Aug 30, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
This weekend was my last free weekend at the Phoenix Art Museum. If you have been following my Instagram you’ll see that I lucked out and was able to salute the end of my “summer of artistic fun” with an amazing exhibit. Their fashion gallery is forever changing at the museum – last time it was a beautiful display paired with some Richard Serra prints. This time was a rare treat – the room was packed full of James Galanos’ work. His best pieces were displayed in an explosion of color, texture, and shape. It was like stepping into his mind and it was fabulous!
“My whole point of being is integrity of design.” – James Galanos, as told to André Leon Talley in 1985.
I ventured to my other favorite paintings but found myself circling back time and again to this room. It just brought me so much joy and I had to know more about this designer. On my final pass through, I took a seat on the plush velvet-covered bench and pondered. The breadth of work shown was so unique – each piece draped a bit differently, telling a new story about the woman who wore it. I wanted to challenge myself and define a theme. And then it struck me – the back silhouette. James Galanos made a lovely back. Think Nora Charles floating into a lobby, with all eyes on her elegance. Now that’s an energy I’d love to command a room with – so let’s learn more about this visionary designer, shall we?
Born in Philadelphia in 1924, a young James studied at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York. He spent his evenings watching glamorous women on the catwalk of life – bustling along the city sidewalks to their next party. A great observer, he found a better education being in the world than in the classroom. He dropped out and from here officially began his career at the ripe age of 20 – assisting the fantastic Hattie Carnegie in New York. Upon leaving this position, he began a nomadic phase that informed his vision for luxurious, detailed, well-made ready-to-wear clothing.
He learned about flash during his time as a sketch artist at Columbia Pictures and understood the need for craftsmanship during his time assisting the couturier Robert Piquet in Paris. All of these learnings combined with his entrepreneurial spirit; in 1951 he returned to the States, opening Galanos Originals in California. Founded with a loan of $200 from dear friend and former boss at Columbia, Jean Louis, he set to work on the first collection. Sak’s in Beverly Hills was the fashion house’s first sale, soon followed by a local boutique shop and tastemaker among elite Californians. Their purchase of his black wool dress with a Peter Pan collar catapulted James into local, then national fame. A mere twelve months later and he was back in NYC, showcasing his newest creations.
Fun fact: Galanos designed the gown that Marilyn Monroe serandad President Kennedy in for his birthday!
During the span of his prolific career he created nearly 200 unique designs. He focused on contemporary, clean shapes that conveyed a feminine allure that appealed to his clientele (which included First Lady Nancy Reagan, and screen icons Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly, to name but a few). While some of his pieces look simple to the eye, they are exquisitely engineered and executed. As I inspected this collection up close, one thing that struck was the age of the designs. Most of these pieces would make the cover of Vogue today and I was shocked to read the date on the plaque – 1956, 1967. These pieces hold their own in 2017, proving that his eye for simple beauty is not restricted by decade or impeded by trends.
One of his signature moves was the chiffon skirt, cut in a way that complemented the female form, it was a unique look that stole many a fashionista’s heart. His famed shop closed its doors in 1998, but his legacy lives on even after his death last year. His mastery of textile, draping, and detail is the stuff of legends – the qualities today’s budding designer strives to achieve. We’ve often talked about the history of American couture fashion – how its democratized approach struggled to leave the shadow of the European fashion houses. James Galanos is that history – his vibrant vision put American fashion in the sun, on center stage, unapologetically triumphing for the American woman. Vogue captured it best in a 1966 write-up “Galanos triumphant. Day and evening, some of the most beautiful clothes in America.” I feel very lucky to have experienced this beauty in person – it’s a day I won’t soon forget. Dear readers, if you find yourself in the Phoenix area before January 7th, it’s a must-see!