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
Dedicated followers of the WORN blog know that we do not allow many art forms to escape our rigorous sartorial analysis, and film is no exception – in fact, it may be our preferred medium. So just imagine our excitement when we heard about the Fashion in Film Festival! An entire weekend where people discuss Michael Caine’s suits in Get Carter and William Klein’s sheet metal dresses in Qui Êtes-Vous, Polly Maggoo? Our hearts were a-twitter.
Marketa Uhlirova is the co-founder, director, and curator of FFF. She also lectures in fashion history and cultural studies at Central Saint Martins College in London, among other prestigious pursuits. But FFF didn’t start off as a festival; it began as a single presentation in 2006 in London and New York.
“It became apparent that there was no platform –at least no lively exhibition platform – where fashion and costume in film were studied with some sort of regularity or system,” said Marketa. “In our area, there was nowhere to provoke questions or a debate, apart from the odd conference.” The presentation, entitled “Between Stigma and Enigma,” grew into the bi-annual festival simply because, as Marketa says, they had amassed too much great material not to.
My bias toward oral histories is this: they can be the most nostalgic, fluffy, self-important saccharin out there. Contributors, usually in the twilight of their influence, see this little trip down memory lane as means to remind the world just how special they – and their friends – once were, and thereby, to quote Woody Allen, “romanticize it all out of proportion.” (NB. This phenomenon is especially prevalent among books concerning rock movements and fashion people. Trust. I’ve read more than two.)
Now, enter The Stephen Sprouse Book, part sumptuous coffee table flipper, part oral biography of the late tastemaker. This could very easily be a book about how great The Mudd Club was. And it is, a little. What sets it apart is the sheer volume of Sprouse relics reprinted in its pages; there are dozens of Polaroids of friends Debbie Harry, Steven Meisel, and Karen Bjornson (to name a few). His illustrations for Halston are included, as is the diaphanous “scan line” dress he designed for Harry to wear in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” video.
Personally, I feel the most insightful additions are the letters and sketches from Stephen’s childhood, which was, according to Roger Padilha’s essay in the beginning of the book, perfectly “idyllic.” These early sketches are especially remarkable, not only for their resemblance to the clothes he would later design, but because they present a fully conceived aesthetic. At 13 years old, Stephen designed sunglasses, gloves, and jewellery for his “line” – he even imagined hairstyles for each look (sketching the front and the back thank you very much). My favourite item from Stephen’s early years is a facsimile of the descriptions and notes for his Spring 1967 collection. A glance at number 10 on the list confirms the tween’s precocious nature. “A white satin tent over white satin bloomers. The collar on the tent and the cuffs of the bloomers are heavily beaded in white crystal. (I had this designed several months before I saw Oscar De la Renta’s in Women’s Wear Daily.)”
His tailor shop is below street level, in an underground strip mall, which gives Mr. Arabpour’s cramped business the appearance of only being open “late-night.” Burly men file in with their entourage, and he, elfin in comparison, reaches up to greet them with three kisses.
This is the sum of the action in Final Fitting, a portrait of the 80-year-old Arabpour, tailor to the stars of Iranian politics and religion for 58 years. Director Reza Haeri bounces back and forth from Mr. Arabpour’s reception area to his back room, where he cuts fabric and muses on everything from garment construction to his famous clientele to why one should not wear trousers to prayer (plumber’s crack!).
Mr. Arabpour has outfitted everyone from the late Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, to popular former president Mohammad Khatami and current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. You get the impression he treated them all as he does in the film: jumping up to wrap his arms around a man’s waist, faceplanting into his belly, reading the tape, and shaking his head, muttering, “God preserve me.”