Or, more precisely...Valentina Nicholaevna Sanina Schlee (pronounced Shlay).
Born sometime between 1889 and 1899, Valentina was Russian immigrant, American couturier and prolific liar (hence the lingering confusion about her date of birth). From her salon in NYC - open between 1928 and 1956 - she designed some of the most stunning ensembles of the 20th century. Meanwhile her clients included some of cinema’s most celebrated stars: Katharine Hepburn, Gloria Swanson and her neighbor/frenemy, Greta Garbo. (For more on that hi-larious story, see my post-script.)
So what happened? Why don't more people know her name today?
The answer is probably at least partially misogyny, big surprise. But there were other factors at play. Much like Paul Poiret, Valentina was the equivalent of a modern-day influencer. She went solely by her first name. She modeled most of her own designs. She WAS her brand. And when she was no longer there to be the face of that brand...well...out of sight, out of mind, as they say.
Thankfully, due to some astute museum scholarship and the internet, she wasn't entirely forgotten. When I first delved into her work via the Met and FIT online collections, I was immediately taken with her monastic creations: the covered-up silhouettes, the simple blouses, the capes, the cloaks. Her design sensibilities were, as trite as it may sound, effortless. Timeless, even. “Fit the century, forget the year," she was known to say. As I began to gather a collection inspired by her aesthetic, I found myself leaning hard into the minimalism of 80’s and 90’s pieces. A perfect match, I thought! When I later stumbled on her dreamier ideations - those no doubt influenced by her costume design-work for the Broadway stage - I was suddenly trying to find every 30's mermaid gown on the market. To capture that push and pull between the austere and the dramatic, the ephemeral and the enduring, was an exhilarating challenge.
As with other Hall of Wonders "inspired by" collections, this one will be ever-evolving, with new pieces filtering in as they become available. At the moment it includes two of her incredibly rare, labeled pieces, one which came to me by chance and the other which I hunted down over the course of a good year. I won’t bore you with any more words about the woman herself, but hopefully the visuals I’ve put together will help you connect the dots on your own.
P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about Valentina’s life and career, I would highly suggest Kohle Yohannan’s book, Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity (from which I’ve drawn much of the info and photos you’ll see below) and THIS episode of Dressed: The Podcast.