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Elegant Escape

Designer-turned-photographer James Galanos lets the desert light pour in to highlight his carefully edited collection of refined antiques.

Couturier James Galanos admits he’s a workaholic. Technically retired from the fashion world, he recently took up his Nikon and Rolleiflex digital cameras and is now making his mark in photography. Galanos orchestrated his first act as a couturier in Paris and Los Angeles for 50 years, designing gowns for the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Greer Garson and  Nancy Reagan. Today, collectors of fine vintage couture avidly seek out Galanos designs from the ’60s and ’70s.

Now Galanos embarks on his glamorous second act as creative photographer. Art lovers got a first look at the new abstract pieces in a dazzling premiere solo show at the Serge Sorokko Gallery in San Francisco last year. The 50 large, dramatic abstract photo images, created with digital cameras and constructions of twisting silk ribbons, luxe bands of cashmere, even strips of crocodile leather, suggested to some viewers an homage to the mystique of couture or even dynamic Russian Suprematist art. “I enjoyed 50 years in the fashion world, and now I’ve taken a new direction exploring photography,” says L.A.-based Galanos, whose Greek-born family raised him in New Jersey.

For the Angeleno, however, these art works—so allusive and gesticulating—are strictly Palm Springs creations. The images were born in the kitchen of Galanos’ house on a quiet street in the desert community’s historic Las Palmas neighborhood. Restless after he closed his atelier, the couturier acquired his desert abode and began experimenting with digital images.

His arrival in Palm Springs happened rather by chance. After friend Paul Bruggemans, who owns the four-star Palm Springs restaurant Le Vallauris, suggested Galanos look at real estate there, he took the drive eastward on the 10 freeway and fell for the first property he was shown.

“The house was hidden behind high walls and had large rooms with 12-foot ceilings,” notes Galanos. Floors of bleached oak planks laid in a herringbone pattern were also part of the attraction.

He conferred with his interior designer, Philippe B. Oates; made a successful bid; and began a gentle remodel to open the house to the garden. They executed a pared-down scheme of crisply delineated rooms.

“I wanted the house, which was built in 1940, to have a truly contemporary feeling to show off my collections of paintings, antiques, and Chinese antiquities and art,” says Galanos. “The goal was simple elegance.” Oates, a French designer who had previously worked with Jansen in Paris and for clients including the Rothschild family, knows a thing or two about elegance.

“Philippe and I planned a background of muted colors and subdued textures,” says Galanos. “He brings his great knowledge of architecture and refined interiors to the project.” Oates directed a setting for a lifetime of collections, and Galanos desired a home neither too predictable nor too minimal.

“I like interiors that feel luxurious but without the frou-frou,” says the designer. “There has to be detail. If rooms are too bare or overly subtle, then they become tiresome. ”

Against the pale walls, Galanos and Oates arrayed such museum-quality pieces as a Ming carved wood polychrome Mandarin figure, Tang terracotta horses, Klismos-style mahogany chairs, Chinese lacquer tables and tailored slipper chairs covered in plain cotton canvas.

The simplicity makes it easy for Galanos to come and go. He zips to Palm Springs on Friday nights in his black BMW convertible. On Saturday mornings, he takes breakfast by the pool to the sounds of bird-song. “The air and temperature in Palm Springs make you feel great,” he says. “The heat and predictably beautiful weather are very relaxing. I read. I enjoy my solitude.”

He might head off to lunch in his black 1987 Jaguar, or perhaps his 1971 black Rolls-Royce. “I don’t drive them too often,” he admits. “They’re great fun, but I do like to be low-key.”

Perish the thought that Galanos would ever dream of indulging in golf or tennis, two of the region’s main attractions. “I’m a rather formal person,” says Galanos. “I tend to the garden, trim the oleander hedges, pick grapefruit, read, and spend hours planning and taking photographs.”


By Diane Dorrans Saeks.
PHOTO: David Glomb.
Portrait by Michael Childers.

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