Legendary American Designer from Russia Valentina Sanina
“Fit the century, forget the year” – Valentina Sanina. She dressed all Hollywood’s elite of her time. Her clothes were top of the simplicity and elegance. Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn, Gloria Swanson, and Paulette Goddard, Marlene Dietrich, and Pola Negri, Lynn Fontaine and Judith Anderson shone in them. A woman of mystery, a legend, copper colored hair beauty, even in very young age, struck the imagination of one of the greatest performers of the beginning of XX century – Alexander Vertinsky. He kept her letters for more than 30 years.
Born on 1 May 1899, Valentina Sanina Schlee grew up in Russian Empire. In Sevastopol, at the railway station, she met with George Matveyevich Shlee, whom she married in 1921, and with whom remained until his death. Valentina was near to him more out of desperation, seeing George inner strength and a tremendous will to live.
Together on the German ship they moved to Constantinople. And from there with forged Greek passports, bought on sold Valentina’s jewelry. George and Valentina soon moved to Italy, where Sanina tried to make a career as an actress of silent films, and in 1922 – to Paris. Here, Valentina went to the troupe of the famous cabaret “Die Fledermaus” – for two seasons, at last they had some money to move across the Atlantic.
At the end of 1923 George and Valentina arrived in New York. With a small amount of money, big ambitions and a suitcase, with Valentina’s dresses, sewn, and invented by her. From cheap fabric, odd styles, they were unlike any recent Paris new, nor restrained noisy fashion of the United States.
At that time, short haircuts were fashionable, concealing female figure straight silhouettes and understated the waist. And Valentina wore the packed around the head a long braid and feminine dresses that emphasized every curve of her body.
Meanwhile, as she walked down the street, everybody looked at her, and men noticed the beautiful woman. Besides, people often stopped Valentina and asked who sewed a particular dress. Knowing that she was an author, they asked her to make for them the same dress.
Sometimes Valentina agreed – though often turned out that the result of work did not coincide with the original wishes of the client. To all of confusion and accusations Valentina replied that they should trust her to sew a dress, because she knows better what and how to make it. Her dresses were always personal, they emphasized the personality of its owner, and especially her appearance and behavior. And soon, the American magazine «Vogue» even wrote about the Russian dressmaker. Gradually she had more clients. In 1925, Valentina organized a small studio in New York.
Legendary American Designer from Russia Valentina Sanina
Her husband George Shlee had business that also went up the hill. Successfully playing at the stock market, he made a good living condition. In addition, he was engaged in a theatrical business, and was also successful. Besides, he thus entered the circle of people admitted to New York high society.
As a result, Valentina had a great opportunity to show herself and her dresses. At social events and theater parties Valentina quickly became a recognized trendsetter of style. Bright, unusual Slavic beauty and her extraordinary dress – with a luxurious neck and puffed sleeves, waist and accentuated with original parts – attracted worldwide attention.
Valentina continued to live as a theater actress: her expressive mannerisms, speech, full of dramatic effects, and honed expressive gestures made her the center of attention in any company.
Not surprisingly, the fashion “from Valentine” became more and more popular. In 1928 she opened her own fashion house «Valentina Gowns» in Manhattan in the prestigious Upper East Side. Valentine offered her clients free-cut blouses, skirts and capes, made of expensive fabrics of subdued colors.
Among her clients were listed the brightest film stars of that era – Katharine Hepburn, Paul Negri, Claudette Colbert, Gertrude Lawrence, Gloria Swanson, Irene Selznick – the daughter of MGM boss Louis B. Mayer and wife of film producer David O. Selznick – and Greta Garbo, with whom Valentine made friends for many years.
It was Valentina who influenced Garbo’s image, wardrobe, well-known style of hats and hairstyles. The actress appeared in things from Valentina on the screen, and promotional postcards, and in everyday life. Valentina was the reason for Garbo to read the Russian classics and philosophical treatises, even as they say, helped her prepare for the shooting.
Valentina was similar in character and appearance, they often appeared in public in almost identical outfits to further emphasize the similarities, and both were very amused when fans coming up for autographs were confused which of the two beauties – Garbo.
In Valentina’s studio, Greta met George Shlee. It is said that he accidentally saw a naked Greta in the fitting room – she didn’t shut the curtains completely. It was the beginning of long-term relationship – so puzzling and contradictory, unable to understand for anybody.
Once Shlee was offered to accompany Greta on her trip to Europe.
When he and Garbo returned they became almost inseparable.
Shlee took full control of the entire life of Greta. From now on, he led her finances, acted as her spokesman and charge d’affaires, accompanied her on trips and even handed out interviews and autographs instead of her.
Garbo even sold her house and bought a flat of 200 square meters in the same house where Shlee and his wife lived. Journalists often photographed all three in the restaurants or in the car, everywhere. They wrote that the two women are hardly the sexual slaves of George, known in New York, “the Russian sturgeon,” he completely took over not only their bodies, but also money, and thoughts.
Others, by contrast, did not understand how George Shlee can spend so much time with Garbo, the difficult nature of whom was legendary in America. One of his friends compared Greta with Valentina – an angel.
In 1964, Greta Garbo and George Shlee spent time together in Paris. In the hotel room «Crillon» George had a heart attack. George Shlee died. Much of his fortune went to Greta Garbo, Valentina was given an apartment in New York and part of the money, according to his will.
They were not friends any more, two women – Valentina and Greta.