If you are a fashion history buff like me and happen to be in NYC before May 17, 2009 you must check out Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity at the Museum of the City of New York.
This must-see exhibition explores the life and career of Valentina Sanina Schlee, known professionally simply as Valentina…a legendary American designer.
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Born Valentina Nicolaevna Sanina, probably in 1899, she arrived in New York City with her husband (although official documentation of a marriage has never surfaced) George Schlee in 1923 with a rudimentary knowledge of sewing. After a few stabs with the ballet and acting—she found it difficult to win dramatic parts due to her not-yet-perfected English–she quickly shifted to modeling, and thereafter started a design business with George Schlee. Drawing on her early theatrical contacts, she designed costumes for the stage and wardrobes for wealthy New Yorkers. Ultimately, her salon was located at 21 East 67th Street.
In the period between the world wars, she largely invented American couture and designed the wardrobes of the rich and the famous—actresses such as Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Cornell, and Merle Oberon—as well as socialites such as the Duchess of Windsor, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst and the heiress Millicent Rogers. As a young immigrant from the Kiev region of the Ukraine, she seized the opportunities New York provided, marshaled her many talents, and reinvented herself. As Valentina, she cultivated the famous and the rich, and in doing so helped to transform American fashion. She was a influential fashion power in New York form the 20's through the 50's.
Valentina was quite a character herself. Apparently lying was part of her mystique and when she died in 1989, nobody was exactly sure how old she was (somewhere around 90). Valentina was her own best publicist, wearing her clothes with such flare…every woman wanted to buy them. She was photographed as much as any model or actress of the day. She once declared, “I hate fashion!” implying that while trends often bullied women, true style was immutable. She also advised: “Fit the century, forget the year.”
In stark contrast to the prevailing fashion trends of the 1940s and 50s, and possibly as a result of her training as a ballet dancer, Valentina rejected the idea of heavily constructed and constricting clothing, avoiding decorative details and superfluous ornament. She employed lines that appeared to be deceptively simple but were really complex, suggesting and enabling easy movement. Her design aesthetic was marked by sleek minimalism, wrap and tie designs, and floor-skimming bias cut gowns inspired by the classicism and draped figures of ancient Greece and Rome. A Valentina signature, exemplifying her sense of the practical, was pockets. Part of the freedom of her designs was the result of her leaving the clothing unlined and without the underpinnings so typical of the era. Her trademark fabrics were silk and wool jersey and her palette included combinations of muted colors such as olive green or copper, with bold hues such as purple or bright blue. Her overall favorite color was also a signature: greige—the subtle fusion of gray and beige.
By emphasizing personal style over mere 'fashion' Valentina's legacy of 'dispersed simplicity' remains relevant to this day.
Valentina’s business thrived well into the 1950s, when ready-to-wear became a staple of fashion houses in Paris and New York. She closed her salon in 1957, but she remained active in fashion as a consultant for industrial design firms, textile concerns, and even other American designers, and she also continued to design for the stage. She remained a celebrity despite changing times and fashions, finding her way into the press until—and long after—her death on September 14, 1989, at the age of 90.
Never before exhibited examples from the designer’s personal couture collection and other ephemera are on view, as well as original silver and platinum photographs of her designs by Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene, John Rawlings and others. Highlights of the exhibition include:
- A classically- draped “Goddess” gown of Grecian-white silk jersey d’albene, evocative of Valentina’s design worn by Katharine Hepburn in the Broadway stage production of The Philadelphia Story (1939)
- A one-shouldered, blood-red gown designed for prima ballerina Vera Zorina, then the wife of George Balanchine (early 1940s)
- A black woolen coat designed for Greta Garbo (late 1940s)
- Valentina’s own periwinkle-blue coarse linen summer dress, complete with full skirt, easy sleeves, and her signature pockets (1940)
- Valentina’s personal collection of coolie hats, hallmarks of her style, assembled for the first time since their dispersal at the time of her death in 1989, and as various in shape and size as in material (1940s-50s)
- A group of leather and satin ballet slippers, worn and espoused by the designer during a period of governmental restrictions on the use of leather, textiles, and metals essential to the war effort during WWII.
There is also a wonderful book available on the exhibit and Valentina's life titled "Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity," by Kohle Yohannan, which is available in the gift shop.
The Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd St.
New York, NY 10029
For more information please visit the Museum’s website at mcny.org