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NYFW: From Victoria Beckham to Valentina

February 16, 2009 | 10:29 am

fashion designer Valentina Sanina Schlee NEW YORK -- I trekked uptown to the Museum of the City of New York yesterday to see the Valentina exhibit. A Ukranian immigrant who came to New York in the 1920s with little more than the clothes on her back, the self-invented Valentina (born Valentina Sanina Schlee) may have been the first celebrity fashion designer, dressing socialites Millicent Rogers and Millicent Hearst, actresses Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, and living among them.

At the height of her business in the 1940s, she had 2,000 clients who ordered her handmade clothes, the closest thing we had to haute couture in America. Her clients may have been rich women but her ideas trickled down, and store buyers described more accessible versions of her clothes as "a poor man's Valentina."

Her style was rooted in functional minimalism, which looks so right for right now. Valentina had to work with the restrictions of wartime, and restriction breeds invention. Her "pleated trouser leg skirt," which had the illusion of fullness without the extra fabric, won a Fashion Critics' Award in 1942.

She was as famous for her outrageous axioms as Diana Vreeland. "Even ugly women can be glamorous," she said. "Fit the century, forget the year," she advised. Her Russian Easter parties were social events of the season and she was so protective of her image, she had Horst take her passport photo. (The exhibit, titled "Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity," runs through May 17.)

She incorporated elements of traditional peasant dressing into her finery, creating a system of modular dressing that involved chiffon aprons that could be layered over organza evening skirts, boleros that could be switched out and so on.

In a video in the exhibit, Valentina demonstrates her day-to-evening "convertible dress" to Edward R. Murrow, pulling the collar down around her shoulders, peeling back a full top skirt and tying it into a bustle, and revealing a sleek pencil underskirt.

It's that kind of invention that fashion needs more of. Perhaps the recession will force the issue.

Donna karan houndstooth suit new york fashion week Donna Karan launched her business on a similar idea of seven easy pieces, and there is often a modular aspect to her collections. In her fall DKNY collection, she built on the foundations of a black turtleneck and tights with separates that seemed to be about helping women dress for success -- whether they actually have jobs or not. (Too bad Diane von Furstenberg, who can usually be counted on for go-to clothes, chose to go eclectic instead for fall, piling on the kind of dowdy Mongolian tapestry cloaks and plaid blanket coats you'd expect to find for sale at a craft fair.)

At DKNY, Karan proposed a new kind of business suit -- slightly retro and ladylike, with below the knee houndstooth pencil skirts and matching short sleeve jackets. Wool jersey wrap dresses, capelets, pegged pants and shearling bomber jackets (bombers are an emerging trend for fall) rounded out the functional, affordable collection in black, camel, red and Kelly green. These clothes work for you; you don't work for them.

What stood out the most was the new below-the-knee skirt length, which certainly economizes in that it requires less fabric. I also saw the length at Carolina Herrera and in Victoria Beckham's beautiful dress collection. In fact, I wonder if Beckham, whose clothes are modeled by Madonna in the March issue of W magazine, is helping to popularize this fresh-looking length with her personal style. She's been wearing it for some time.

Beckham is a celebrity, and she's working hard at being a designer. Her 16-piece collection, produced in London, was dominated by body-hugging, stretch-wool dresses with exposed zippers and curve-tracing seams, or flirty peplums. (Prices start about $1,275.) A deep purple gazar capelet with a bow at the collar was great looking, as was a purple gazar dress with a sculpted "crumb catcher" neckline.

The line goes up to a size 10. Beckham sells corsets to suck it all in, and claims they are comfortable enough to wear "while chasing after the children." Right.

Victoria beckham clothing line new york fashion week "I really thought about how something was going to look when it's photographed from the front, the back and the sides," said Beckham, who herself is one of the most photographed women in the world, explaining the logic of a vertical black felt panel on the back of a gold tinsel houndstooth dress. (Yes, the texture was as yummy as you imagine.) A red crepe gown with long sleeves and subtle shoulder pads was also outstanding, and so very red carpet.

After all, it's the simplest designs that photograph the best. Valentina knew that and Beckham does too.
Now, if only some of that magic could trickle down to the rest of us.

-- Booth Moore

RELATED:

Photos: Victoria Beckham's fall collection

Celebrity sightings at New York's fall 2009 Fashion Week

Get Fashion Week updates: Follow Booth on Twitter

More New York Fashion Week coverage

Photos from top: Designer Valentia in 1949. Credit: Alexander Liberman. Red houndstooth suit at DKNY's fall 2009 runway show. Credit: Jonas Gustavsson and Peter Stigter. Victoria Beckham dress. Credit: Dan Lecca

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