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Valentina Schlee, 90; Designed Clothes for Garbo, Hepburn

Valentina Nicholaevna Sanina Schlee, designer of clothes for Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and other theater greats and socialites from the 1930s through the ‘50s, has died of Parkinson’s disease. She was 90.

Valentina, known simply to the fashion world by her first name, died Thursday at her New York City home.

Known for such maxims as “Mink is for football,” and “Ermine is for bathrobes,” Valentina also dressed Lynn Fontanne, Katharine Cornell, Mary Martin, Gloria Swanson, Gertrude Lawrence, Paulette Goddard, Rosalind Russell and Norma Shearer.

The critic Brooks Atkinson once wrote of her that “Valentina has designed clothes that act before a line is spoken.”

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She was her own best publicist, wearing her own clothes with a style that led other women to covet them.

“She made many wonderful clothes, but nobody looked as well in them as she did,” said Bill Blass, who made some dresses for Valentina in 1970.

Born in Kiev, Valentina was studying drama in Kharkov when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out. She met her late husband, financier George Schlee, in the Sevastopol railroad station as she was trying to leave the country with her family’s jewels. He protected her as they fled.

After briefly living in Athens, Rome and Paris, they came to the United States in 1923 and became prominent in New York cafe society.

With her husband’s support, Valentina opened a shop stocked with 13 of her own dresses on Madison Avenue in 1928. In 1933 she established her reputation as a theater costume designer.

Schlee became his wife’s business partner and an adviser to Garbo. He died in 1974.

Her clothes were seen in such stage productions as “Idiot’s Delight” and “The Philadelphia Story.” She also designed Clifton Webb’s dressing gowns and pajamas for “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

The tall, svelte Valentina, whom many said resembled Garbo, closed her business in the late 1950s.

She is survived by a nephew and two grandnieces.


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