Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity

Has there ever been a fashion designer more enigmatic than Madame Valentina Schlee, the staunch grande dame of American couture? Kohle Yohannan doesn’t think so. And after reading his book you won’t either.

Though her name is lost on many today, Valentina was certainly the most (in)famous American couturier in the early part of the 20th century. Her clothes were status symbols. With evening gowns running between $800 and $1,200 in the late 1940s, they were items that even the wealthy saved for. And save they did. Valentina dressed the most celebrated women of her era: Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Thompson, Katharine Cornell, and her friend and lover Greta Garbo. Yet for all her accolades, Valentina has become a footnote in fashion history since shuttering her East 67th Street showroom in 1957.

In this sumptuous coffee table book, Yohannan attempts to lift the veil on the designer’s deliberately opaque biography, exposing the woman behind Valentina Gowns, Inc. The result is not only a fascinating account of the designer, but an engrossing lesson on American couture between (and slightly after) the wars. (Full disclosure: WORN senior editor Sonya Topolnisky helped Yohannan with research for this book!) Valentina begins with brief chapters on the designer’s young adulthood in Russia, most of it conjecture. She met her future husband and business partner, George Schlee, in 1919, a well-connected “wunderkind,” who fled revolutionary Russia with Valentina, moving first to Paris, then New York City. The two were heavily involved in theatre: George as a manager, Valentina a sometimes actress-dancer. And they knew Leon Bakst. The couple continued their patronage throughout their lifetime, and Valentina supplemented her made-to-measure business by designing costumes for the greatest Broadway productions of the day. Continue reading