New Work: ‘Valentina’
Now largely forgotten outside the fashion industry, Valentina was an iconic figure in the 1930s and 1940s, a gifted couturier who dressed famous actresses and socialites and was a fixture in New York society. She was also a progenitor of the modern luxury brand, skilled at marrying her designs to her own fame. Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity is a new exhibition designed by Abbott Miller at the Museum of the City of New York that rediscovers the work and legacy of this designer’s designer. Miller’s design for the exhibition takes as its inspiration the beauty of the diagonals and verticals in the letterforms of Valentina’s name, as well as in her structurally innovative creations.
Enter the world of Valentina after the jump.
Valentina (full name: Valentina Sanina Schlee) was a Russian émigré who came to America to be an actress. She gained less notoriety for her acting ability than for her unique sense of style. As a couturier she was an iconoclast, using materials in unexpected ways and in unusual constructions—creating dresses built around one seam, for example—and mixing historical references in her work.
Deft with aphorisms (“fit the century, forget the year”), Valentina was an enormously talented designer who used her phenomenal success to build an unusual mystique around her life and her work. She chose her clients, refusing to dress women she deemed inappropriate or unworthy, and clients included the most famous women of her time: Katharine Hepburn, Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, and most importantly, Greta Garbo, with whom Valentina was suggestively close.
Miller worked closely with the exhibition curators Kohle Yohannan and Phyllis Magidson to create an environment that is a distillation of Valentina’s taste. Miller’s design for Valentina evokes the razor-sharp precision of Valentina’s work with thin steel cables arranged in the angles of the letters “V” and “A.” The cables appear to hold up the exhibition platforms, and in the darkened gallery, catch the light, giving the show an effortless structural look that complements the engineering of the designer’s gowns. The forms of the cables are echoed in a supergraphic of Valentina’s name that is set in letters (based on the typeface Taz) that are elegant and ultra-thin. Valentina’s designs are arranged on three runways that run down the center and sides of the gallery. At the back of the room an amphitheater-like section called “The Theater of Valentina” features her designs for the stage.
Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity remains on view at the Museum of the City of New York through May 17.
Project Team: Abbott Miller, Brian Raby, exhibition design; Susan Brzozowski, graphics. Exhibition photos by Harry Zernike.