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Irene Galitzine: Russian princess that brought fame to Italian fashion

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Irene Galitzine: Russian princess that brought fame to Italian fashion


Svetlana Smetanina

Irene Galitzine, 1952. Photo credit:

Irene Galitzine’s name became famous in the fashion world in the 1960s - 70s. The most celebrated and elegant women in the world, including Jacqueline Kennedy and Greta Garbo, as well as representatives of European aristocratic families and the wives of billionaires, preferred to wear outfits designed by her. Surprisingly, she became a fashion designer almost by accident, not even knowing how to draw and sew properly. But her talent, impeccable sense of style, and enormous passion for work enabled her to remain at the top of the temple of fame for almost 40 years.

“I feel myself five hundred percent Russian.”

In the introduction to From Russia to Russia, her memoirs, Irina (Irene) Galitzine wrote about her main trait, I feel myself five hundred percent Russian. I was very young when we had to leave the country, and I have no clear memories of that time, but throughout my life, I have carried about the bitter feeling of separation from my homeland... Over the years, the love for my country grew steadily, and I wanted to return to Russia... I would like to move here and live in Russia because my soul belongs to this country. My way of thinking, the mentality is very close to the way of thinking of my fellow countrymen. Just like them, I cannot tolerate half-heartedness, reservations, and compromises. We are Russians - I say this with pride – and we are not easy people, we are maximalists, we are ruled by feelings, we are fire-eating, but at the same time very self-forgetful."

However, it took time for Princess Irene Galitzine to realize and fall in love with her Russianness. As a child, when her mother forced her to attend Russian language lessons, she was angry and argued, "Well, who speaks Russian now!" But then, having become an adult and famous, she remembered those lessons with gratitude time and time again, especially when Irene got the chance to visit Russia and communicate with her compatriots live.

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Job in an atelier instead of a diplomatic career

Irene's fate turned out to be kind of typical for a representative of an old aristocratic family who had been in Russia at the tipping point of the era. She was born in Tiflis, her mothers hometown, at the height of the First World War. Her father, Prince Boris Galitzine, was an officer in the Tsar army. In 1920, having no information about her husband, the mother had to urgently evacuate with her daughter from Tiflis to Constantinople. They managed to move to Italy due to a happy coincidence: a diplomat friend from the Italian consulate helped to obtain a visa (Italy at that time did not issue visas to emigrants from Russia fearing an influx of refugees).

They would stay in Italy until the end of their days. After a while, Prince Galitzine joined them. But since he didnt speak Italian, he could never find himself in a foreign country and left for France. Irene was not able to forgive her father for this departure for a very long time. They still met and were able to establish a warm relationship but only 20 years later.

But Princess Nina Galitzine, Irene's mother, felt herself in Italy as if in her element. She earned money by teaching French and English and, most importantly, she was welcomed in Italian aristocratic families, which greatly helped her daughter in her future career.

Irina received an excellent education at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Rome, which was a completely untypical choice for girls in patriarchal Italy. But the career of a diplomat, which she initially dreamed of, could not be realized - the way into this profession was closed for women at that time.

Designs by Irene Galitzine. Photo credit:

As fate would have it, Irene got a job in the most popular atelier of post-war Italy. Her work today would be called public relations although back then they did not hear about it. Irene's duties included demonstrating models, as well as, which was the main thing, inviting her numerous friends from high society to order outfits for themselves in this particular atelier.

After World War II, European women wanted to be feminine and beautiful again. And fashion industry responded to this need immediately. In 1947, Christian Dior's atelier opens in Paris. And a few years later, his famous images - a thin waist accentuated by a corset and a full skirt - would be called the New Look style.

Once in Paris and getting acquainted with the works of Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Irene literally fell in love with the new style. There was still nothing like it in her country, Italy. At some point she has stepped into discussion on why Italian fashion lagged behind French so much. "Why don't you open your own atelier?" Irene was suggested by her friends from wealthy Italian families. Later they supported her initiative with their investments. This paved the way for what would then become her lifetime project.

Designs by Irene Galitzine. Photo credit:

Very hard to understand what women need

To tell the truth, for the first few years Irene and her assistants just bought models in Paris and then unpicked them to make patterns and sew similar outfits in their atelier. And only after gaining experience and ingratiating herself with the fashion world, she decided to design her own clothing collections. We can say that she was "blessed" by Coco Chanel, although in fact, it was the blessing the other way around.

Once Irenes friend from high society brought Chanel to her atelier. Chanel told Irene quite frankly, Dear girl, do not think that this is a simple occupation. It is very hard to understand what women need.

Nevertheless, Irene took her chance and won. And true global success came to her after she put an unusual model on the market - palazzo pajamas. Interestingly, this was originally a version of a home suit that Irene had made for herself. But since the entire secular society of Europe used to visit her home both in Rome and on Capri, her home suit that included narrow straight pants and a tunic took everyones breath away. And indeed, this model looked just great on Irene, a tall and slender beautiful lady. Later on, Irina sewed these countless palazzo pajamas from a variety of fabrics, turning them into real evening wear and decorating them with rhinestones. Gradually, she changed tight-leg pants with loose and flowing models. And today, many women of fashion are happy to wear wide palazzo pants. It was the palazzo pajamas from Galitzine that became one of the most popular Italian models abroad, and the designer was able to conquer the American and Japanese markets.

Irene designed the first palazzo pajamas for herself. Photo credit:

Explaining how she became a designer of fashionable clothes, Irene Galitzine admitted that the images of new models were often born from the ideas gleaned either on the street or while traveling around the world. For example, once she visited New York and went to see Yul Brynner's play The King and I. Irene was delighted with the costumes used for the performance. Inspired by oriental style, she found a shop with handcrafted fabrics in Bangkok and ordered them for her palazzo pajamas. She used Asian and, of course, Russian motives for her collections. She was one of the first in the fashion world to sew clothes from new synthetic fabrics revealing their unusual features.

It is not surprising that the most celebrated, wealthy, and fashionable women of that time came to buy clothes at Irene Galitzines atelier. She made friends with many of them - like Jacqueline Kennedy, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn. However, she didnt enjoy face-to-face communication with Elizabeth Taylor and Maya Plisetskaya, with whom she met during the latters tour in Rome.

Irene Galitzine and Jacqueline Kennedy. Photo credit:

In 1988, Princess Galitzine was finally able to fulfill her long-nurtured dream and came to Russia. Her collections were shown at the Rossiya Cinema and Concert Hall for several days in a row. And every time 2,500 people in the hall greeted her with an ovation. In her book, Irina admitted that this way she had been welcomed in Russia only. She visited Moscow and St. Petersburg several times until the end of her life. And every time Irene felt at home there.

Of course, she did not see only success, fame, and standing ovations in her life. No. Irene was declared bankrupt twice, and once she was even imprisoned for several days for this reason. It was her husbands fault as he performed unscrupulous transactions behind her back. But even this did not beat the Russian princess to her knees; she was able to return to the world of fashion and design again beautiful clothes for women for all occasions. Overall it was a wonderful life, she concluded in her book. And it's hard to disagree with her.

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