There can be no doubt that Elsa Schiaparelli was one of the greatest fashion designers in history, and yet, it is highly likely that you, or even some of your most fashion savvy friends, aren’t perfectly familiar with her name. And even if you’ve heard of Elsa Schiaparelli before, you may have trouble conjuring up an image of her designs. In August 1934 she was the first female fashion designer to grace the cover of Time Magazine, yet somehow the life and work of this extraordinary woman has faded from public consciousness. While the world may not remember her, evidence of Elsa Schiaparelli’s influence abounds in the very foundation of fashion. A rival of Coco Chanel, she set herself apart from the pack by collaborating with avant-garde artists such as Surrealist Salvador Dalí and poet Jean Cocteau. Although Chanel may have won the prize for fashion notoriety we think Elsa Schiaparelli takes the cake for daring innovation.
In the roaring 20’s and glittering 30’s, Elsa Schiaparelli was considered the reigning monarch of women’s fashion. “She slapped Paris. She smacked it. She tortured it. She bewitched it. And it fell madly in love with her” proclaimed Yves Saint Laurent. Next came New York, London, Moscow and Hollywood, all who encountered Schiaparelli’s designs paid homage to the eccentric glamour embodied within it. In her creations one can chart the shifting roles of women and the social revolution that inspired them. Practical and whimsical at the same time, Elsa Schiaparelli called upon the muses of irony, eccentricity and function without detracting from the sensuality of a woman’s form.
Fashion Meets Astrology, Tattoos, Paganism and Surrealist Art
If considered in the context of today’s world, the work of this prolific fashion designer continues to be a shining beacon of experimental design. Elsa Schiaparelli mastered the genre of wearable art. Many would still consider some of Elsa Schiaparelli’s fashion design “shocking” (indeed, shocking was a word Schiaparelli made her own). Much of what we do see in today’s climate owes it’s daring to the likes of Elsa Schiaparelli. Never before had the couture houses of Paris seen collections of futuristic designs crafted with innovation and inspired by the unconventional. Astrology, tattoos, paganism, the circus and of course Surrealist art were just a few of her collections varied themes.
A Fashion Rivalry of Epic Proportions, Chanel vs Schiaparelli
The punch-packing name of Chanel continues to dominate the fashion scene, only taking on more steam in recent decades. However, this wasn’t always the case. Chanel was Elsa’s contemporary and competitor, and at times Coco existed in the background of Schiaparelli’s success. These two irreplaceable women were working in the same vein and both in ways that revolutionized fashion. They moved in the same social circles competing for the same audience and clientele with opposing concepts. It was the flamboyant against the simplistic. These fierce competitors were often heard making snide remarks about each other and Chanel not so fondly referred to Schiaparelli as “The Italian artist who makes clothes.” Although Mme Chanel was attempting to put Elsa Schiaparelli down, this connection to art fueled her success. It was said by Janet Flanner, The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent at the time, “A dress from Schiaparelli ranks like a modern canvas.”
Birth of the a New Kind of Fashion Collaboration
The innovative advantage held by Schiaparelli was closely related to her modernist sensibilities and intimate familiarity with both the Dada and Surrealist art movements. Collaborations with artists are responsible for a majority of Elsa Schiaparelli’s most infamous work. Schiaparelli and many artists of her time held the belief that fashion and art share the same goals – to enrich and deepen an understanding of the world that surrounds us.
Unlike the marketing strategy we see in many fashion “colabs” of today, (think Stella McCartney for Adidas, or Alexander Wang for H&M) Schiaparelli’s collaborative oeuvre ensued from genuine involvement in the art world and a creative vision shared by two artists and friends. And the inspiration was a two way street, with Schiaparelli’s work making an appearance in her creative collaborator’s work, as seen in a remarkable 1929 photograph by Salvador Dali, staged and altered with black ink, in which the model wears a astrology themed necklace designed by Schiaparelli (see below).
A mysterious and contemplative individual more comfortable out of the limelight, Schiaparelli preferred her work to speak loudly in her place. Yet, this private and reserved manner does not mean she was a shrinking violet. Conversely, as the daughter of both academic and noble aristocracy, Elsa Schiaparelli was born into the center of Roman high society and lived a life envied by many for its privilege and freedom. Coming of age at the beginning of the 20th century, Elsa Schiaparelli was pinned between tradition and modernity and strived to assert her individuality.
Dissatisfied by bourgeoisie life she took daring risks without fear of losing her privilege. At twenty-one and still considered a minor, Elsa published a collection of erotic poetry landing her in a Swiss convent. Already a headstrong and calculating character, she staged a prolonged hunger strike which forced the nuns to release her. After this hard earned liberation Schiaparelli quickly fled to London and accepted employment as a nanny, a position considered beneath her by her parents. This would be the beginning of a life outside the stifling bosom of wealth and titles for Elsa Schiaparelli.
The proximity of London to the fabled avant-garde of Paris was too much to bear and Schiaparelli soon found herself wiggling into the exciting and exclusive post WWI art scene. Unable to afford a dress for a ball she was set on attending, Schiap (as she preferred to be called) is said to have wrapped her lithe figure in a curtain, haphazardly fastened with hairpins. This was certainly the first talked about Schiaparelli design as it promptly came unwrapped when she took to the dance floor!
First Heartbreak Leads to Independence and First Success
While immersing herself in the culture of Paris by attending gallery openings, fashion shows and lectures, Schiap became enamored with the traveling theosophist and psychic medium Count William de Wendt de Kerlor. The bonds of their love were forged with intellectual discussions of the esoteric and soon after meeting they married. The newlyweds moved to New York City as a response to The Count’s deportation and criminal “fortune telling” charges.
While living in New York, Elsa Schiaparelli worked at the French fashion boutique of Gaby Picabia, ex wife of famed French Dada artist Francis Picabia, it was here that she met and became close to artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.
The art and social scene in New York ignited Schiaparelli and she thrived off the intense energy of the city. However, her new husband did not take to America or married life and disappeared soon after their child was born.
As if perfectly timed, the end of Elsa Schiaparelli’s marriage coincided with Gaby Picabia’s return to Paris – several Dada and surrealist artists in tow. With nothing holding her back Schiaparelli gathered her daughter and their life in NYC and returned to Paris. It was the necessity to support herself independently that inspired Schiaparelli to vehemently pursue a career in fashion upon arrival in Paris and within no time Schiaparelli achieved her first success with a series of trompe l’oeil sweaters appearing in Vogue and flying off the shelves. It wasn’t long before the “Schiap Shop” at 21 Place Vendome was in full swing.
A Young Designer’s Touching Struggle With Her Appearance
Considered ugly by her family, and so, at an early age Schiaparelli set her imaginative and unconventional creativity to change her physical appearance. At 7 years old she was caught in a dangerous attempt at beatification that involved shoving seeds deep into her nostrils and ears in the hopes that flowers would grow and decorate a face she understood was lacking. This sad and naïve logic is not without validity and we see it put to use in some of her basic (if not downright dowdy) designs embellished with elaborate and often bizarre ornamentations. This deep personal understanding of the insecurities many women battle informed her designs and solidified her as a fashion designer “for the women.”
The elegant women of Europe and the coasts of American took notice of Schiaparelli’s presence in both the pages of Vogue as well as on the silver screen as she dressed the stars on and off set. Designing the costumes for several films’ leading ladies, she famously dressed Zsa Zsa Gabor in Moulin Rouge, which won an Academy Award for Costume Design. Sadly Schiaparelli was not credited for the film’s costumes on a whole. Elsa Schiaparelli also had a close relationship with Mae West through costume design and the bottles created to house the fragrant liquid of Shocking, Schiaparelli’s first perfume, were inspired by a mannequin built to Mae West’s measurements.
Innovation Defined the House of Schiaparelli
A true modernist and innovator at heart, Schiaparelli was the first to experiment with synthetic materials in couture, effectively turning her fashion creations into art. One of the most controversial and bizarre was called Rhodophane, a clear plastic related to cellophane. Schiaparelli used this material to create a floating insect necklace as well as a cape that apparently shattered like glass if handled improperly.
As the pioneer of “prêt-à-porter” better known as “ready to wear”, Schiaparelli was the very first couture house to offer clothing off the rack, quickly dismantling the established and unaffordable practice of made to order fashion. A well known phenomenon today (for better or worse), the accessibility of Schiaparelli’s work quickly created a wave of imitators, and before long designs identical to hers were available in mid-level dress shops and department stores world wide.
In the midst of the Nazi occupation of Paris, Elsa Schiaparelli was repeatedly advised to leave the city, yet insisted on remaining for as long as possible. During the height of WWII Schiaparelli designed practical wartime clothes for women with air raids and foot travel in mind, coats with built in bags, zippered one-piece jumpsuits with cavernous pockets and reversible dresses with convertible aspects in order to be worn several ways. She created style for women who were joining the war effort or the workplace. Women of the world owe Schiaparelli big thanks for the popularization of “culottes” – loose pants ending just below the knee. They were controversial at the time due to the increase in ability and mobility that they afforded daring women. Controversially Schiaparelli also created a small capsule collection for Soviet women consisting of a cropped black dress paired with a red coat and beret. While in the USSR its rumored she told Stalin what she thought of Communism’s repression of women, much to his irritation. Needless to say her designs were deemed “impractical” and rejected just before production.
Both the accessibility of Elsa’s designs and the ravages of World War Two weakened the house of Schiaparelli financially and with surrealism falling out of favor Schiaparelli began to flounder. Rumors were flying of her involvement in the German war effort and her employees began striking. At her last runway show just before 1954 ensembles were seen floating down the runway unfinished with loose threads and sharp pins – a final display of Schiaparelli’s trademark courage in the face of opposition or a sign of wavering mental health?
In 1954 Elsa Schiaparelli declared bankruptcy and retired from the fashion world to pen her autobiography “Shocking Life”. The business failure meant that Schiaparelli’s name is not as well remembered as that of her great rival. Chanel has been kept alive by Karl Lagerfeld and continues to hold a center stage in the theater of fashion. After lying dormant for over sixty years it looks like something similar is happening for Schiaparelli. Diego Della Valle the CEO of leather goods company Todd’s purchased the name Elsa Schiaparelli in 2007 and has since appointed designer Marco Zanini and ambassador Farida Khelfa taking up residence in 21 Place Vendome, the original location of the “Schiap Shop” You can check out the Fall/Winter 2014-2015 Haute Couture and Spring/Summer 2015 and Prêt-A- Couture here.
On a side note – We all know that even vintage Chanel can break the bank, however when it comes to Schiaparelli, eBay proves to be treasure trove of affordable vintage Schiaparelli jewelry. Chances are you can afford a prize piece of fashion history – for now…
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Here are some of our favorite Schiaparelli moments.