Valentina (fashion designer)
|Born||Valentina Nicholaevna Sanina Schlee
May 1, 1899
|Died||14 September 1989(aged 90)|
|Years active||1928-late 1950s|
|Spouse(s)||George Schlee (1921 – his death)|
Valentina Nicholaevna Sanina Schlee (1 May 1899 – 14 September 1989), simply known as Valentina, was a Russian-Ukrainian émigrée fashion designer and theatrical costume designer active from 1928 to the late 1950s.
Schlee was born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine. She was studying drama in Kharkov at the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. She met a Russian White Emigre financier George Schlee (died 3 October 1964), who would later become her husband, at the Sebastopol railway station as she was fleeing the country with her family jewels. (There is some question as to whether they were legally wed.) George Schlee is best known for his twenty-year friendship with film star Greta Garbo. The Schlees arrived in New York City in 1923 and became prominent members of café society during the Roaring Twenties, where Valentina "stood out for her clothes and her style. When other women were wearing short skirts, she appeared in floor-length styles; when others wore low-neck dresses, she wore covered-up styles."
Schlee opened a small couture dress house, Valentina's Gowns on Madison Avenue in 1928. Her first stage commission was costumes for Judith Anderson in 1933's Come of Age. The costumes were better received than the play, and established her reputation as a designer for the stage. Schlee dressed such actresses of the era as Lynn Fontanne, Katharine Cornell, Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Gertrude Lawrence, and Katharine Hepburn. Her Broadway successes included the costumes for the stage version of The Philadelphia Story. She also dressed prominent New York society women including members of the Whitney and Vanderbilt families. In 1950 Valentina also introduced a perfume, "My Own".
Schlee's made-to-measure, flowing styles combined the intricate bias cut of Madeleine Vionnet and the grace of gowns by Alix Gres. "Simplicity survives the changes of fashion," she said in the late 1940s. "Women of chic are wearing now dresses they bought from me in 1936. Fit the century, forget the year."
Schlee was a skilled self-promoter. She modeled her own designs and rarely let her dramatic, elegant air of self-possession falter. Schlee was always impeccably turned out, earning her a mention on the International Best Dressed List.
Schlee closed her fashion house in the late 1950s. She died of Parkinson's disease in 1989, aged 90. Since she and Garbo lived in the same apartment building in New York City—and Valentina was upset by Garbo's close friendship with her husband George in the early 60's right before he died—Valentina and Garbo had an elaborate schedule set up so that they would never run into each other in the lobby of their building.
In 2009, Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity, a large retrospective exhibition opened at the Museum of the City of New York. It was the first exhibition to trace Valentina's career and featured never-before-exhibited gowns, accessories, photographs, and printed matter from the collections of the Museum of the City of New York, the Valentina family, and other major collections.
- For most of her life, Schlee maintained that she was born in 1899. Some sources state 1894 or 1904.
- Obituary of Valentina Schlee, Los Angeles Times, 18 September 1989, part I p. 19
- Kohle Yohannan, Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity, Rizzoli, 2009
- Obituary of Valentina Schlee, New York Times, 15 September 1989. Retrieved 3 February 2008.
- Obituary of Valentina Schlee from Women's Wear Daily 18 September 1989, retrieved 3 February 2008
- Quoted in ">Obituary of Valentina Schlee, New York Times, 15 September 1989
- Barry Paris, Garbo, Knopf, 1995, page 452.
- Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity Museum of the City of New York official website.
- Valentina at the Fashion Encyclopedia
- "Valentina 1904-1989", encyclopedia.com
- Internet Broadway Database listing
- American Ingenuity: Sportswear 1930s-1970s, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on Valentina (see index)