LONG before history would log her as the wife of one of the most influential U.S. presidents and him as one of this country's few true couturiers, she was just an actress under contract with a studio, and he was just a fledgling dressmaker settling into his own atelier.
"I was quite young, and I used to deliver a lot of the clothes by myself," James Galanos says of those early days in 1951. He would regularly dash from his West Hollywood headquarters to a Beverly Hills boutique called Amelia Gray, where a tiny client named Nancy Davis slipped into the first of hundreds of exquisitely crafted gowns he would design and fit for her during their six-decade friendship.
"I met Mrs. Reagan when she was a young star at MGM. She was so small she could wear the samples -- the length would have to be altered, of course. She was very fond of me and we'd sit there at Amelia's and have a gabfest. She wasn't married to Ronnie then."
Within a year she would be. And not long after that, Galanos began collecting a lifetime of accolades, famous clients and coveted invitations. "I attended many wonderful parties with the Reagans, some not official, you know, at Tony Duquette's or in other homes." And other times it might be a state dinner, like the one held for French President François Mitterrand and his wife, Danielle, in 1984, above, where a live orchestra always moved the dressmaker and his muse to hit the dance floor.
Though he hung up his scissors in 1988, the invites and honors continued. The latest for the designer, who turned 83 late last month, is a plaque on the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style. The city of Beverly Hills recognizes those whose careers have intersected fashion and entertainment, and past winners include Giorgio Armani, Edith Head and Donatella and Gianni Versace. Following Galanos' public induction Oct. 18, the former first lady and Betsy Bloomingdale and Connie Wald, longtime friends and supporters of the designer are hosting a luncheon in his honor. It's the final day of Los Angeles Fashion Week, but an exhibit of Victor Skrebneski's photographs of Galanos' work is on view along Rodeo Drive through month's end.
For the designer and his best-known client, however, the spotlight on their alliance moves to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where Galanos has been hands-on in every detail of a retrospective on the first lady's style, opening Nov. 8. Among the 80-plus dresses and suits from her wardrobe, including those by her other favorite American designers, are the gowns Galanos made for all her inaugural balls.
"For all the big events, she used my clothes -- Charles and Diana's wedding, her first visits to Versailles and Berlin," Galanos says. And though best known for his glamour, such as the sparkling sheath pictured here, he also dutifully prepared the quiet black mourning suits she would need when the time came.