Published  16/03/2009

Interview: Independent curator and author Kohle Yohannan on 'the legend of Valentina'

Once Again, Fashion’s First ‘Beatnik’ Takes Centre Stage

PortraitAn interview with independent curator and author Kohle Yohannan on 'the legend of Valentina'

Photo by Peter Ross


From artfully obscured beginnings in Russia, to her full-blown commercial success by the end of the 1940s as the first American celebrity fashion designer of the twentieth century, Valentina (1889–1989) was that rare creature who, having iron-cast self-assurance and a keenly felt sense of destiny, reached a pinnacle of achievement. Graced with seemingly ageless and exotic beauty and skilled in attracting the right connections and clients, Valentina and her business partner/husband, George Schlee, tirelessly pursued 'the legend of Valentina'. Frequently, the designer's own celebrity trumped that of such illustrious clients as film icons Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Rosalind Russell, as well as women at the top of New York's social register. It is telling that soon after she and Schlee fled an increasingly volatile Russia in the early 1920s and arrived in New York, she began designing garments that were the antithesis of Art Deco era chic. Current trends decked women in beads, sequins and feathers, and flashy colours, to create a sense of daring, flamboyance and joie de vivre. At the higher end, wealthy women continued to look to the Parisian houses that were eager to resurrect their former pre-war glory. Post-war, women were making many gains on many fronts, particularly in America, yet in one area–fashion–they remained as vulnerable to the winds of change as ever.

A purist who favored simplicity over flash, Valentina marked her own road in an adopted country that she and Schlee wholeheartedly embraced. In hindsight, the time was right for a woman of Valentina's mettle. Her innately theatrical personality satisfied the decade's thirst for glamour and celebrity; her authoritative voice promised timeless styles that would outlive a season or year; her perception of American women's lifestyles inspired wearable, American-made garments; and her confidence in herself lent confidence to her clients. Clearly her best model, Valentina never relinquished centre stage, yet she made the women she dressed feel special in a way that wealth, husbands and roles never could. This feeling came from inside and was based on the transformative power of personal style, not on any particular piece of clothing.

This month, Rizzoli has released an enchanting volume dedicated to the legend written by Kohle Yohannan, an independent curator whose previous monographs include Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism (Abrams, 1998)and John Rawlings: 30 Years in Vogue (Arena Editions, 2001). While not an exhibition catalogue, Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity serves as an accompaniment to a concurrently opening display of Valentina creations at the Museum of the City of New York.1 In fact, without reading Yohannan's comprehensive text, in which he considers Valentina from multiple perspectives (émigré, businesswoman, artist, wife and designer whose work has impacted fashion since she closed her shop in fall 1957), visitors to the show will leave with far less than this extraordinary woman and her story has to offer. The display at MCNY is somewhat predictable, with garments shown on mannequins arranged around the perimeter of the one-room exhibition space. As she worked, the notoriously unpredictable Valentina rarely draped on mannequins and when she did, she used a male version. Her entire aesthetic revolved around garments designed for individual women, practical (if extravagantly elegant) clothing that could take her from day into evening, or even from a stage performance to dinner afterwards. It might have helped to show garments in such settings (as the Metropolitan Museum of Art showed Paul Poiret's designs against backdrops recalling his exotic inspirations or the places in which the outfits were worn), or to display enlarged period photos of the women for whom Valentina created the dresses wearing them (as the Neue Gallery did to show Emilie Flöge wearing jewelry designed by the Wiener Werkstätte).2

The book's exquisite touches better represent a woman who aimed for the exquisite in all things. Readers will be delighted by the many correspondences spotlighted by author and graphic designer. For example, prints of Valentina's favorite artworks shown opposite garments or sketches inspired by them and photos of Valentina and Garbo mirroring each other in a shifting give-and-take that must have mirrored their relationship. The book design choreographs Valentina's metamorphosis, a process in which, stylistically, she circled back to the days when, as a young actor and dancer in Russia, she dressed in a mode now called 'monastic minimalism' and 'historicising modernism'. Throughout her career, she returned to the severe lines seen in habits and wimples; the large wooden crosses and rosary beads hung at the waists and wrists of renunciates; and the aprons and head wraps worn by her countrywomen back home.

The best way to experience Valentina, whose share of the limelight increased exponentially during her more than 30-year career, is to slowly savor Yohannan's well-told tale and the expertly reproduced photos in the nearly 300-page volume designed by Sam Shahid.3 Surely captivated himself by Valentina's daring–she claimed to be related to royalty, thumbed her nose at mink, and teased press and public with thinly veiled hints at the Schlee/Garbo triangle, for example–Yohannan puts forth an equally grand effort; part scholarly examination, part mystery and a good dose of fairy tale. After having reviewed photographs of Valentina's timeless silhouettes (bulk-free construction, fabric cut on the bias or slightly off grain), ingenious architectural innovations (wrap-front mid-sections; one-piece boleros; corsets and waist cinchers sewn into a garment's fabric) and subtle decorative flourishes (aprons, for example, and an astonishing range of head coverings like snoods, coolies, mantillas and even a flower pot and a cake pan), and considered Yohannan's insights, visitors to the show will be on the look-out for the cream floating on top of a sea of elegance.

Aside from rendered clothing designs, visitors will see examples from the designer’s personal couture collection and other ephemera, exhibited for the first time; original silver and platinum photographs of her designs by such celebrity photographers as Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene and John Rawlings; a Grecian-white silk jersey d’albene recalling Valentina’s design worn by Katharine Hepburn in the Broadway stage production of The Philadelphia Story (1939); a black woolen coat from the late 1940s designed for Greta Garbo; and Valentina’s personal collection of coolie hats (circa 1940s-1950s), gathered for the first time since she died.

Studio International spoke with Yohannan about his interest in Valentina, his insights into misunderstood aspects of her personality, career and place in American fashion history, and the process of creating a tribute that equals in force the 'legend of Valentina'.

Cindi Di Marzo: Thank you for speaking with me, Mr. Yohannan. I would like to begin where, in your book, you end, the notion of Valentina as 'fashion's first beatnik'. Elsewhere, you describe much of her fashion philosophy as 'anti-fashion', and you quote her as saying that 'Beatnik is like the Renaissance was in the Middle Ages – it's the revolt of the young people …'. How does this quote encapsulate Valentina's fierce independence? And how does it reflect her experience in 1920s as a fledgeling designer? Do you think she was conscious of going against the grain or, as is my perception from reading your book, that she could not do otherwise?

Kohle Yohannan: Valentina was a rebel with a cause. She wanted to wrestle women free of decoration and introduce them to the power of persona and individually derived style – silent glamour and not overt glitz. So yes, she was entirely aware of being against the grain. Valentina managed to sell covered-up, floor-length monastic chic, utter minimalism, at a time when women were wearing beaded, knee-high flapper dresses, floral prints and aigrettes!4

cdm: Valentina's clients adopted many aspects of Valentina's idiosyncratic look (snoods, coolie hats, aprons and crosses, for example). Can you discuss her influence on clients, and the reasons they trusted her? The notion that her aesthetic was woman- and lifestyle-centred seems at odds with her reputation for not allowing clients to choose colours and fabrics, or even a dress for day or evening. She is known to have been imperious, but her clients felt well cared for, their needs addressed and met. 

ky: Valentina once commented that women rarely chose what was right for them in terms of clothing; they chose what they liked objectively, but not often what suited their actual physical frame or colouring. This seems an odd notion to us today, but we have to remember that ‘Fashion’ as a force or authority is nothing like it was in the past, when women were literally ashamed to be seen wearing the ‘wrong’ hemline or silhouette.  So in some way, Valentina’s was selling her judgement as well as her designs. If a client liked red and ordered a dress in red, but Valentina felt she looked better in green, the dress would arrive in green, and that domineering assertiveness is part of what women came to Valentina for. Even surprisingly self-realized women with strong senses of style, like Norma Shearer or Millicent Rodgers appreciated Valentina’s unerring vision. She gave them an opportunity to see themselves in an entirely new paradigm, through the eyes of another formidable woman of style, whom they trusted to bring out their best and minimize their weak points.

cdm: Valentina's uncompromising fashion statements ('Mink is for football!', 'Even ugly women can be glamorous …') are part of her legend. Many of the period photographs suggest someone caught in the theater of life, removed from day-to-day reality. Yet, it seems that she had a lively sense of humor and could poke fun at herself and her image. This complicated woman seems to have had an innate distrust of complication. Do you think she favored simplicity for the clarity it could bring to personality. Or is it a facet that comes from her early years, before she donned the character of the Grand Dame? Although her early history is shrouded by her own changing stories, some details are known.

ky: Valentina clung to simplicity because it was the only thing she trusted. True style resonates from within, and what Valentina did was to distill the elements of dressing down to a few modules; a stunning first impression, faultless fit and uncompromising quality: Valentina and her clients always carried with them a sense of event. But I think the wit and grandeur went hand in hand. Valentina was tough, relentless, but towards one goal: making her clients look extraordinary, beyond the mundane, and imbuing them with the very essence of what made her famous – star quality.

cdm: Did you take part in planning the exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York? How do you feel the show fits with the monograph?

ky: I was involved with it from day one. I proposed it about seven years ago, in fact. As for the range of clothes versus the book, the scopes are different; the book focuses on Valentina’s personal fashion message, whereas the exhibition includes examples of many other women’s clothes and theater designs as well. One aspect of it that may have been a let down is the fact that so few pieces of Valentina’s designs still exist. A testimony to their timeless quality, women wore them to bare threads before finally surrendering them, so they are exceedingly rare and hard to come by. Knowing this in advance, I took the book in an unconventional direction, and I have to thank my publisher, Charles Miers, and editors Ellen Nidy, Anthony Petrillose and Julie DiPhilippo at Rizzoli for allowing me to break the mold of fashion history books by letting me blaze a trail. There’s not one single mannequin shot in the entire book! I hate those catalogue-like formats! They kill the clothes, which, of course, are meant to be worn on soft, supple female bodies in order to activate the designs. But it may be unwieldy to compare the book – which was about Valentina as a social phenomenon – to the exhibition, which centred around Valentina’s career as a fashion designer. And though it is a simple format, I feel strongly that [exhibition designer] Abbott Miller and I appealed to that uncomplicated presentation. We didn’t default to it or fall into it unawares: the void was the point; blackness, out-of-nowhere, invisible serving up of Valentina’s work as if by recall, not by design. I’m fairly suspicious of overly ambitious exhibition designs; they risk challenging or interfering with the material. Abbott Miller and [international design firm] Pentagram as a company identified the risk of over-speaking the design. We didn’t want to mask Valentina’s whisper, which was, of course, a roar!

cdm: You do a fair amount of revisionist history, especially with regard to Valentina's place vis-à-vis predecessors in Paris and peers at home. Why do many people falsely associate her sensibility and even her method with French fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet?

ky: Because to some extent, she wanted them to! Never forget, Valentina was extremely shrewd and intelligent. Early on, she realized that Americans were so insecure about matters of taste and style that they seemed to need a French label in their clothing or on their perfume bottle in order to believe in the product. From the 1920s until the mid-1940s, Valentina utilized and exploited the hype around Paris and ‘things French’, and called herself Madame Valentina to add a sheen of foreign status and high culture to her already exotic persona. It was only later in her career, after having lived in America for a while, that she realized her own confidence and example of success as an immigrant could free American women from Parisian couturiers. It happened during WWII: Valentina rose and stood proud as an American citizen (which she became in the late 1930s) and finally began to address fashion and the marketplace and the press as an ‘American Designer’. Soon thereafter, her labels, which used to read ‘Valentina: Paris, New York’ (though she never had a shop in Paris) were changed. She dropped the word Paris, and was simply, but proudly, Valentina.

cdm: Admittedly, Valentina's peers, Paris-trained American couturiers Charles James and Mainbocher, are better known today, yet a consideration of fashions designed from the time that Valentina closed her shop in 1957 to the present demonstrates that her influence has continued unbroken. In your book, you point out that she, along with her husband, were more market savvy, astute at handling funds and making profits.

ky: George and Valentina were enormously successful by contrast to Mainbocher – who had no less than 13 investor/share holders, which effectively reduced his position to a salaried employee, or Charles James, who went in and out of countless bankruptcies and restructured business entities. Valentina owned her own business outright after paying back a single investor and eventually amassed enormous wealth. Their business model was to remain mid-sized, own all corporate assets (James and Mainbocher rented and contracted) and to limit distribution such that all garments could be hand finished under the supervision and exacting eye of the designer. Beyond this, Valentina had her incredible public image working for her; she was fashion news in and of herself, and thereby attracted licensing and endorsement deals that not only propelled her fame, but further stocked the coffers.

cdm: I was interested in your discussion of Valentina and Claire McCardell, the subject of a monograph you wrote for Abrams. I feel that comparing the two in this way reveals Valentina's pragmatic side. As you remind readers, Valentina's designs were informed not only by the women who wore them but also by their lifestyles and aspirations.

ky: The notions of practicality and haute couture rarely appear in the same sentence; let alone the same garment, but Valentina was determined to make clothes that suited the life of the women wearing them. By stark contrast to James, who worked out complicated hypotheses in fabric and thread that later, after the fact, found their way onto a female body, Valentina began with the woman in mind; where the dress would be worn; the effect it was meant to have; what, if any, activities or movements the woman might need to perform while wearing it; etc. It was precisely this wearer-first approach to design that gained Valentina a following among performers and such successful professional women as playwright-turned-congresswoman Clare Booth-Luce and producer Irene Selznick.

cdm: The book design by Sam Shahid of Shahid & Company is like Valentina: glamorous and theatrical as one side of the equation, intimate and personal as a balance. How did you approach the design? What were your objectives, obstacles, surprises and successes?

ky: From the moment I decided to take on this project, I knew that I had to work with the very best people to get the book and show done right. Sam Shahid is awesome. He and Betty Eng were immediately smitten with Valentina and were just as aware as I was that this had to be at once formidable and beautiful, but not stuck in the past. We struggled with the design in that it is always tempting to use a front-loaded essay with a back-loaded gallery of fantastic images, but what I wrote was actually an illustrated biography disguised as a coffee table book. It contains nearly 50,000 words. Bravely, Shahid & Co decided to take on the entire book by following the text with images that were relevant in a thematic or chronological order. This was an enormous challenge and a lot of work as I did not write straight chronology; I broke at times into concept chapters and ‘isms’. Valentina’s story needed to be laid out in a serene, controlled, but not obviously paced sequencing. It required something sober but polished, deliciously enticing, but not in any way seeking attention. And I think we realized all of that. When the advance copies arrived, we called each other immediately to say how rewarding it was to have worked so hard for so long and to reach the goal. Shahid & Co are world-class professionals. I feel so lucky to have had the chance to work with them to bring Valentina’s story to the world.

cdm: Do you feel that Valentina's designs have been overshadowed by her celebrity, particularly her and George Schlee's relationship with Great Garbo? Along with her husband and publicist Eleanor Lambert, Valentina persistently pursued her public image. What do you see as her real legacy as a businesswoman far ahead of her time and a designer whose garments defy trend and season.

ky: To a large extent, Valentina’s career and life story disappeared under the haze of Garbo’s legend. Ironically, I found Garbo to be the least interesting part of Valentina’s life in so far as I have never been a big Garbo fan. She always seemed vague and dull to me from a distance. Closer up (I encountered her only once, when she was quite old) and after interviewing many people who knew her when she was young, I still can’t say that I was wildly moved. So I always found Valentina’s disappearing act rather baffling, but chalked it up to the power of the media. Garbo’s long-standing fame and repeatedly cycling images and films resulted in a permanent impression upon the public psyche. Their fame was disproportionate: Garbo was a movie star; Valentina sold dresses. But from my perspective, Valentina exuded what Garbo never could claim. Valentina was cool, totally self-realized and a true style icon. One account after another led me to realize that my suspicion had been true; all of the dazzling, otherworldly qualities that Garbo had on the silver screen, Valentina apparently had in person. By contrast, many accounts suggest that Garbo in person never fully measured up to her legend, whereas Valentina surpassed hers. In fairness to Garbo, it should be said that she abhorred the artificiality of her screen image, whereas Valentina reveled in her ability to wield her carefully crafted persona, intoxicating all in her path with her alluring potions and elixirs. Plain and simply put, Valentina’s legacy is the power of individual style above fashion, of mixing glamour and wit, of being unabashedly ravishing and enjoying the art of creating a femme fatale.

cdm: I've read a bit about you from news magazines. Like Valentina, you came from an unlikely background and, through hard work, determination and vision, achieved quite a goal. Aside from your career, there is your castle in Yonkers.5 Your statement in a New York magazine article that 'You can change the world with a staple gun and a hot-glue gun' is a twist on Valentina's belief in transforming a woman with a few superbly effective tricks from her trade. Do you feel in some way a kindred spirit to Valentina?

ky: It’s funny. I suppose Valentina’s rebel side and unlikely success strike a note of familiarity with my own life. I’ve been called ‘Rogue Curator’, 'The Punk Professor' and ‘The Doctor on a Ducatti’. I, too, am an unlikely success. I came to New York as a teenager with less than fifty dollars in my pocket and, like Valentina, worked as model and then in the design world. I also morphed through many careers; from model to designer to record producer to author/curator, but perhaps what I most identify with is her relentless self-confidence and her indomitable and unapologetic insistence upon living an extraordinary life. She lived by her instincts, not by graphs and charts and past performance. Instinctively, I have made some pretty big leaps in my life. One of them was buying and undertaking the renovation of a 29-room stone castle when I was 32, which was, literally, falling down. This was hardly a rational decision, but as it happens it used to belong to the Ballets Russes. What were the chances of that? Michel and Vera Fokine, the choreographer and ballerina of the Ballets Russes, lived here in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. Still in the attic were their travelling trunks, costumes and some stage props. In one trunk I discovered a newspaper clipping of Valentina in a 1923 performance that Fokine had choreographed for her. It was downright eery! But then, everything about Valentina had an almost otherworldly sheen to it. What I identify with in Valentina is what I recognized in Lord Byron, about whom I read incessantly when I was a child. It’s what Anaiis Nin once referred to as living in our ‘Legendary Self’. I was raised by parents who taught me that in life, there are ‘Them’ and ‘Us', those who can access, generate or embody the extraordinary, and those who can merely observe it or collect it. This otherworldly sparkle is a trait that is as likely to be found in a Count, a courtesan, a vagrant or a nobel laureate – but it is real, hauntingly pervasive and undeniable when it is encountered. My ex-wife, [fashion designer] Mary McFadden, once told me that, ‘The most extraordinary lives produce the most exciting and rewarding experiences, so you must put conscientious effort into making your life extraordinary'. She even went so far as to warn me, 'At all costs, avoid involving yourself with those who do not understand you'. Her words reinforced what my parents had taught me, and this philosophy has proven to be true in my life: I don’t mix well with 'Them', so I tend to write about people with whom I feel a thread of connectivity. From the moment I first laid eyes on a photograph of Valentina, I sensed a livingness beyond the ordinary. She struck a rebellious, almost irreverent, punk-rock chord within in me that felt like home.

cdm: Currently you are working on a book to accompany an upcoming exhibit, opening in May 2009, you are co-curating at the Met with Harold Koda, The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion.6 Can you give us a preview of what to expect from this project, which explores the relationship between icons of beauty from the early twentieth century to the present and the ever-evolving ideal of feminine beauty?

ky: This is a bold step for a museum to expand the definition of fashion beyond the dress to include the images by which fashion ideas are transmitted into the pop stream and to acknowledge the contribution of the women who embodied the look of any given era. The book explores the changing face of feminine beauty through the twentieth century viewed through the lens of early photography, the rise of the Hollywood glamour machine, the advent of colour film and the emergence of 4-colour glossy fashion periodicals. The exhibition focuses on the period from 1947 to 1997 with an emphasis on professional models and their roles in not only representing but also transmitting and informing the looks and lifestyles of their respective eras. From supermodels of the late 1940s, '50s and ‘60s (Suzy Parker, Dorian Leigh and Dovima) up to today, with Gisele Bundschen and Kate Moss, the exhibition and book will bring together the most iconic styles of the century, the greatest clothing designers of the modern era, and the work of world-class fashion photographers. These powerful threads will be brought into focus with an edgy, groundbreaking approach to social history. And on that note, I have to get back to work! Cheers!

cdm: Thank you again for speaking with me, Mr. Yohannan, and for giving Studio International readers this close-up view of the legendary Valentina. We want to congratulate you on a book that perfectly captures its subject.

1. Valentina: American Couture and the Cult Of Celebrity opened at the Museum of the City of New York on 14 February 2009 and closes on 17 May 2009.
2. See Studio International review, 'Haute Couture’s Grand Showman: Paul Poiret at the Met', Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9 May–5 August 2007
3. Published in February 2009 in conjunction with an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity includes a foreword by Harold Koda, curator-in-charge of the Costume Institute at the Met, and preface by Phillis Magidson, curator of costumes and textiles at the Museum of the City of New York. The book is available from Rizzoli for US$75.
4. Early in the twentieth century, feathers from the snowy white aigrette were used as decoration for women’s ensembles in Europe and America.
5. 'How to Save a Castle' by Wendy Goodman in New York magazine's Home Design section, 11 May 2008:
6. A collaboration between Yohannan and Harold Koda, The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion will be released by Yale University Press in May 2009. The exhibition at the Met runs from 6 May–9 August 2009.

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