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Valentina

VALENTINA

American designer

Born: Valentina Sanina in Kiev, Russia, 1 May 1904. Education: Studied drama in Kiev, 1917-19. Family: Married George Schlee, 1921 (died, 1971). Career: Dancer, Chauve Souris Theater, Paris, 1922-23; moved to New York, 1923; opened small couture house, 1925, incorporated as Valentina Gowns, Inc., 1928; introduced perfume My Own, 1950; designed for the theatre, gowns for leading ladies, 1934-54; firm closed and retired, 1957. Died: 14 September 1989, in New York.

Publications

On VALENTINA:

Books

Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, Couture: The Great Designers, New York, 1985.

Owen, Bobbie, Costume Designers on Broadway: Designers and Their Credits 1915-1985, Westport, Connecticut, 1987.

Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style, New York, 1989.

Steele, Valerie, Women of Fashion, New York, 1991.

Articles

Diesel, Leota, "Valentina Puts on a Good Show," in Theatre Arts,

April 1952.

Pope, Elizabeth, "Women Really Pay Her $600 for a Dress," in Good Housekeeping, February 1955.

Lawford, Valentine, "Encounters with Chanel, Mainbocher, Schiaparelli, Valentina, and Charles James," in Architectural Digest, September 1988.

"Valentina," [obituary] in Current Biography, September 1989.

Morris, Bernadine, "Valentina, A Designer of Clothes for Stars in the Theater, Dies," in the New York Times, 15 September 1989.

"Valentina," [obituary] in WWD, 18 September 1989.

"Valentina," [obituary] in the Independent (London), 28 September 1989.

Anderson, Lisa, "Garbo Walks Her Companion on Many a N.Y. Stroll," in Chicago Tribune, 25 October 1991.

Fraser, Kennedy, "The Valentina Vision," in Vogue, March 1995.

***

Madame Valentina was as exotic as her name. A Russian emigrée, she attracted attention in New York after her arrival in 1923 by looking like a woman at a time when women were trying to look like young boys. For dining in fashionable restaurants or attending the theatre with her theatre-producer husband George Schlee, Valentina wore her own designsfull-length, high necked, long sleeved gowns with natural waistlines, made of flowing black velvetin contrast to the short, waistless, beaded flapper fashions that prevailed at the time. Instead of bobbed hair, Valentina emphasized high cheekbones and large soulful eyes by wearing her long blonde hair in a high chignon. Slavic reserve, thick Russian accent, expressive hands, and movement with a dancer's grace completed her personality. She was her own best model and maintained a consistency of appearance throughout her long career.

Interest in Valentina's unusual clothes led to the establishment of Valentina Gowns, Inc. in 1928, on New York's upper East side. Success was immediate; Valentina's clients included luminaries from the theatre, opera, ballet, society, and film. Greta Garbo, whom Valentina was said to resemble ("I'm the Gothic version," she once said) was one of her customers. Each of Valentina's clients, who numbered no more than 200 at any one time, was granted personal attention. Valentina insisted that she alone knew what was best for these women and made last-minute changes in color or detail if necessary. Fashion editors were exasperated by Valentina's insistence upon selecting and modeling her clothes herself, but, ultimately, Valentina was right. Her business remained successful for 30 years.

Valentina's sophisticated color sense, influenced by Léon Bakst, gravitated toward subtle earth tones, "off-colors," monochromatic schemes, and the ubiquitous black. An evening dress with a bolero might be made of three shades of grey. In the 1950s Valentina began using variations of deep colors of damask and brocade. From a visit to Greece, she learned proportion, which lent an architectural dignity to her gowns. Her couture was original, intricately cut and fitted, and avoided the popular practice of copying French haute couture.

With an innate flair for the dramatic, Valentina successfully designed for the theatre. Beginning with a play starring Judith Anderson in 1933, Valentina was known for her ability to suit the character, whether on or off the stage. Critic Brooks Atkinson had commented, "Valentina has designed clothes that act before a line is spoken." The clothes she created for Katherine Hepburn in the 1939 stage play, The Philadelphia Story, remained in demand by her customers for five years. Timelessness of design was essential. In the 1930s and 1940s Valentina introduced hoods and snoods as headcoverings, wimple-like effects (flattering to mature throats) swathed around tall, medieval-inspired head-dresses. The diamond and emerald Maltese cross brooch she wore almost constantly was widely copied. Drawing inspiration from the art of European galleries, Valentina created striking evening ensembles along Renaissance lines such as a white crêpe floor-length gown fastened down the bodice with small fabric bows, topped by a three-quarter length beige wool cape.

Only the wealthy could afford Valentina creation. A minimum price of $250 dollars was charged per dress in the 1930s, with an average price of $600 dollars in the mid-1950s. Valentina preferred to sell entire wardrobes, presenting a unified look from formal to casual. For ease of travel she introduced coordinating pieces, like a blouse, bare top, skirt, shorts, and scarf that could be mixed and matched. She disdained fussy, frilly ornamentation, silk flowers, or sequins, relying instead on exquisite line. During the 1930s she borrowed Oriental details such as obi sashes and Indian striped embroidery used as sleeve accents. A favorite casual accessory was a coolie hat tied under the chin. In the 1940s she promoted a look that was slightly softer than the popular, mannish, broad-shouldered silhouette, and she introduced the short evening dress, while promoting ballet slippers, which were not rationed, worn with dark rayon stockings.

Valentina's working costume often consisted of a simple black long-sleeved dress with a versatile neckline, cut so it could be pinned high with a contrasting brooch, or folded down and worn with a long scarf draped about the head or shoulders for evening. A slice of colored satin lining would be turned en revers for contrast with the black. By the 1950s Valentina's evening gowns featured increasingly décolletage necklines. Her casual ruffled handkerchief linen blouses, worn with pleated skirts, were widely copied, as were her aproned organdie party dresses.

The supple matte fabrics favored by Valentina included crêpe cut on the bias for daytime, wool and satin crêpes, chiffons and damasks. Elegant wraparound silhouettes were created for coats, one of which featured three layers of progressively longer capes falling from the shoulders. Valentina's idiosyncratic, though classic, fashions also included evening gowns with one bare shoulder, the other long-sleeved, dolman sleeves, large fur hats made from sable, the only fur she would accept. Plain necklines lent themselves well to showcasing a client's jewelry.

Often called "America's most glamorous dressmaker," Valentina was recognized to be one of the top U.S. couturiers and theatre costume designers. She retired in 1957, and died in 1989.

Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker

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Valentina

VALENTINA

Working in New York City from the mid-1920s until 1957, Valentina Sanina Nicholaevna Schlée (known professionally as Valentina) was one of a very small, select coterie of mid-century female designers who achieved commercial success and maintained influential careers during the formative years of American fashion.

Working for a carefully chosen, exclusive clientele, Valentina turned out exquisitely cut and constructed evening, cocktail, and day ensembles that were commissioned and crafted in the manner of the French haute couture; every Valentina creation was made to order and was subject to multiple meticulous fittings and hand-finishing until the designer deemed the resulting garment worthy of her label. Known for her floor-gracing, draped, silk jersey gowns; body-skimming evening dresses with lowcut backs; deep décolleté; and bolero evening ensembles, Valentina also designed pared-down day dresses, linens, and undecorated cocktail dresses—all of which exuded a frank, forward-looking minimalist aesthetic.

Early Life and Marriage

Born in 1904 in the Kiev region of Russia, Valentina escaped the revolution in the late teens with her new husband and soon-to-be business manager, George Schlée, arriving in America in 1923 after several years spent in Paris, Athens, and various other European cities. Much like the French designer Coco Chanel, who offered as many versions of her colorful past as her admirers cared to indulge, Valentina was prone to invent and embroider her early life as it suited her. As a result, Valentina's origins are shrouded in mystery. But as one delves further, it becomes increasingly clear that this mystery is largely of her own making.

While U.S. immigration records indicate that she and her husband were affiliated with a traveling dance troupe known as the Revue Russe, Valentina was not above stretching that period to "her time in Paris with [dance impresario] Diaghilev." One account of her life after escaping Russia finds her dancing as part of a cabaret act with the Chauve Souris theater group in Paris. And while the Chauve Souris and the Revue Russe were hardly Diaghilev, one thing is certain: Valentina's early training as a performing artist played a critical role in the formation of her talent for costuming actors as well as her uniquely dramatic personal style. Graced with an undeniably compelling natural beauty, and enhanced by a theatrical presence, Valentina became as famous for the disciplined elegance and reductive simplicity of her clothing as she was for her meticulously crafted public persona. Self-created in virtually every aspect of her existence, Valentina offered an exotic beauty and charmingly mangled English that played to her favor in America, adding a veil of dazzlingly misleading allure to an already intriguing personality.

Formation of Valentina Gowns

In operation from 1928 to 1956, Valentina Gowns, Inc., was preceded by two early businesses, one the mid-1920s operating under the spelling "Valentena," and another venture called "Valentina & Sonia." Both of these concerns had folded by 1928 when Valentina Gowns was formed on more solid ground—this time backed by the Wall Street lawyer and financier Eustace Seligman. With George Schlée as business manager and Schlée's extended family employed in the workrooms, what became the most exclusive and most expensive American house of couture actually began as a rather simple, family-run business under the shrewd and watchful eye of the firm's only designer, Valentina.

Providing a formidable livelihood for the entire Schlée family, Valentina and George lived with great flair and panache on the swelling coffers of an almost immediate success. Within the first decade of business, Valentina's client list read like a who's who of blue-book society. With customers ranging from Park Avenue matrons to stars of the stage and silver screen, Valentina soon claimed Millicent Rogers, Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Katharine Hepburn, Jennifer Jones, and even White House wives among her loyal following. Eleanor Lambert, the pioneer fashion publicist who represented Valentina for more than twenty-two years, claimed that Valentina was the dominant fashion designer of the 1930s and 1940s.

Designs for Stage and Screen

From the early 1930s on, Valentina designed costumes for Broadway productions, operas, and (by the early 1940s) Hollywood films. Drawing on her experience in theater, she was keenly aware of the character-specific, problem-solving needs of performers. Not surprisingly, Valentina's costume design quickly gained renown for helping to define a character's role without challenging an actor's stage presence. Aptly summing up Valentina's contribution to theater design, the drama critic Brooks Atkinson noted that "Valentina has designed clothes that act before ever a line is spoken." From Lily Pons to Rosa Ponselle to Gladys Swarthout, Valentina dressed and accessorized the world's most sought-after opera divas of the mid-twentieth century. Her stage and screen credits include longstanding working relations with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard, Ginger Rogers, and Jennifer Jones, to name but a few. Her designs for and association with the reclusive film star Greta Garbo (who lived in the same Upper East Side apartment house as the Schlées) inspired endless sensationalistic journalism, but perhaps Valentina's most influential and highly publicized work was for Katharine Hepburn, whom she dressed in 1939 for Hepburn's starring role in the stage version of The Philadelphia Story. The white crepe, corselet-tied gown Hepburn wore was widely copied by designers at every price point across the nation for years.

In many ways, Valentina's work influenced fashion well beyond the scope of her limited elite clientele. In the 1940s, fashion editors coined the phrase "a poor-man's Valentina" to describe an affordable, simple, well-cut black dress devoid of any decoration. One of the first designers to promote monochromatic dressing, opaque and black stockings, and simple, short dresses for formal eveningwear, Valentina launched fashion trends that immediately trickled down to the masses. If Valentina's most recognizable calling card was simplicity, it should be remembered that hers was a carefully studied, highly disciplined simplicity. Her signature fragrance, "My Own," which was in production by the 1950s, was remembered by one ardent admirer as "Just like Valentina. Deceptively simple. But wildly complex." This carefully measured restraint during a time when floral appliqué, sequins, and pussycat bows were the ubiquitous choice of American dressmakers lent Valentina's designs a cool, modernist edge and earned her the respect and patronage of many of the most celebrated names in art, theater, and society. Wary of obvious fads and proudly declaring herself an American designer, Valentina insisted that true style and well-designed clothing were, in their ideal form, timeless, and she duly advised women to "Fit the century. Forget the year!"

In 1957, Valentina Gowns closed its doors—an event that coincided with the end of Valentina's marriage to George Schlée. The business was jointly owned and run, and it was George's role to manage the business while Valentina created—a two-person performance that simply could not be accomplished by Valentina on her own. In retrospect, however, it appears that Valentina's career might have run its course. By the late 1950s, both in the press and on the streets, the sophisticated ladies of café society were reluctantly giving way to the youth-driven and fast-approaching 1960s, which would witness the imperious and haughty glamour of the preceding era slowly fading away like the lingering scent of a once ravishing perfume. From the very beginning of her career, up until her very last days, Valentina had remained at the very top of the most competitive, most exclusive, and perhaps least understood area of twentieth-century fashion history—American couture. She died in New York City in 1989 at the age of ninety.

See alsoFilm and Fashion; Hollywood Style; Theatrical Costume .

bibliography

Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.

Steele, Valerie. Women of Fashion: Twentieth-Century Designers. New York: Rizzoli International, 1991.

Watt, Melinda. Valentina: American Coutouriere. Thesis New York University catalog holdings, n.d.

Kohle Yohannan

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