If there's any American designer who can be called a couturier, it's James Galanos.
From the early '50s, he has been turning out intricately designed and meticulously made day and evening wear to acclaim from the fashion press and from a select clientele who appreciates his unique vision and can afford his uncommonly high prices.
Just don't call his collections couture within his earshot, because this modest-seeming but exacting man will set you straight. "I'm not couture, but I work like couture--my training is that," he says.
"I've always said we are ready-to-wear, but in the highest luxury level. Our clothes are made in the same manner that they're made in Paris." Couture should refer only to custom-fitted clothing, and, as Galanos points out, "I sell to the stores. Whatever alterations may have to be, have to be done by the alterations departments in the stores."
If his name is not as familiar to the general public as Yves Saint Laurent's nor as licensed as Bill Blass', that's the way he wants it. There is a perfume, and for about 10 years, a fur license, but that's all.
"I didn't commercialize myself," he says. "I wasn't interested in mass production."
What he is interested in, now and as he was from the beginning, is making "the most elegant clothes for the most affluent women." He's obviously proud of his reputation, and of the fact that, at 69, he's outlasted many a contemporary.
Galanos knew what he wanted to do from an early age. He began sketching clothes at age 7, and three years later won first prize for a cheerleader's uniform in a New Jersey state competition. He apprenticed for a short time at the House of Piguet in Paris before returning to the United States in the '40s.
After a brief stint at a New York ready-to-wear house, he came to Los Angeles and set up his own company, Galanos Originals, in 1951, with backing from Jean Louis, the head designer of Columbia studios. By 1953, at age 29, Galanos had established his reputation for complex, imaginative designs and fine workmanship.
The next year brought a Coty Award, the first of what would be a string of such honors. Then in 1985, the Council of Fashion Designers of America gave him its lifetime achievement award. His work has also been the subject of retrospectives at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (in 1974) and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York (1976).
Galanos is known best for fanciful beaded work--such as the floral design on the one-shoulder, white satin gown he created for Nancy Reagan to wear to the 1981 inaugural--and a fearless way with chiffon. He also likes juxtaposing unusual materials--wool and satin, say, or corduroy and chiffon.
Each Galanos dress or gown is produced in the designer's West L.A. workrooms, where he employs a staff of 65 cutters, tailors and pressers, many of whom have been with him since the '50s. There are no design assistants--he does all that himself, sketching or draping each model.
And as one might expect with such materials and finishing, his clothes are extremely expensive--prices start around $4,000 and go up, sometimes way up, from there.
Galanos produces two collections a year, each consisting of 120 to 200 models, that are shown to buyers and clients in New York, Palm Beach, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He rarely does custom work now, and he gave up fashion shows in the mid-'80s, preferring more intimate methods of presentation.
Over the years, Galanos has adapted. "I've kept up with the times," he says. "I've paid attention to what's happening in the fashion world, with the contemporary feeling of that moment."
Sure enough, some dresses in his spring '94 collection are as short as anything you'll see in Paris or on Seventh Avenue. But that's as far as he'll bend.
"I've never downgraded what I've done as far as quality and workmanship and what I stand for," he declares. Nor, goes the unspoken implication, would he ever.