Exhibition Celebrates Philadelphia-Born Fashion Icons

Ruzan Haruriunyan's picture

In the last half-century Philadelphia has produced a number of exceptional talents in the field of fashion design. James Galanos, Gustave (Gus) Tassell, and Ralph Rucci are three Philadelphia natives who have achieved international stature. The Philadelphia Museum of Art will celebrate their outstanding work in A Passion for Perfection, opening on September 15, 2007 in the brand-new 2,000-square-foot Spain Gallery for Costume Textiles at the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building.

Drawn from the Museum's extensive collection of Costume and Textiles, the exhibition will include approximately 50 works, many of them gifts from the designers themselves, including several of their model gowns. The installation will underscore how each of these designers created a uniquely American style by applying Parisian haute couture technique to ready to wear apparel. Designing for and dressing clients that have included First Ladies, actresses, and other notable figures, each designer has, in his own way, sought to achieve perfection through tailoring, use of materials, attention to surface details, and sheer excellence of design.

"Our inaugural exhibition in the Spain Gallery will highlight the work of three remarkable artists with Philadelphia connections," Curator of Costume and Textiles Dilys Blum said. "We hope this new gallery and the adjacent study center will become a resource and a destination for future generations of designers, and for all those with an interest in textile and costume history."

Galanos is widely regarded as the "Dean of American Fashion." Born in 1925 in Philadelphia, Galanos was the son of a Greek immigrant restaurant owner, and knew from an early age what his own career choice would be. He attended design school in New York but dropped out to sell sketches to Manhattan fashion houses. After an internship with Robert Piguet in Paris, Galanos settled in Los Angeles, where he met film costume designer Jean Louis and was hired as a sketch artist for Columbia Pictures. In 1951, with the help of a seamstress, he put together a handful of designs that would become the first line of Galanos Orginals.

Galanos started selling at Los Angeles boutiques and was soon doing trunk shows at luxury department stores. His clothing was expensive and emphasized expert tailoring, creativity and refined elegance. By 1954 he had earned the prestigious Coty and Neiman Marcus fashion awards. His clients soon included society women such as Betsy Bloomingdale and Hollywood stars including Marlene Dietrich, Rosalind Russell, Dorothy Lamour, Judy Garland, and Diana Ross. (A Galanos ensemble worn by Russell will be highlighted in this section of the exhibition). Nancy Reagan garnered widespread acclaim for Galanos' gowns, which she wore to her husband's 1967 gubernatorial and the 1981 and 1985 presidential inaugurals. In 1985 he received the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) Lifetime Achievement Award.

Galanos officially retired in 1998, but has pursued his artistic interests and continues to create and exhibit abstract photography. He made his first gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1957, and has continued to donate some of the best examples of his work over the years. Among the museums that have honored Galanos with retrospective exhibitions is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in 1997.

Before launching his career in fashion, Gustave Tassell studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and served in the U.S. Army. In the late 1940s Tassell joined the Hattie Carnegie fashion firm in New York City, where he started in the advertising and display department. Tassell was inspired to create clothing for women after seeing the designs of Norman Norell. He moved to Europe in the early 1950s, where he worked as a sketch artist for Genevieve Fath. In Paris he met James Galanos, who encouraged Tassell to move to California and start his own business, which he did in 1956.

Tassell's designs were noted for their sense of proportion, simplicity of line, and refined detail. Among the notable women to wear Tassell designs in the 1960s were Princess Grace of Monaco and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, both of whom appreciated his youthful, elegant, and unfussy creations, and were extremely influential in the fashion field. Tassell received a number of awards including the Coty Award in 1961. He was asked to take over design at Norman Norell after the death of the designer in 1972; when the firm closed in 1976 he returned to designing for private clients.

The youngest of the three designers, Ralph Rucci, is celebrating 25 years in the fashion industry this year. Rucci studied philosophy and literature at Temple University in Philadelphia before moving to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology (where he was the subject of a recent retrospective exhibition, The Art of Weightlessness). His design work reflects Rucci's intellectual and aesthetic interests, from the simplicity of Buddhist sculpture and pre-Columbian figurines to the spare graphics of Cy Twombly. Chado Ralph Rucci, which he founded in 1994, is named after the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and its 331 steps to perfection.

Rucci's career has evolved quietly and steadily. He remained relatively unknown for the first two decades of his career, until 2002 when he became the only American since Mainbocher in the 1930s to be invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show his couture collection in Paris. Several of the objects in this exhibition were donated by Rucci himself in honor of Joan and Bernard Spain, for whom the new gallery is named.

Like Galanos and Tassell before him, Rucci's designs have always emphasized impeccable craftsmanship, luxurious fabrics, and subtle embellishments. He has been described as the "weightless designer" and his creations as "invisible luxury." Rucci's designs have frequently been compared to those of Galanos, who has become a friend and great admirer of the young designer's work. -- www.philamuseum.org

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