From the 1920s through the 1950s, Valentina Schlee was one of the most famous and successful fashion designers in the world. Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity, by Kohle Yohannan, details the life and career of this now forgotten woman in a fine book that’s an interesting amalgam of fashion history and gossipy biography.
Born in Russia in 1899, Valentina’s early years are rather mysterious. Throughout her life, she told conflicting tales about herself in order to engender an aura of mystery, but by 1919 she was working as an actress in a theatre in the Crimea. It was here that she met George Schlee, the man who would be her lifelong companion and business partner. Fleeing Soviet Russia, the Schlees emigrated to the U.S. and in 1928, she opened Valentina Gowns, Inc. on Madison Avenue in New York City. Immediately successful, the business was financially profitable right up till the salon closed in 1957.
From the start, Valentina fashions targeted the upper echelons of society. No crass, ready-made for her. It was café society, Broadway, and motion picture actresses and the glitterati only. Within a few years she only designed for clients she approved of, cavalierly dismissing all others with the simple phrase, “I’m afraid my gowns would not please you, Madame.”
How did a dress designer achieve this kind of clout?
Primarily by being an expert at self-promotion and as much a celebrity as the movie stars and socialites for whom she designed. She created a public persona that was exotic, mysterious, imperious, and intriguing. A globe-trotting sybarite, she socialized with the right people, went to the right clubs, and routinely dropped colorful quotes. Her innate sense of glamour, style, and drama drew publicity, making her a favorite of the gossip columnists and fashion pages. She further cultivated her image by being the primary model for her design line in advertising layouts.
Of course, the clothes themselves also played a role in her success. Valentina’s couture emphasized clean, simple lines and had a timeless quality. They were chic, void of elaborate embellishments, and always comfortable to wear. She despised fashion trends and did not follow them. Her inspirations were often drawn from classical Greek gowns, nun’s habits, and simple peasant styles. She was skilled at using bias cuts to achieve lovely draping effects. Each outfit was designed specifically for the individual client to suit their particular figure, coloring, and lifestyle, minimizing flaws and emphasizing their best features. Examples of her fashions are found throughout the book, which has many large, lovely photos.
Even if you have no real interest in couture, this book is still worth perusing for the many colorful anecdotes about Valentina’s uber-sophisticated private life, including details of the long term ménage a trois she and George were rumored to have engaged in with actress Greta Garbo.
Author Kohle Yohannan, an art and design historian, has done a wonderful job in resurrecting a forgotten fashion diva. His book will be enjoyed by anyone interested in 20th century social history, fashio, or stories of remarkable women.
Check the WRL catalog for Valentina.