The name Elsa Schiaparelli is one that still resonates deeply in the world of fashion. Her blend of high spirits, irreverence and glamour created an unforgettable persona that lived on after she closed her Paris workshop in the 1950s and died in 1973.
The house of Schiaparelli rose to fame in the years between the world wars. She and Coco Chanel were the two most influential figures in Paris fashion, though Time magazine, in 1934, rated Schiaparelli as more of an arbiter of ultra-modern fashion than Chanel: “Madder and more original than most of her contemporaries, Mme Schiaparelli is the one to whom the word ‘genius’ is most often applied.”
The competition between the two grandes dames of fashion was so intense that Mlle Chanel refused ever to patronise the great house of Lesage because that was where her bitter rival had her embroidery done, and she was prone to refer condescendingly to Schiaparelli as “that Italian artist who makes clothes”.
Where Chanel was elegant, relaxed and often sublimely understated, Schiaparelli was eccentric, non-conformist, rebellious – and it showed in her designs. She had friends deeply involved in the dadaist and surrealist movements and that too influenced what she created. She collaborated with Jean Cocteau and with Salvador Dalí, who helped her come up with her lobster-printed dress inspired by his Aphrodisiac Telephone. She was also the first designer to think of presenting complete collections united by a theme – most famously she turned to the Zodiac (she used motifs such as the sun, moon and sky) and to circuses (horses, elephants and trapeze artists, all embroidered by Lesage, and buttons made in the shape of gymnasts or prancing horses). She also loved trompe l’oeil and her sweater with a big bow knitted into the front, rather like a scarf tied around the neck, is one of her best-known designs.
All through the war years her fashion house shone but somehow, genius though she was, Schiaparelli never seemed to be able to adapt to the changing world of postwar Europe and the house closed in 1954. And there it lay, gathering dust, until Italian businessman and CEO of Tod’s Diego Della Valle decided to revive it. He acquired the label in 2006, then waited six years until he could buy the original atelier at 21 Place Vendôme, right by the Ritz hotel in Paris, before beginning work in earnest and announcing, much to the fashion world’s astonishment, that he would relaunch the house of Schiaparelli with a haute couture collection.
It’s no mean feat to launch a couture house: the cost of les petites mains, the regular collections that have to be produced to be allowed the honoured appellation, not to mention the daunting task of acquiring a customer base ready to pay many thousands of pounds for an outfit. Della Valle appointed Marco Zanini (formerly of Halston and Rochas) as its creative director, and the first collection was launched in 2014. Only months later, however, amid rumours that the brand was, as one source put it, “not exactly his fit”, the company announced Zanini’s departure. He was replaced by Bertrand Guyon, who had worked at Givenchy, Christian Lacroix and Valentino, and under his guidance, this January, the house of Schiaparelli once again became a full-blown member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
Schiaparelli also expanded into ready-to-wear with its prêt-à-couture last March, showing its first collection to a select audience. A small selection went on sale in autumn and this spring sees the arrival of a second collection, now displayed on the third floor of the label’s Boutique-Salons. The clothes capture the essential Schiaparelli vision (a certain sporty elegance), with pieces punctuated with idiosyncratic, at times surreal, details: padlocks, pierced hearts, the famous lobster, flora, suns and eyes.
Star among its pieces is the Zodiac jacket (€15,000), the first of a series of iconic jackets that the house will be launching over the following months and years. It is created in homage to the Zodiac collection that Elsa Schiaparelli designed in 1938. Guyon’s contemporary version has been re-tailored by the Schiaparelli atelier but keeps the original astrological symbol of Ursa Major, Schiaparelli’s personal emblem. In further homage to the great couturier, the motif has been embroidered by Lesage. Just like the original jacket it has the 12 glyphs of the zodiac running along its opening and neck, with planets, comets and constellations embroidered over a midnight blue background. It is edged in rhinestones, sprinkled with stardust in the form of minuscule glass beads and hand-embroidered with gorgeous gold thread. A matching clutch bag (€8,000) in silk double satin has also been created and Lesage will hand-embroider it with the client’s zodiac sign.
Elsewhere in the collection is a nude silk crepe dress (€3,500) embroidered with a golden sun, a black wool blazer (€5,350), a printed silk crepe blouse (€1,600) and matching pyjama pants (€1,950), both featuring the padlock motif, and an ivory wool piqué suit (€5,650 for the padlock-embroidered jacket, €1,300 for the trousers) that goes wonderfully with an off-white silk georgette blouse (€1,400).
Visiting the exquisite Boutique-Salons is an experience in itself. On entering 21 Place Vendôme, clients are escorted up to the third floor. To step through the portals is to be enveloped by the eccentric yet glamorous world of Elsa Schiaparelli herself. Dotted throughout the salon are many of her works of art, alongside original furniture and decorative objects that were part of her world. Standing sentinel in one corner of the boutique are Pascal and Pascaline, two of her favourite wooden mannequins.
It is much more like visiting the most elegant and grandest of private houses than a shop. Schiaparelli moved in the most haute of artistic circles, so there are sketches by Dalí, jewellery by Alberto Giacometti, works by Christian Bérard and by Jean-Michel Frank, as well as contemporary pieces by Osanna Visconti di Modrone, Gio Ponti, Fernand Léger, Pierre Le-Tan and Dimore Studio.
There’s more to come in the revival of the extraordinary house of Schiaparelli and a visit to the salon is a wonderful glimpse into a rarefied world that is being gloriously brought to life again.