Was she a Russian spy? Or perhaps an aristocrat raised in a convent with hopes of joining the sisterhood? One rumor even circulated widely that the stunning Ukrainian-born style maker was really Prince Serge Oblensky's niece in exile...or maybe she was actually a former dancer with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. A rags-to-riches Gatsby-type who reinvented and fabricated her image with a prescient awareness of the power of the media, Valentina enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame and cult of celebrity which lasted almost three decades - the 1930s through the late 50s - and rivaled her handpicked clients, including Greta Garbo, Katharine Cornell, and Katharine Hepburn.
And while she lied about nearly everything, there is no faking her sizeable contribution to 20th Century fashion. During a time when fashion was characterized by glitz, glam, and compromising discomfort dictated by Parisian haute couture, Valentina looked to ecclesiastical vestments - especially nuns' habits - to create an elegant alternative: deceptively simple, comfortable, form-loving garments made from fabrics like wool and silk jersey that encouraged freedom of movement.
In an attempt to separate fact from fiction, an impressive trio of fashion history experts - author Kohle Yohannan, Harold Koda (Met Costume Institute curator), and Phyllis Magidson (Museum of the City of New York curator) - recently authored VALENTINA: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity (Rizzoli New York, 2009) which traces the beautiful couturiere's ascent from out-of-work dancer/actress to the A-List of international high society, and, eventually, the pinnacle of American couture.
- Lesley Scott