SPECIAL EXHIBIT: VALENTINA SCHLEE
Valentina Nicholaevna Sanina Schlee, to be more precise. Born sometime between 1889 and 1899 (she apparently lied about a lot of things including her age), she was both Russian immigrant and American couturier. She opened her NYC salon in 1928 and, until its closure in 1959, created some of the most stunning ensembles of the 20th century. She also dressed many of cinema’s most celebrated stars: Katharine Hepburn, Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo (with whom she was neighbors and frenemies. For more on that, see my post-script.)
But Valentina wasn’t just a couturier. She was also a woman ahead of her time: she went simply by her first name, modeled most of her own designs and was constantly inventing her own enigmatic persona. For better or worse, she would have fit right in amongst the sea of 2019 “influencers.” Luckily her designs were ahead of their time too. One of her most enduring quotes? “Fit the century, forget the year.” And to that end, putting together a vintage collection inspired by her aesthetic was thrilling. At first I was most taken with her monastic creations - the covered-up silhouettes, the simple blouses, the capes, the cloaks. Her style was so modern in some regards that rather than seeking out the designs of her contemporaries, I found myself leaning into the minimalism of the 80’s and 90’s. Later I began to embrace her more complex ideations. (Many of her pieces exude a dream-like quality, perhaps due to her involvement in designing for the Broadway stage.) It was this push and pull - between the austere and the dramatic - that ended up inspiring me the most during the curation process.
It’s not a very big collection at this stage, rather a work in progress. I’ll be adding to it in the coming weeks with additional items that make sense (hopefully). It includes two incredibly rare labeled Valentina pieces, one which came to me by chance and the other which I hunted down with all my might. I won’t beat you over the head with any more words about the woman herself, but hopefully the visuals I’ve put together will help you connect the dots on your own.
P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about Valentina’s life and career, I would highly suggest Kohle Yohannan’s book, Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity (from which I’ve drawn much of the info and photos you’ll see below) and THIS episode of Dressed: The Podcast.
left to right: Valentina posing for Vogue, January 1937, photo by Horst P. Horst; A 1940’s heavily-draped gown in the style of Valentina; Katharine Hepburn wearing a Valentina silk organza dress in the 1939 stage production of A Philadelphia Story. This design was so popular that it continued to sell for three years after the run of the play and was copied by scores of mass-market dress manufacturers; A Valentina gown worn by Katharine Hepburn in Philip Barry's 1942 Broadway production of Without Love. photo via Smithsonian.com
Above Right: Katharine Hepburn wearing Valentina in the 1939 stage production of A Philadelphia Story. The show created a frenzy for the lace-up waist cincher that was part of her ensemble.