Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity

I recently went to one of my favorite museums to attend a lecture on one of America’s greatest - and unsung - couturiers, Valentina. This retrospective exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York at 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd street is running through May 17th so there’s plenty of time to check it out if you love fashion as much as I do or are merely curious about this designer’s fascinating life and career.

In case you haven’t heard of Valentina, she was a major fashion force who not only dressed the cream of New York society but some of the greatest names in show biz (Garbo was just one of many), from the ‘20s through the ‘50s.

I can’t stress enough how interesting the tour was. Phyllis Magidson, the museum’s curator of Costumes and Textiles, took us through the fascinating life and times of Valentina as we strolled through the gallery.

Just to give you a quick rundown on the designer’s background:

Valentina Sanina Schlee, a Russian immigrant, basically reinvented herself on arrival in the States (Chanel was another one who pretty much made up her history). She started out as a dancer, eventually becoming one of the foremost names during the golden age of American couture. Everything was custom made, and sold in her Madison Avenue salon which she opened in 1928. Basically, her greatest success as a designer was during the ‘30s and ‘40s, but the comprehensive exhibit showcases the amazing range of designs from every period, complete with programs, photos, newspaper clippings, magazine ads, etc. In essence, if I had to sum up Valentina’s career, it would be to say that she was in the vanguard of celebrity 20th century designers.

Five years in the making, this has to be one of the most interesting and comprehensive fashion exhibits I’ve seen in years. It was definitely on a par with the Yves St. Laurent retrospective I saw in Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts. And it’s the first to trace the career of this legendary designer who was definitely a star!

That's all for now. Talk to you soon, C&C

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Crap and Couture, Notes From the Back Row