Ukrainian fashion designer Valentina Sanina Schlee left a mark on the history of her art and led a life among the most famous actresses of her day.
For centuries, Russia and then Soviet ideology tried to destroy Ukrainian culture and appropriate its heritage. This affected many cultural figures, whose true nationality Russia deliberately ignores, presenting them in the international arena as Russians.
Such was the case with world-famous designer Valentina Sanina Schlee, who was born and raised in Ukraine. Schlee is called a Russian by the Russian media. Only because at the time of her birth, Ukraine was occupied by the Russian Empire. For example, an article on the world Fashion Channel portal from May 20, 2022 calls her the “Russian (Coco) Chanel.”
Valentina was born in Kyiv on May 1, 1899. She dreamed of an acting career. Because of the 1917 Revolution, she was forced to immigrate. However, this did not put an end to her dreams. She showed the world what Ukrainian women are capable of. Subsequently, she created the clothing brand “Valentina,” which still exists today.
Valentina was worn by the most famous beauties and fashionistas of the United States, and now their dresses are kept in museum collections. For historians of fashion and theatrical art, the name of the Ukrainian woman has long been a symbol of originality and brightness. Her style defined the fashion of three decades and retains its influence to this day.
No less interesting and mysterious was Valentina’s personal life. She was friends with many actresses of her day and competed with Greta Garbo for her husband’s attention. At one point she was the muse of Russian singer and composer Alexander Vertinsky.
Immigration to New York and creating a fashion house
In 1923, Valentina and her husband George Schlee reached New York, where Valentina began made headway into the world of American fashion, while George built a career as a theater impresario. Before that, they went through a thorny path of immigrants in Greece, Italy and France. Interestingly, in Paris, Valentina earned a start-up capital for her future business in the Bat Cabaret.
In the United States, a Ukrainian woman began attending parties related to events in the theatrical and cinematic life of America. The fashion designer always came to them wearing dresses of her own production, which certainly attracted the attention of Broadway and Hollywood actresses.
Subsequently, in 1928, Valentina opened her first clothing store on Madison Avenue. The fashion designer won everyone over by never following trends, but trying to create clothes that could be worn for years. She largely followed the principle of Coco Chanel: “Fashion passes, but style remains.”
During the 1930s and 1950s, Schlee became one of the most famous and successful fashion designers in the U.S. Valentina introduced the fashion for hair nets, ball hats, belts, flat shoes and much more. It is rumored that Valentina chose a pendant in the form of a crystal cross, presented by Alexander Vertinsky, as the symbol of her clothing brand. There were rumors that he was in love with a Ukrainian woman and dedicated romances to her, but she refused him.
Warm friendship and struggle for a loved one with Greta Garbo
Sanina Shlee’s clients included not just wealthy, but also famous women. Gloria Swanson, Katharine Hepburn, Paulette Godard, Claudette Colbert and Greta Garbo were among those who visited the Valentina fashion house.
The story of her relationship with Garbo, the biggest star in Hollywood at the time, is quite unusual. It is known that almost every third item in Garbo’s wardrobe was from the fashion house of Valentina.
One day, during another fitting session, George Schlee entered the room and found Greta practically naked. From that moment, the actress began a close friendship with the Schlee couple, which ended in an affair between George and Garbo.
During a trip to Paris in 1964, George suffered a heart attack and died. Valentina had to arrange the funeral, which Greta Garbo never came to. However, every year Valentina organized a memorial dinner, inviting Greta. In addition, she liked to spend holidays with her husband’s mistress. Despite the betrayal, Valentina continued to communicate with her rival.
In 1954, Valentina finally left the fashion industry. Her husband bequeathed almost all his money to Garbo, so the fashion designer spent later years quite modestly. Valentina’s funeral was held on September 18, 1989 – Greta Garbo’s 84th birthday .
Valentina is now a fixture in the history of international fashion. Her creations are kept in private collections, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York, and sold at auctions.
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