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.
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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 designs—full-length, high necked, long sleeved gowns with natural waistlines, made of flowing black velvet—in 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