NEW YORK CITY.-
An exhibition exploring the life and career of Valentina Sanina Schlee, known professionally simply as Valentina, will open at the Museum of the City of New York
on February 14, 2009Valentines Day. Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity, which will close on May 17, is the first retrospective to focus on this legendary American designer.
Valentina arrived in New York City in 1923 with a rudimentary knowledge of sewing. In the period between the world wars, she largely invented American couture and designed the wardrobes of the rich and the famousactresses such as Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Cornell, and Merle Oberonas well as socialites such as the Duchess of Windsor, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst and the heiress Millicent Rogers. As a young immigrant from the Kiev region of the Ukraine, she seized the opportunities New York provided, marshaled her many talents, and reinvented herself. As Valentina, she cultivated the famous and the rich, and in doing so helped to transform American fashion.
A book of the same title, by Kohle Yohannan, is being published by Rizzoli concurrently with the exhibition; it features a foreword by Harold Koda, Curator-In-Charge, Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a preface by Phyllis Magidson, Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Museum of the City of New York and the co-curator, with Mr. Yohannan, of the exhibition.
Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity is made possible by generous lead funding from The Coby Foundation.
Susan Henshaw Jones, the Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York, commented: It is wonderful for the Museum to present these largely overlooked masterpieces of design. But what is even more important is that the exhibition is primarily drawn from the Museums very broad holdings of Valentinas work in our Costume Collection. What is also notable is that Phyllis Magidson, the Museums Curator of Costumes and Textiles, actually selected many dresses from the Valentina estate shortly after her death and has judiciously added pieces to the collection since that time.
Never before exhibited examples from the designers personal couture collection and other ephemera will be on view, as well as original silver and platinum photographs of her designs by Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene, John Rawlings and others. Highlights of the exhibition, drawn from renowned public and private collections including the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum at FIT, the Brooklyn Museum, and the substantial holdings of the Museum of the City of New York, will include:
A classically- draped Goddess gown of Grecian-white silk jersey dalbene, evocative of Valentinas design worn by Katharine Hepburn in the Broadway stage production of The Philadelphia Story (1939)
A one-shouldered, blood-red gown designed for prima ballerina Vera Zorina, then the wife of George Balanchine (early 1940s)
A black woolen coat designed for Greta Garbo (late 1940s)
Valentinas own periwinkle-blue coarse linen summer dress, complete with full skirt, easy sleeves, and her signature pockets (1940)
Valentinas personal collection of coolie hats, hallmarks of her style, assembled for the first time since their dispersal at the time of her death in 1989, and as various in shape and size as in material (1940s-50s)
A group of leather and satin ballet slippers, worn and espoused by the designer during a period of governmental restrictions on the use of leather, textiles, and metals essential to the war effort during WWII.
Born Valentina Nicolaevna Sanina, probably in 1899, Valentina studied ballet and theater arts in her youth. Later, while living in Paris, she was a corps member of the Revue Russe(in 1922) before arriving in New York with George Schlee. (Valentina would be known throughout her life as Mrs. George Schlee, although official documentation of a marriage has never surfaced.) After a few stabs with the ballet and actingshe found it difficult to win dramatic parts due to her not-yet-perfected English--she quickly shifted to modeling, and thereafter started a design business with George Schlee. Drawing on her early theatrical contacts, she designed costumes for the stage and wardrobes for wealthy New Yorkers. Ultimately, her salon was located at 21 East 67th Street.
Valentina had an unwavering view of personal style. She once declared, I hate fashion! implying that while trends often bullied women, true style was immutable. She also advised: Fit the century, forget the year.
In stark contrast to the prevailing fashion trends of the 1940s and 50s, and possibly as a result of her training as a ballet dancer, Valentina rejected the idea of heavily constructed and constricting clothing, avoiding decorative details and superfluous ornament. She employed lines that appeared to be deceptively simple but were really complex, suggesting and enabling easy movement. Her oeuvrewas marked by sleek minimalism, wrap and tie designs, and floor-skimming bias cut gowns inspired by the classicism and draped figures of ancient Greece and Rome. A Valentina signature, exemplifying her sense of the practical, was pockets. Part of the freedom of her designs was the result of her leaving the clothing unlined and without the underpinnings so typical of the era. Her trademark fabrics were silk and wool jersey and her palette included combinations of muted colors such as olive green or copper, with bold hues such as purple or bright blue. Her overall favorite color was also a signature: greigethe subtle fusion of gray and beige.
Valentinas business thrived well into the 1950s, when ready-to-wear became a staple of fashion houses in Paris and New York. She closed her salon in 1957, but she remained active in fashion as a consultant for industrial design firms, textile concerns, and even other American designers, and she also continued to design for the stage. She remained a celebrity despite changing times and fashions, finding her way into the press untiland long afterher death on September 14, 1989, at the age of 90.
Additional support for the exhibition comes from an anonymous donor, the Manya and Gary Drobnack Charitable Trust, Nina Frantzen, the JM Foundation, Christina Porter, and Dr. Charlie and Claire Shaeffer.
The exhibition co-chairs Eric M. Javits Jr. and Tara Rockefeller provided invaluable leadership.
The Museum of the City of New York celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation. Founded in 1923 as a private, non-profit corporation, the Museum connects the past, present, and future of New York City. It serves the people of New York and visitors from around the world through exhibitions, school and public programs, publications, and collections. The Museums exhibitions and public programs on fashion, costume, and styleBlack Style Now! and The High Style of Dorothy Draper, to name only two, have garnered praise from the press and public alike. For more information please visit the Museums website at www.mcny.org.