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.

The line between dress and costume is one that Yohannan returns to repeatedly in Valentina. In a chapter entitled, “The Theater of Valentina: Costume or Couture?,” Yohannan riffs on Valentina’s belief that “clothes have little independent existence of their own.” That is to say: the woman makes the dress, not the other way around. And whether she was designing for the stage or Mrs. Astor, Valentina let the spirit of the lady shine through the character (or public caricature). First-hand accounts of a Valentina fitting are scattered liberally throughout the book, and detailed enough to inspire serious envy in this Wornette. Valentina put her clients first, although not always in the way you’d imagine. She built clothing around the woman, giving the lady what she needed – not necessarily what she ordered. Valentina masked “imperfections,” accentuated “assets,” and scoffed at requests for frills and bobbles. In short, Madame made you look like a million bucks. And her clothes lasted forever; actress-socialite Kitty Carlisle Hart wore her Valentina for 40 years. These testimonials are so convincing, Valentina can almost be excused for her wily ways and body fascism.

Indeed, the question of what looks “best” is a subjective one, and Yohannan makes a convincing case for Valentina’s design philosophy. He portrays her as someone who had a hyper-specific notion of how things should be done, but, for whatever reason, remained on the periphery of her adopted social-set, setting up a dichotomy that drives the book. She appears protective, almost matriarchal, while being completely unknowable. Her clothing gives the same impression: it’s both warm and austere. Ever true to his subject, Yohannan unfolds these contradictions subtly, in a manner that would have pleased Madame. My only qualm is that it’s too heavy to read in bed.

Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity by Kohle Yohannan, Rizzoli Press, 2009

Reviewed by Sara Forsyth

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