One evening last week the Amen Wardy boutique in Newport Beach was filled with women who--like Nancy Reagan and Diana Ross--have been known to pay four-digit or even five-digit prices for perhaps the closest thing to haute couture that America has to offer: designs by James Galanos.
Most women had a husband or gentleman friend in tow, and some had flown from as far as Midland, Tex., to see the L.A. designer's 150-piece spring collection.
As if paying homage to Galanos' understated black-and-white silk label, most wore black and/or white dresses. (The men wore black tie, as instructed on the invitations.)
A few, such as socialite Beverly Morsey, wore vibrant colors.
"I know what's right for me," she explained, pointing to the canary-yellow and parrot-blue print Galanos gown, which she had bought last season. After two decades of wearing Galanos, she is perhaps the consummate customer: Her jewels are major, her hair simple, her makeup underplayed.
The fashion show was followed by a four-course dinner, but that seemed secondary to the diamond-and-pearl-clad crowd. For them, dessert came first: the fashion show.
The audience oohed and aahed at almost everything, especially outfits that displayed the master's touch with color. Lilac with blue. Fuchsia with red. Turquoise with jade. Red with salmon. Prices ranged from $2,800 to $11,000.
Galanos sat through it, tortoise-shell glasses perched on his nose, legs crossing and uncrossing somewhat nervously to reveal the grosgrain bows on his black tuxedo pumps.
His anxiety seemed unfounded as the audience went beyond admiration and applause to the nitty-gritty of jotting down the numbers of their favorite outfits on the tiny note pads Wardy had provided. This group was not just window shopping. Many said they buy in multiples. Carole Smith of Marina del Rey, for example, said she purchased three Galanos designs last season and would "definitely buy some from this collection too. But I can't buy everything I want--I have to choose carefully."
Many planned to return to the shop the next day to place orders--after meeting privately with the man they call Jimmy, James, J.G. or Mr. Galanos.
"Some ladies want my input," the 61-year-old designer admitted. "But I would never offer advice if a client doesn't want it."
Galanos said Mrs. Reagan had telephoned for his help only hours before. "She had admired one of the hats in my collection and asked if it would work with one of her suits," offered the man who designed the First Lady's $22,500 bugle-beaded Inaugural Ball gown, now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
Not all Galanos fans have a Nancy Reagan figure, though. Some have silhouettes as well-endowed as their wallets.
"A woman must look in the mirror and know herself--she has to be honest," the Philadelphia-born designer asserts. For women of rounder-than-reed proportions, Galanos offers pleated, trapezoid jackets over slim skirts, flared tunics and floaty chiffon gowns. The prints he chooses are oversize, obviously selected to flatter the client of more petite proportions.
Trained at the now defunct House of Piguet in Paris, where he and Dior's designer, Marc Bohan, apprenticed side by side, Galanos came to Los Angeles in the 1940s to design film costumes. His heart still in couture, he opened his firm in 1951, making clothes with bound seams, hand-set zippers and finished silk linings that are often said to be on a par with couture workmanship. But because the clothes are ready-made and sold in sizes, rather than made to order for each customer after fittings, they cannot qualify as true couture fashions.
Duchess as Client
One of Galanos' most celebrated clients, the late Duchess of Windsor, shocked the world when she donned a black wool jersey Galanos gown that exposed her midriff under a thin veil of black chiffon.
Nowadays, Galanos says, he's not into shocking chic.
"When you're young, you do the crazy things," he laughed. "Now I'm interested in making clothes that warrant the prices."
Amen Wardy, whose Orange County boutique houses the world's largest Galanos salon, reported that in the days following last week's show, he sold more than $700,000 worth of Galanos creations.
One customer, whom he declines to name, ordered 25 pieces.