He dressed Jackie and Lady Bird. Princess Grace went to him for her engagement party. Diana Ross caused a sensation in his slinky white sheath at the 1979 Academy Awards. But to James Galanos, 55, the crowning achievement of a career as one of America's revered haut couturiers would be to know that his gowns were hanging again on the second floor of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Nancy Reagan is his hope. She has been Galanos' favorite—and vice versa—for nearly 15 years. These days Nancy is busy campaigning in his clothes but not talking much about the man who made them. She has a point. Gowns costing from $1,500 to $15,000 are not the most popular political issue. "Nobody could afford to dress completely with Jimmy," Nancy once confessed, even though the 5'4" aspiring First Lady is sometimes able to buy size 6 samples. "I hang on to what I have."
That's plenty, even though she has recently augmented her campaign wardrobe with Adolfo's more practical knit suits. Nancy Reagan was named to fashion's Hall of Fame in 1974 after three years on the Best Dressed List. Galanos is generally given credit. He is a three-time Coty winner whose elegant, understated clothes are often compared to those of the late dean of U.S. designers, Norman Norell. High-strung and wiry (5'10½", 136 pounds), Galanos is known as Jimmy to a few old friends, though he prefers the royal "we" when referring to himself. "This is a snob operation and that is what we want," he sniffs.
He is particularly pleased when he spots a customer wearing a 20-year-old Galanos dress or suit. "My clothes are long-term investments," he explains. "They usually end up in museums too. Women who spend this kind of money understand."
The only son of Greek-born parents, Galanos grew up in southern New Jersey where his father, Gregory, a frustrated artist, owned restaurants and his mother, Helen, helped with the books. Galanos remembers that he was "a loner, surrounded by three sisters. I never sewed; I just sketched. It was simply instinctive. As a young boy I had no fashion influences around me but all the while I was dreaming of Paris and New York."
After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York where he learned to cut patterns and drape. To pay for his room in a West Side residential hotel, Galanos sold sketches at $5 apiece to Seventh Avenue designers. "It was very hard to get started," he recalls. "When I was in my black moods I would go home to New Jersey. Then I'd return to New York and try again."
His doggedness paid off in 1944, when he traveled to California and signed on as a sketch artist for Hollywood film designer Jean Louis. A studio strike put him out of work, so he took off for Paris to apprentice with Robert Piguet, following in the footsteps of Christian Dior and Hubert Givenchy.
Back in Los Angeles by 1947, Galanos struck out on his own. His first collection there was snapped up by Saks Fifth Avenue. "I did extravagant little cotton dresses with a lot of charm that sold for $125 and up," he reminisces. "Today that's what a button costs. I was green and shy but the press loved me." His first show in New York in 1951 generated $400,000 worth of orders. These days Galanos is worth two to five million dollars.
Twice a year he crosses the U.S., promoting his clothes at Saks, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman-Marcus. (Recently he has also been pushing his new perfume, Galanos, at $100 an ounce. It's a woodsy floral scent he dabs on instead of aftershave.) This spring Galanos featured mostly black and white in his collection of suits, dresses and ball gowns. "A soft, full line," he says. "No eccentricities." However, his collection did tout culottes for day and evening and he raised hemlines to the knee, "to the dismay of my clients."
Earlier this year bachelor Galanos retired his key at Flippers Roller Boogie Palace in L.A. when a skater knocked him down and broke his wrist (he swore off skiing in 1962 after fracturing his collarbone). Now Galanos prefers entertaining friends in his new whirlpool in the courtyard of his Beverly Hills home. Because he doesn't like to cook, Galanos hops into his black 1965 Rolls-Royce and heads for McDonald's for breakfast. He eats dinner out too, admitting that he keeps nothing in the refrigerator but a bottle of champagne. "There used to be caviar," he sighs. "But I can't afford it anymore."
'I'm interested,' he says, 'in creating only for a certain type of woman'