The Undisputed Luminary Of The World Of Fashion!
Elsa Schiaparelli was born in the stunning late Baroque Corsini Palace in Rome, as you can see it is not too shabby at all! Her Father was the director of the Lincel Library & a professor of Oriental literature, her uncle was an Astronomer and her Mother was a direct descendant of the Medicis family, a powerful Italian family of bankers & merchants whose members effectively ruled Florence for much of the 15th Century. From 1569 the Medicis were also Grand Dukes of Tuscany as well. So it is pretty safe to say that Elsa was born into a family of Aristocrats & intellectuals. She studied Philosophy but dreamt of becoming an actress. In 1911 she published an overtly sensual collection of poems, Arethusa, which resulted in her parents sending her to a convent in Switzerland.
In the mid 20's she let her creativity flourish & became a freelance designer. She joined forces for a short period with a friend who had acquired a declining fashion brand. In 1928 in Paris Elsa Schiaparelli launched her career with a single sweater, black with a white trompe-l'oeil bow, which is an illusion as the bow isn't real, it is a graphic knitted into the design of the sweater, a trick that is still used by some designers today.
The success of the sweater allowed Elsa to open her 1st workroom which produced practical & beautifully designed sportswear clothing for women. Her 1st collection was produced in 1929 and in 1930 she added an atelier for couture day and evening wear.
Schiaparelli was strongly influenced by the surrealist and modern art of her day. She made friends with artists such as Picabia, Duchamp, Man Ray & Edward Steichen who were known as the "father of fashion photography".
Schiaparelli in 1930s Paris was the first couturier to make high fashion amusing by pointing out its funny side. This approach bought her notoriety in the form of dislike by the fashion establishment and fanatical support from artists and intellectuals, something that I can see the same thing happening in today's fashion culture.
Jean Cocteau attended her fashion shows. Salvador Dali collaborated with her to create legendary pieces such as; the Bureau draw pocket suit, A shoe-shaped hat, Lobster printed dress, skeleton dress, and the tear dress all of which look just as fashion-forward and "modern" today as they would have done in the '30s but maybe just not as shocking. Jean Cocteau's drawings also featured on coats, evening ensembles and jewellery.
The surrealist & artistic spirit then really took hold of Schiaparelli. Her designs included leather ankle boots with toes represented by top stitching, men's fragrance bottles in the shape of a pipe, gloves with red python nails, ankle boots fringed with long monkey fur, Rhodoid necklaces encrusted with insects and handbags with luminous battery-powered decorations.
Along with her admirers, Schiaparelli had her enemies. The exceedingly jealous Coco Chanel especially disliked her and tried to dismiss her, but such comments did not bother Schiaparelli as she was too busy living a fun-filled colourful life. Schiaparelli lived a highly social life and made sure she was news. Time magazine commented, "Schiaparelli is one of all the couturiers in Paris to whom the word genius is most often applied". To me, she was and is a creative, fashion genius and clever tenacious business women. But Time magazine was referring to her genius in totally understanding the spirit of the age she was living in but also its creative manifestation in surrealism, the heart of the age.
Schiaparelli made it her business to be seen with Picasso, Cocteau, Picabia and all the big names in the art world, alongside the top echelons of Frances's artistic and creative aristocracy. Doors opened for Schiaparelli, not only because of her sharp wit and great social background, none of which Chanel had but also for her talent in design and the ability to understand that if you have people's attention that is all you need.
You may be asking, "Did Schiaparelli eclipse Chanel?" She certainly did in column inches and became known across the world as symbolising daring wit & stylish glamour. Even with her Italian background, she was the epitome of French chic, based on her style but more on her powerful and extraordinary fashion shows, global tabloid presence and her vast wealth. Schiaparelli was a shrewd businesswoman and it was her perfume named "shocking" inspired by her 1937 visit to Hollywood where she met Mae West, one of the most famous actresses in the world. Her perfume made her a very wealthy woman and a household name.
Schiaparelli also designed film costumes for Hollywood and dressed the big-buck female stars of the time including Marlene Deitrich. Deitrich loved the high padded shoulders which Schiaparelli was designing as part of a super sophisticated feminine adaption of traditional menswear. At this time Salvador Dali was working closely with Chanel but was personally fascinated with Mae West, his famous lip sofa was inspired by her, Dali offered this now iconic red lip sofa to Schiaparelli, but she politely declined as she wanted it in pink. Schiaparelli created an amazing and extremely feminine dress for Mae to flatter her iconic and busty silhouette, the dress was recreated for her couture collection and even had air pockets inside the bodice that could be blown up to create the authentic Mae West Bust. All of these prove how she had woven herself so deeply into the art and glamorous world of Hollywood.
Schiaparelli began her reign as the most important & sought-after couturier in Paris, a world figure, influencer & a very rich woman. The only thing she could not control was the international political situation. In the late 30s time was against her, Europe was slipping towards war & America was soon to follow. Like Chanel Schiaparelli lived an ambiguous life and she was ready to use her powerful contacts from both sides of the pond to facilitate her get away from occupied Paris when she needed. Her high level of contacts also ensured that she had luxuries & privileges that were denied to most, when Paris only had 7 licensed cars she ran 3!
In 1940 Walker Winchell, America's most famous columnist published a letter claiming that Schiaparelli was a spy. This was largely believed even by the then head of the FBI J Edgar Hoover. Schiaparelli continued raising funds for American & French relief programmes before leaving Paris for America, where she stayed until the war had finished.
When she returned to Paris in 1945 things had changed & she had lost ground and been replaced as the reigning fashion royalty by Dior. Whether she stayed too long in America or punishment by a wounded country obsessed with the guilt of collaborators of the war, Schiaparelli failed to recapture the heights of her career in the 30s. Nonetheless, that does not invalidate her position as one of the greatest couturiers. Her influence on figures such as Yves Saint Laurent who claimed she "trampled down everything commonplace, her imagination was boundless".
A strong fiesty woman Schiaparelli fought hard to keep her fashion house going. She made serious money from licensing agreements and gladly put her name to anything from underwear, nail polish and even mattresses & shower curtains! As a sharp businesswoman and observer of society, she said in an interview in the New York Times "Life has changed.... Even people with money aren't spending it in the way they used to", another reference that could also apply today?
In 1954 Schiaparelli closed her couture house, she was 60 a grandmother and tired. She bought a small house in Hammamet which brought her much joy and spent much of her time writing her autobiography "A Shocking Life". The parties, the spectacular fancy dress balls that she has always attended were finished. She died in her sleep at age 83 on November the 13th 1973.
As you can see a truly remarkable woman and iconic designer, her autobiography is on my reading list.
Thank you so much for reading, if you prefer to listen than read check out my daily fashion podcast "Fashion Pod 101", available on all your favourite podcast player.