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

Book Review: Diana Vreeland

book review by Meagan Allison-Hancock
Opening the striking red-lacquered cover of Diana Vreeland, you experience a little bit of awe and admiration — quite the way I imagine you’d feel stepping into Diana Vreeland’s red-lacquered office at Vogue in the 60s. Eleanor Dwight’s biography reveals a lifetime of ambition, creativity, and eccentricity, creating an all-encompassing picture of legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland. Dwight isn’t afraid to address Vreeland’s flaws and follies, but always maintains an underlying respect for her formidable subject. She charms the reader with descriptions of Vreeland’s work ethic and the products of her creative mind. There is a certain nostalgia expressed for a time when women were charmed and inspired by Vreeland’s “Why Don’t You…” column at Harper’s Bazaar (“Why don’t you rinse your blonde child’s hair in dead champagne as they do in France?”) and by her lavish and fantastical photo spreads. Her ability to spot potential in a model and to draw out a particular pose or representation of beauty is especially praised.

While the book may be heavy on historical detail, with a tendency toward tangents, this quality also helps to contextualize Vreeland’s role in fashion history and the progress of style since the 30s. Rife with family photographs, illustrations, and portraits of the glamorous players in Vreeland’s personal and professional life, the book is a treasure trove of intimate detail and clues into the mind of one of fashion’s most enduring figures. The chapters on her youth may be dry at times, but they express Vreeland’s growing awareness of the importance of image, and her pivotal decision to carefully cultivate a distinguishing look for herself. Even as a teenager, she was wise enough to understand the implications of image yet not be deterred by her unconventional looks. One of the lasting impressions of this biography is of this very wisdom, and its role in her observations of the fashion world. Compared to trite and fleeting members of the fashion community, Vreeland is naturally ensconced there due to her intuitive understanding of the meaning of style, rather than the superficiality of trend: “A new dress doesn’t get you anywhere; it’s the life you’re living in the dress.”

Surveying her role at Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and later at The Met’s Costume Institute, this biography evokes the passion, drive, and revolutionary eye of a woman who created a prominent place for herself in fashion history. You close the book feeling like you had the chance to know Vreeland, and pine for the days when Vogue really knew how to turn out original and provocative covers and photo shoots.

Diana Vreeland by Eleanor Dwight (HarperCollins, 2002)