Valentina Nicholaevna Sanina Schlee (1 May 1899 – 14 September 1989), simply known as Valentina, was a Ukrainian émigrée fashion designer and theatrical costume designer active from 1928 to the late 1950s.
Valentina Schlee was born and raised in Kiev, Russian Empire (modern-day Ukraine). She was studying drama in Kharkov at the outbreak of the October Revolution in 1917. She met her Russian financier husband, George Schlee (Who is best known for his 20-year friendship with Swedish film star Greta Garbo.), at the Sevastopol railway station as she was fleeing the country with her family jewels; there is some question as to whether they were legally wed.
The Schlees arrived in New York City in 1923 and became prominent members of café society during the Roaring Twenties. Valentina looked distinct for her clothes and style at the time because she appeared in floor-lengths and cover-ups while other women wore short skirts and low-neck dresses."
Valentina Schlee opened a small couture dress house, Valentina's Gowns on Madison Avenue in 1928. Her first stage commission was costumes for Judith Anderson in 1933's Come of Age. The costumes were better received than the play, and established her reputation as a designer for the stage. Schlee dressed such actresses of the era as Lynn Fontanne, Katharine Cornell, Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Gertrude Lawrence, and Katharine Hepburn. Her Broadway successes included the costumes for the play The Philadelphia Story.
Valentina also dressed prominent New York society women including members of the Whitney and Vanderbilt families. In 1950 Valentina also introduced a perfume, "My Own".
GRETA GARBO navy blue and black dress: An early 1950s dress by Valentina in navy blue satin and wool jacquard with a black abstract pattern. The dress has a V-neck with notched collar, single button closure on front of dress and zipper at back. The skirt has some box pleating. Accompanied by a structured matching belt embellished with a bow.
GRETA GARBO green wool dress designed by Valentina: a dress in pale pistachio green wool with three-quarter-length sleeves, two pockets at front of skirt. Collar points are tacked to interior of dress to create a modified mandarin collar with ties. Hook and eye closure at waist and collar. Accompanied by matching tie belt.
Schlee's made-to-measure, flowing styles combined the intricate bias cut of Madeleine Vionnet and the grace of gowns by Alix Gres. "Simplicity survives the changes of fashion," she said in the late 1940s. "Women of chic are wearing now dresses they bought from me in 1936. Fit the century, forget the year."
Schlee was a skilled self-promoter. She modeled her own designs and rarely let her dramatic, elegant air of self-possession falter. Schlee was always impeccably turned out, earning her a mention on the International Best Dressed List.
Valentina Schlee used to be Greta Garbo's close friend, and the two women lived in
the same apartment building in New York City. After Valentina's husband George Schelee left her for Garbo, they were not friends anymore but remained neighbors.
George Schlee died in 1964 while traveling with Greta Garbo in Paris. Afterwards, Valentina and Garbo were not on speaking terms anymore and the two women had an elaborate schedule set up so that they would never run into each other in the lobby of their building.
Valentina Schlee closed her fashion house in the late 1950s. She died of Parkinson's disease in 1989, aged 90.
In 2009, Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity, a large retrospective exhibition opened at the Museum of the City of New York. It was the first exhibition to trace Valentina's career and featured never-before-exhibited gowns, accessories, photographs, and printed matter from the collections of the Museum of the City of New York, the Valentina family, and other major collections.