WOMEN CRUSH WEDNESDAY: Valentina
One of top U.S. couturiers and a very successful theatre costume designer, it was Valentina's refusal to fall in line with the huge flapper trends of the 1920's and 30's that eventually earned her the praise of "America's most glamorous dressmaker" and was one of the first designers to be known by only her first name.
Born May 1, 1899 and raised in Kiev, Ukraine, Valentina Nicholaevna Sanina studied drama in Kharkov in 1917. Shortly after, she met George Schlee, a Russian financier, at the railway station in Sevastopol as she was fleeing the country with her family jewels. by 1923, the couple had made it to New York City and were prominent members of the cafe society during the Roaring 20's.
A remarkable thing about Valentina was that she always stood out. Often wearing dresses of her own design, she refused to don the boyish, waistless, short, beaded flapper fashions that were prominent in her time, all while avoiding the popular tendency to imitate French couture.. Rather, she enrobed herself, always her own favorite model, in high necked, full-length, long sleeved gowns that had a more natural feminine waistline. She even rebuffed the bobbed hair that was ever popular of the time and wore her hair long.
1928 marked the year that Valentina opened up jer cpitire dress house, Valentina's Gowns, on Madison Avenue. Because of her lovely dramatic looks, she was often commissioned to make stage costumes, the first being costumes for Judith Anderson in Come of Age in 1933. Recieving more praise than the play itself, this launched her stage costume design reputation and Valentina would go on to dress some of the biggest, most glamorous women of the time including, Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn. She dressed successful Broadway productions, including The Philadelphia Story.
With the popularity of her costume designs, Valentina was often requested to dress prominent members of the ballet, opera, film, and society. Many New York society women including several members of the Vanderbilt and Whitney families, could be found wearing her long, feminine gowns. Her clients never numbered over 200 at a time as she was insistant on giving personal attention to each piece and client. Valentina knew best, and would sometimes make last-minute changes in detail or color if she deemed it necessary. And being that her gowns started at a minimum price of $250 with an average of $600 back in the 1950's, being wealthy and famous definitely helped with being able to get one of her coveted pieces, though Valentina preferred to sell entire wardrobes.
Against the wishes of many publishers and photographers of the time, Valentina insisted on modelling her gowns herself. She was her own favorite model. Many thought she resembled Greta Garbo, but Valentina once said "I'm the Gothic version." She maintained her consistent style throughout her long career and was even mentioned on the International Best Dresses List.
Though always a promoter of timeless fashion and gowns, Valentina wasn't afraid to experiment. In the 1930's, she stared adding obi sashes and sleeve accents. She even introduced the short evening dress paired with ballet slippers in the 1940's.
Some of her favorite and most timeless looks included wrap-around silhouettes, capes, one-shouldered evening gowns, long dolman sleeves, and plain necklines that allowed the wearer to show off her jewels. Two Valentina looks that were often imitated included a aproned organdie party dress and, paired with a pleated skirt, Valentina's ruffled handkerchief linen blouse.
Valentina retired in 1957 after a long and successful career and closed her fashion house soon after. She passed away in 1989 at the age of 90 after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In 2009, The Museum of the City of New York ran the first retrospective exhibition of Valentina's career. Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity featured never before exhibited accessories, photographs, gowns, and printed matters from the museum, other major collections, and the Valentina family.
Valentina's determination not only to design timeless pieces that she loved despite the popular trends of the time but to be the face of her brand made her stand apart from many designers of her time, and certainly carved out her spot in fashion history.