Beginning in August, Phoenix Art Museum presents A Tribute to James Galanos, a retrospective dedicated to the iconic American fashion designer. Featuring more than 40 couture-quality, ready-to-wear ensembles and accessories, including an ensemble worn and donated by former First Lady Nancy Reagan, the exhibition will illuminate the designer’s influence and legacy with objects from the 1950s through the 1990s.
“A black dress,” Galanos once said, “reveals everything: line, cut, drape, seaming. It must be perfection.” 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.
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. “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.”
He began his career in 1944 as an assistant to Hattie Carnegie in New York, and spent the next several years in a series of jobs, including a position as a part-time sketch artist in the Columbia Pictures costume department, where he worked for the legendary Jean Louis. In 1951, he opened Galanos Originals in Los Angeles. His early success led Galanos to begin dressing some of the most famous women in the world, including 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.
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 is organized by Phoenix Art Museum. It is made possible through the generosity of donors to the Museum's annual fund.
Left: James Galanos, Dress, 1987. Lace, silk matelassé and silk taffeta. Gift of Mr. James G. Galanos. Photo by Ken Howie.
Center: James Galanos, Jacket and skirt, c. 1950s. Gray tweed jacket, gray tweed skirt, pin checked silk blouse. Gift of Mrs. Thelma Davis.
Right: James Galanos, Dress, c. 1970s. Wool crepe, silk chiffon and bead embroidery. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Gift of Betsy Boich.