James Galanos has long been known as America's couturier. His relaxed yet elegant designs defined American fashion for more than half a century, and his customers have included Hollywood stars like Judy Garland and Rosalind Russell, American socialites such as Betsy Bloomingdale, and former American first lady Nancy Reagan, who wore his clothes with great panache. Last month Reagan presented the 83-year-old designer with the Rodeo Walk of Style award in Beverly Hills, California, remarking, "Jimmy deserved this a long time ago." His designs for her—including two White House Inaugural gowns—go on display this month in "Nancy Reagan: A First Lady's Style," a yearlong exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Museum in California. Galanos recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Dana Thomas about the state of American fashion today. Excerpts:
THOMAS: You've come to Paris to see your friend, the American designer Ralph Rucci, present his spring-summer collection. How was it?
GALANOS: I was flabbergasted, it was so beautiful. Ralph is so different from the rest of Seventh Avenue. They're commercial; their clothes all look alike. Ralph is an artist. He's a painter and philosopher, and his fashion reflects this.
You got your start in Paris, didn't you?
I spent two years—1947 and 1948—in Paris, working at the couturier Robert Piguet, who was really one of the top three or four designers in the 1930s and '40s. He had a beautiful couture house on the Rond-Point des Champs-Elys?es with a staircase going up and trompe l'oeil painting. Givenchy worked there, and so did Christian Dior, before me. I had been to fashion school in New York but I wanted actual training—not just school training. I stayed for two years and decided to go back to America.
You settled in Los Angeles and launched your own label there.
I had a shop in Beverly Hills, but I decided to show my clothes in New York because that's where everything was happening. I got a big a write-up in The New York Times, and made the cover of Life magazine: I was this young fellow from California that everyone was talking about. From then on, things worked for me.
How would you describe your designs?
I did my own thing and never melded with the others. What we did was make really beautiful ready-to-wear clothes, really couture quality, mostly handmade. The inside was as beautiful as the outside. We were expensive for ready-to-wear. But when Mr. Givenchy looked at it, he told me, "The quality of your work is comparable to what we do in couture."
Where were your clothes produced?
Everything was made in my headquarters in Los Angeles. I started with a shop near Wilshire, and after a few years moved to a building in an industrial section of town. Not a great part of town but a great building: it had been a laboratory for RCA. We converted it to dressmaking and I stayed there. I didn't have a showroom, but a fitting room, and we made all the clothes there. Fifty years later, I decided it was time to leave and I closed the company.
Has anyone offered to buy your name and revive the label?
There have been people who wanted to buy my name. I said no. I'm Mr. Galanos. I didn't believe in the continuation without me. I never branded my name. Everything is branded today, and that drives me crazy. It's your name. I always felt, "Look, you are who you are, and if you sell your name it doesn't mean anything anymore."
What was the size of your company at its height?
A couple of million dollars.
Tiny! Most major luxury fashion brands today do more than $1 billion a year in sales. Do you think a company like yours—a small producer of American-made clothes for a niche clientele—could still exist today?
It'd be difficult. You'd have to have other things like perfume, accessories. You'd have to become a brand. I could have had everything: stocking, shoes. I said no. Today, you have to do it.
You had a wonderful ambassador in Nancy Reagan. How did you first meet her?
I met her when she was a movie star and I had my shop in Beverly Hills. She was known as Nancy Davis back then. Since she was a petite woman, size 6; she bought the samples for a lower price. Then she married Ronald Reagan, and when he became governor, she asked me to do her Inaugural gowns, for both terms. And I was thrilled to do it.
When he became president, I did both her Inaugural gowns again and most of her evening gowns and wardrobes for state visits. When she went to Prince Charles's wedding, I made all those clothes. Nancy was very pretty and had a beautiful figure and was really spectacular in evening clothes. I went to the White House several times, once for a big dinner for French President Fran?ois Mitterrand, and she walked down the hallway holding his hand, and I was really very proud.