Inspiration by Galanos: The venerable designer discusses his work

This interview was originally in the print version of Hue magazine in 2008.

So, what’s it like to dress Nancy Reagan? “She’s a very clean, neat, particular person. Everything has to be perfect.” Diana Ross? “Terrific.” And Judy Garland? “Very nice, except she was always late. Time meant nothing to her.” A conversation with James Galanos provides insight into 60 years of dressing fashionable women. In a career that began in 1948, the designer, 84 this year, was known for ready-to-wear that rose to the standards of couture, incorporating the finest fabrics and perfect detailing.

James Galanos illustration

Art by Stephen Gardner, Illustration MFA ’07

In May, the designer came to FIT for the opening of the Fashion Design AAS exhibition. Students had used more than 20 of his designs as inspiration for their final garments. Doug Simms, of the SIMMS Foundation, loaned the outfits, which had belonged to his mother. Colette Wong, Fashion Design chair, said students were quite impressed with the pieces: “They loved that his silhouettes are timeless.” Wearing a natty blue wool suit of his own design, Galanos sat down to answer a few of our questions.


What’s the secret for making top quality ready-to-wear?

I insisted that my workers make the garments as perfect as possible. I chose the best fabrics—the same ones as Balenciaga. I knew someone in Lyon with an archive of fabrics dating from the 12th century. I would say, ‘I want a chiffon that coordinates with this wool jacket,’ and they were able to work with that.


What other fabrics inspired you?

I used to make wool jersey evening gowns. The customers wanted silk, but eventually, they caught on to what I was doing. You could get great shapes with wool jersey. Granted, they were a little heavy.


Does contemporary fashion interest you?

There’s a lot of screwball stuff and gimmickry. Who can wear a gown with ten miles of fabric dragging behind it? It’s stupid. Of course, the workmanship is unbelievable.


Any tips on dressing divas?

We had the most elegant, rich women—ladies with great taste, like Babe Paley. They would say, “Can you change this or that?” Usually I said “No, this is the collection.” Maybe I’d change a collar.


Tell us about your photographs.

After I retired in 1998, I was feeling a little lost. I like to work, so I got very depressed. And I always liked to take pictures. A photographer saw some things I’d done and encouraged me. I make up things. I go into the kitchen and put things together—papers, different colors—and shoot them with different lenses. No fashion, no portraits. Word got around, and a San Francisco gallery gave me a show. Now [the gallery] is talking about putting a book together.


Do the student designs remind you of your own?

No, not really. They’re kids—they’re going to do things on their own.