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Flash Back

James Galanos may be known for showering his intricate designs with sequins, but he can do more than fancy stuff. And it's all on exhibit at LACMA.


To many people, California fashion means bikinis and the kind of abbreviated sportswear that whizzes by on the Venice boardwalk.

Yet James Galanos, creator of some of the world's most elegant and expensive women's clothes, represents a slice of California too.

He has quietly called Los Angeles home for 45 years, and while his designs have nothing to do with the beach, they have everything to do with breaking away from East Coast and European conventions.

"From day one, he refused to be bound by the rules. He refused to be bound by season," says Sandra Rosenbaum, co-curator of "Galanos," an exhibition of four decades of the designer's work that opens Sunday and runs through June 8 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "That's very California."

Nancy Reagan, Rosalind Russell, Dorothy Lamour, Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Ross have worn his exquisite clothes to state dinners, black-tie galas and private parties. An intermission spent in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's exclusive Founders' Room promises encounters with more than a few of his suits and dresses.

The Philadelphia-born, Paris-trained Galanos worked for two unhappy years on Seventh Avenue in New York City before coming to California in 1951. After establishing a loyal audience and winning the prestigious Coty and Neiman Marcus fashion awards, both by age 30, he never saw the need to return to the world's fashion capitals.

"What was the point of going back?" asks the prolific designer, now 72, who doesn't pay attention to supermodels or trends. "I would rather be where I was and be independent. I've always believed if you have something to offer, people will come to you."

For the LACMA exhibit of 71 outfits, Galanos' original samples hang on mannequins specially made to duplicate the impossible measurements (5 feet, 10 inches, 34-24-33) of Natalie Tirrell, the designer's flesh-and-blood signature model. Other clothes created for specific clients are displayed on mannequins bulked up with pads.

Among Galanos' beaded, hand-stitched pieces, spanning from 1952 to 1992, are Nancy Reagan's 1967 gubernatorial and 1985 presidential inaugural gowns. Most of the clothes came from the museum's permanent costume collection and that of its exhibition partner, the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. Loans from other museums, Galanos and Reagan completed the show.

Seen from afar, Galanos' artistry is not readily apparent. Closer inspection reveals intricate construction, sumptuous fabrics and dizzying handwork; beads and sequins are rarely, if ever, laid on this thick outside the world of couture.

"He's like any artist," Rosenbaum explains. "He deals with color, surface texture, line, space, volume and proportion. Fabric is his medium."

A 30-minute, museum-produced documentary, "Galanos on Galanos," screens continuously in a small theater, providing more detail on the designer's life and work.

While some people have billed Galanos as "America's couturier," he calls his clothes "custom ready-to-wear," a cross between couture (made to order) and ready-to-wear (off the rack). He sells through such stores as Neiman Marcus, yet makes many outfits, which start at $4,000, to individual customers' measurements.

During the exhibition, the museum gift shop is offering, for less than $1,000, a dozen or so original Galanos accessories for sale. These '70s scarves and one-of-a-kind brooches were donated by the designer.

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