The first time James Galanos witnessed “ladies who lunch” was his parents’ diner in southern New Jersey. The term wasn’t a staple in fashion back in the 1930s but Galanos would become the ultimate dressmaker to some of the most glamorous California women from Los Angeles to San Francisco. One of those lunching ladies happened to be Nancy Reagan. Galanos befriended Reagan before she became First Lady and the rest, as they say, is history.
The son of Greek-born parents from Philadelphia who ran a diner spent his childhood flipping burgers— and dreaming about the fashion runways of Paris and Milan.
Upon graduating high school he left for New York City where he studied for a few months before getting a job for more hands-on experience. Eventually he launched his own line called Galanos Originals in 1952 based in Los Angeles.
Saks Fifth Avenue Beverly Hills placed the first order, followed by Neiman Marcus. In no time, Galanos became every elite woman’s go-to designer for elegant evening gowns.
He also designed movie costumes for Rosalind Russell, Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich, Dorothy Lamour, Judy Garland and Diana Ross, and his studio became a magnet for young designers from around the world as Galanos welcomed the opportunity to mentor young designers.
Regular customers of Galanos included Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Grace Kelly.
During his long and storied career, Galanos achieved the top awards and accolades of the fashion industry, including several Coty Awards (he was the youngest designer to ever win one in 1954), a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and a bronze plaque on Seventh Avenue’s Fashion Walk of Fame.
He dressed the most famous and socially prominent women — the ladies who lunched, from Park Avenue and Rodeo Drive to Pennsylvania Avenue — and outfitted Mrs. Reagan on four inaugural occasions, twice after Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California and twice after he became President of the United States.
“Ronnie liked Jimmy’s clothes very much,” Mrs. Reagan said in a 2007 interview with Vanity Fair magazine. “Wearing Jimmy meant never going overboard or to extremes. Jimmy really set the standard.”
For decades, Galanos was a well-known name in the fashion world before one day deciding to retire. It was 1998 and he decided it was time to pursue other hobbies, including art and photography.
“Once everyone started wearing blue jeans, I knew it was time to get out of the business,” he said. “What happened to the days when a woman could turn heads in a restaurant by the way she was dressed?”