~ Russian beauty
A fashion historian pays tribute to the influential artists and models who fled the Russian revolution
New Orleans Times-Picayune
Chris Bynum Staff Writer
11 November 2000
She had been a celebrated beauty and a model in one of the elegant fashion houses in Paris in 1932, but she refused to meet with the man who wanted to interview her. "Come to my apartment and talk to me through the door," said the Russian beauty who had fled to Paris after the Revolution of 1917.
"She was afraid that I would be frightened by the aging process," said author Alexandre Vassiliev. "She did not want to destroy the legend."
Vassiliev tells the story of his homeland's legendary beauties, many of whom requested not to be interviewed in person because of their advanced years, in his book:
"Beauty in Exile
The Artists, Models, and Nobility Who Fled the Russian Revolution and Influenced the World of Fashion"
(Harry N. Abrams 1st
Edition Published: 01 November 2000 ISBN: 978-0810957015)
A fashion historian and costume and set designer, Vassiliev was born in Russia in 1958 and moved to Paris in 1982. His three-room apartment, city property rented to him by the French president's wife Bernadette Chirac, was featured in this month's issue of "House and Garden." A collector with 3,500 pieces of antique clothing and more than 20,000 photographs, the author transformed the small space into a 19th Century-style living space of color, history, aristocracy and romance using selected items from his collection. The antiques inside were those he secured while living in Russia at a time when "people did not understand their value."
It is the contributions of the Russian people to the worlds of art and fashion that Vassiliev documents in his book. He takes an intimate look at the creativity and elegance they took with them when they fled their homeland. In between doing set and costume designs for three ballets in three different countries, Vassiliev left for New York for the debut of his book and will be in New Orleans Sunday for a lecture at Le Chat Noir.
"I will talk about my book research (10 years of it), and the heroes I've met. Most I met in person. They ranged in age from 90 to 108," said Vassiliev, whose travels took him to such cities as Hong Kong, Madrid and Buenos Aires.
One of the people he met was Erte, who Vassiliev described as "very lively and energetic" and a man "who swam in the sea until the age of 96." The art deco artist, Vassiliev said, "drew every day and wanted to produce art until the last moment." Before his death, Erte made his own guest list for his funeral because he "wanted control."
The stories the Russian author tells take the reader into the intimate details of glamorous lives that ended in a revolution and resurfaced in another country. While Valentino is a household word even outside of fashion circles, the name Valentina had a strong influence on American fashion from 1925 to 1957. Valentina Nikolayevna Sanina, who inspired Russian composer Alexander Vertinsky to write heartfelt lyrics during their brief love affair, moved to New York in 1923 with her new husband, noted theatre producer George Shlee. Vassiliev labels Sanina a femme fatale; but as fate would have it, she would compete with another woman with a similar reputation for feminine allure.
Among Sanina's fashion clients were Greta Garbo and Claudette Colbert, and she designed the costumes for Katharine Hepburn for the 1939 stage production of "The Philadelphia Story." Among Sanina's contributions to fashion were the wide-brimmed capelin hat of the mid- '30s, the feminine hoods in the '40s, and flat ballet slippers with ribbon ties worn with dark silk stockings in the same time period. In the mid-'50s, a Valentina dress sold for a hefty $600.
Garbo and Sanina often dressed alike, Vassiliev writes, to emphasize their similarity in looks. While having a famous and high-profile client gave the elegant designer high visibility, it also contributed to the breakdown of her marriage when Garbo and Shlee later became lovers.
When Valentina's husband died in 1971, Sanina invited a priest over to exorcise the spirit of Garbo. Valentina Sanina died in 1989. Vassiliev also noted that although the designer claimed she was born in Kiev in 1905, it was discovered after her death that she was actually born six years earlier.
Vassiliev's book also tells the stories of titled Russians fleeing to Paris, finding jobs as "society models' in the major fashion houses.
Erte is "perhaps the only St. Petersburg artist who lived to see world fame and to enjoy his laurels," wrote Vassiliev.
Vassiliev points out that the Russian influence on the culture and fashion of Paris actually began at the turn of the 19th Century before the revolution, during the Art Nouveau period. It was a reaction, he writes, "against the industrial revolution with its mechanical production and against Victorian art with its retrospective and eclectic approach." Art Nouveau was "a collective child of European artists." But after the revolution, a displaced Russian aristocracy left a legacy of discerning taste on the world of fashion and art, and it became Vassiliev's personal mission to document much that had been forgotten.
"Beauty in Exile" contains more than 800 photos and illustrations, most from the author's vast collection. (Vassiliev's next book will cover 150 years of Russian fashion through photography.) The current book acknowledges the legendary embroideries from the House of Kitmir, established in 1921 by Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (cousin of Emperor Nicholas II and granddaughter of Emperor Alexander II). It also includes photographs of Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich wearing Russian couture, and provides stories of actresses, models and artists who, "suddenly stripped of their cloaks of privilege, discovered that for the first time in their lives they would have to work for a living." Instead of buying French couture, they would influence it.
They turned to what they knew best, the author says. Good taste. High fashion.
"They had a style all their own."
Kiev-born Valentina Nikolayevna Sanian poses in a coat form
her own House of Valentian in this 1943 photograph form 'Beauty in
The Times-Picayune Publishing Corporation
Used by NewsBank with Permission
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