7, 2018

Phoenix Art Museum


Above: James Galanos, Dress, 1963. Staron silk crepe. Collection of David Nash. Photo by Ken Howie.