Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) was an Italian fashion designer, affectionally known as Schiap. Between the two World Wars, she was arguably as powerful and influential as Coco Chanel – and yet today, while Chanel remains a huge and iconic fashion force, dominating magazines and catwalks, Schiap languishes as a footnote in fashion history. So who was this intriguing woman? And just how big is her almost forgotten legacy? Using bold patterns, geometric shapes and collaborations with Dali and Cocteau, Schiap fused the worlds of art and fashion together in a way that is widely accepted today, but was beyond avant garde at the time. Think Alexander McQueen, Peter Pilotto and Raf Simons – now imagine a woman doing this in the middle of the last century. She was closely associated with the Dada and Surrealist movements, and her most famous creation, the beautiful Lobster Dress, could easily be worn today.
Like Chanel, Schiap’s story is mysterious and full of shadowy tales and half-truths. In her autobiography, she describes her childhood with fantastical drama – pretending she was an orphan; believing that the goat’s milk she was fed as a baby made her become “both revolutionary and stubborn”; and planting seeds in her throat, ears and mouth in the hope that flowers would grow, and she could become as beautiful as her sister.
In 1914, aged 24, Schiap took a brief trip to London where, following a whirlwind romance, she married conman and palm-reader Wilhelm de Wendt de Kerlor. After he was deported under the Vagrancy Act for fortune-telling, Schiaparelli followed him to New York, and they had a daughter, known as Gogo. The marriage did not last, and Schiap moved to Paris where she found work as a freelance fashion designer and later as the couturière for a small dress house. Her first collection, of “strikingly original sweaters”, was presented at 20 rue de l’Université, Paris, in 1927 and was an overnight success. Schiap opened her own salon later that year, quickly gaining a reputation for “daring and originality”. This culminated, between 1936 and 1939, in collaborations with a number of Surrealist artists including Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau, and Alberto Giacometti. Her imaginative designs during this period included the Lobster Dress and a hat shaped like a shoe.
According to Meryle Secrest’s 2014 biography, Schiap was also a German spy – under observation from the FBI, but able to travel between Europe and America. She returned to France after the war and was questioned by the authorities but never charged with collaboration. However, her designs, reputation and livlihood never recovered, and despite hiring a young Hubert de Givenchy as her assistant, The House of Schiaparelli closed in 1954. In 2007, Diego Della Valle acquired the brand, and Marco Zanini was appointed in September 2013. Although Zanini has now gone, and the brand is currently without a head designer, their spring/summer 2015 Paris Couture Fashion week show (with Carla Bruni in the FROW) references Schiap’s designs whilst finally appearing able to move on.
When I started researching Schiap for this piece, I was hoping to be able to show a couple of examples of how she still influences fashion today – but the depth of her enduring influence actually blew me away. here’s just a few examples:
And in case you thought I’d forgotten…hats!
Sources: http://www.LIFE.com, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lesley-m-m-blume/icons-of-style-series-els_b_770470.html; http://www.life.com/image/first/in-gallery/51191/elsa-schiaparelli-chanels-rival; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsa_Schiaparelli; http://www.schiaparelli.com/fr/haute-couture/automne-hiver-2014-2015-making-of; http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/elsa/hd_elsa.htm; http://www.vogue.co.uk/person/elsa-schiaparelli; http://www.fancyephemera.com/contemporaryfashion.html; http://www.schiaparelli.com/fr/haute-couture/automne-hiver-2014-2015-making-of/#les-amis-d-elsa; http://www.threadforthought.net/secret-life-zippers; http://www.vogue.co.uk/news/2015/01/26/suzy-menkes-schiaparelli; http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/26/elsa-schiaparelli-biography-review-dali-chanel; http://www.vogue.co.uk/fashion/autumn-winter-2015/ready-to-wear/dkny; http://www.richestlifestyle.com/top-10-italian-shoemakers; Seacrest, M. 2014. Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography; http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/biography/16573.html