One of the best parts about being a fashion writer is being invited to all sorts of special behind-the-scenes events. Whether it’s spending two days with Neiman Marcus senior vice president and fashion director Ken Downing, or opening boxes full of new merchandise with Haverford retailer Linda Golden, not only am I always looking for fashion trends to tell you about, I often have a lot of fun too.
“THE KING & I:” King of fashion, Neiman Marcus senior vp & fashion director Ken Downing and me, at Neiman’s King of Prussia; (right) Ken seeing the James Galanos Collection for the first time at the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection at Drexel University
That is exactly what happened when Clare Sauro, curator of the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection, invited me to come spend a morning in her “closet,” which I’ve been lucky enough to visit before, offering me a preview of the recently donated James Galanos Collection. What a closet!!! Part of Drexel’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, the collection will be on display next fall, as well as used for both inspiration and a resource for design and textile students. Sort of a “vintage clothing” library.
HISTORY MEETS FASHION: First Lady Nancy Reagan in custom white beaded Galanos at the inaugural ball (left) in 1981; and (right) at the inaugural ball with President Ronald Reagan in 1985
Perhaps best known as the designer of Nancy Reagan’s inauguration gowns—and many of her beautiful suits and dresses—Galanos’ work is commonly compared to Paris couture. I got my first taste of his collection—then truly just acquired—when Ken Downing was in Philadelphia last May. A dear friend and admirer of Mr. Galanos, who passed away in 2016, Ken was as excited as the rest of us to see these gorgeous designs, many originally worn by socialites and movie stars, then stored away for years.
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN: Intricate beading, florals, metallics, and red—so Galanos in the 80’s, so of-the-moment!
Called the “master of chiffon,” the designer’s mixture of fabrics with beading and embellishment makes his creations 100% modern. 100% exquisite. Metallics, iridescents, floaty florals, polka dots, the color red—all signature Galanos, all so this season.
THE BEST CLOSET I’VE EVER SEEN: Curator Clare Sauro shows me 22 racks of Galanos designs, each piece more exquisite than the next
Clare took my arm (no running or tripping!) and walked me into the vast “closet,” filled with 22 racks, comprising both day and evening looks, ranging from the 50’s through the 90’s. I especially love the 60’s & 70’s “mod” look—again, very retro, very current—many seem to have jumped off vintage magazine pages. Jackie Kennedy. Babe Paley. Betsy Bloomingdale. Nancy Kissinger. And of course Nancy Reagan. As Clare holds up outfit after outfit for me to look at and admire, I easily envision familiar pictures of these stunning women in all of these looks.
THE MEANING OF “CLASSIC:” First Lady Nancy Reagan in a red ruched Galanos gown, celebrating artists & the arts at The White House (you can see Elizabeth Taylor behind her); Nancy Kissinger in a black velvet tuxedo gown, with her husband, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger & billionaire David Rockefeller, in NYC in the early 80’s
Originally from Philadelphia, Galanos was a friend of Philadelphia retail legend and grand lady Nan Duskin, who donated originals from her store, in addition to convincing friends and customers to donate wonderful pieces as well. Many pieces are very sexy—sheer, backless, or cut-down-to-there. In Philadelphia, perhaps lined by the customer, in California perhaps worn as is!
HISTORY AT HOME: Curator Clare Sauro holds up a slate grey metallic & sheer wool tunic & palazzo pants my mom, Cis Golder, owned in the late 70’s ( I wish I could find that photo!); my parents, Bob & Cis, before a dinner party in the 80’s, my mom is wearing a very “Galanos-like” grey sequin jacket & grey charmeuse pants (as my mother’s hair became more & more silver, she wore silvery-grey all the time)
I gasp as Clare pulls out a gorgeous slate grey metallic “mod” tunic and palazzo pants from the late 70’s. My mother had that outfit (bought in Bergdorf’s!) and I know there is a picture of her in it, taken in our living room before a dinner party. “I cannot believe your mother had this outfit,” Sauro exclaimed. “Galanos was so talented, I’m sure you wish you still had it.” You bet I do!
FOREVER FABULOUS: My mom in the 70’s, (left) in a “Galanos-like” white satin shirt & duchesse satin embroidered “patchwork” full-length skirt (I think this is my dad’s 40th birthday party!), I wish I had this outfit now; and (right) in a bead-encrusted multi-color evening gown, so beautiful, so on-trend
So much of the collection looks like things my mother—and many of our mothers—wore in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, whether they owned the true designer originals or copies. No doubt, these clothes were all at fabulous events, public and private, how we wish we knew the stories that go with them!
LEARNING FROM THE MASTER: The sexy back of a Galanos beaded silk chiffon gown from the 70’s; the designer’s unparalleled embroidery, embellishment & beading will all be on display for the public next fall, and for Drexel design students as part of the Costume Collection library
I am not allowed to touch and Clare handles only with gloves, showing me the intricate work. Embellishment, edging, embroidery, every button is art. She turns a few items inside out, examining seams, all hand-stitched. The craftsmanship and attention to detail are unparalleled; for Drexel design students, this is the meaning of “learning from the master.”
THE BEST MODERN HISTORY CLASS EVER : Portrait of the “master of chiffon;” and Nancy Reagan in a Galanos red wool coat & dress at her husband’s inauguration, January 20, 1981
If you love clothes, you know the fun is not just in looking. I ask demurely if I am permitted to try anything on. A jacket? A belt? Smiling, Clare answers, “Of course you’re not the first to ask, but NO, this is art—not a real closet!” When exhibited the clothing will be on mannequins, not live models, eliminating unexpected pulls, spots, or tears; these are museum quality antiques and surely treated as such.
THOROUGHLY RETRO, THOROUGHLY MODERN: They don’t let you try on the clothing at the Costume Collection, but they do at Saks Fifth Avenue! Saint Laurent black & gold trimmed “military” jacket & Michael Kors black wool wide-leg pants—so “Galanos-like,” you’d think it came from the Fox Costume Collection, rather than the Saint Laurent spring collection
Leaving, I am thrilled to have had a peek into this amazing collection of 700+ garments of fashion history—and at the same time inspired to go buy something fresh, modern, and new. I stopped at Saks on my way home! Look for news of the opening of this magnificent exhibit at Drexel’s URBN Center, 3501 Market Street, Philadelphia; go to drexel.edu for details. Enjoy every beautiful, mod minute~ Ellyn Golder Saft