Roots of Fashion: Schiaparelli, Alternative Couture

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Schiaparelli closed 2021 as the brand to-go for the most influential celebrities (who doesn’t remember Bella Hadid and her “Lungs necklace” at the Cannes Film Festival?) and this Monday’s show at the Petit Palais has consecrated the Parisian firm as the crown jewel of Haute Couture.

But what do we know about the history of this mysterious maison which, after several decades of lethargy, has awoken to bring surrealism back into fashion?

After Elsa’s steps

Schiaparelli began its journey in the 1920s, founded by Italian Elsa Schiaparelli. Elsa was born in the Palazzo Corsini in Rome in 1890 into an illustrious family of nobles and academics. From an early age she had shown great intellectual curiosity and somewhat extravagant tendencies. When, after a failed marriage in London, she arrived in Paris with her daughter Gogo, her friend Gabrièle Buffet-Picabia introduced her to the Dadaists circles. Together, they often visited the atelier of the couturier Paul Poiret, and it was the creativity of the Parisian atmosphere (as well as economic necessity) that prompted Elsa to produce her first clothes in 1927. Her trompe l’oeil jumpers were an immediate success and put her endless imagination and business sense to work. In the years that followed, Elsa created more clothing lines, hats, fragrances, jewellery…

Her first collections are rather classical, but they already reveal a way of making fashion that resists to aesthetic conventions (in this sense, she is often compared to Miuccia Prada).

Although she collaborated with artists all throughout her career, since the 1930s her name has been forever linked to the surrealist movement, due to her friendship with Salvador Dalí, with whom she worked on many of the firm’s projects. With him, Schiaparelli’s aesthetic took on dreamlike, absurd overtones. Surrealist chic had arrived: the shoe-shaped hat, the lobster dress, the newspaper print, the glasses with huge cellophane eyelashes surrounding the eyes, jewellery in the shape of giant insects…

Aside from bringing surrealism in to fashion and winning over celebrities such as Wallis Simpson or Mae West, Elsa is also remembered for introducing a particular colour, which she named Shocking Pink and which today we know by other names such as fuchsia or Hot Pink. With it, she stood up to the sober Coco Chanel black and white looks.

During the World War II, the firm continued to operate and at the end of the conflict it explored new business opportunities in the United States by licencing its eyewear and lingerie lines. However, it was the beginning of the end for Elsa: she saw that her firm was losing ground against other brands and ready-to-wear, and in 1954 the maison closed its doors for good. Or so it seemed…

Schiaparelli today

In 2006, Italian businessman Diego Della Valle bought from Arnaud de Lummen, the “Sleeping Beauties” specialist of the fashion world, all the rights to the Schiaparelli brand, from its archives to the IP. In 2012, he also bought the same premises where Elsa worked, 21 Place Vendôme in Paris, and the business came back to life. As is often the case, the first steps of the Schiaparelli reboot were somewhat wobbly: several creative directors passed without much success until US-born Daniel Roseberry arrived in 2019.

Roseberry’s creations have a sexy, eighties feel, reminiscent of Mugler, Gautier and Montana. With him, surrealism has become more solemn and baroque, more glamorous and less humorous. Gold seems to be the common thread through all his collections: gold in masks, pasties, breastplates, face jewellery, etc. It is a new surrealism, luxurious and disturbing, with many historical and cultural references and often inspired by nature (human organs, teeth, insects, bones…).

Roseberry brings an element of its own to the brand’s DNA. As he explained to Tim Blanks in the Business of Fashion podcast, he does not want to limit himself to reinterpreting Schiaparelli’s visual codes over and over again, rather than that, before designing, he asks himself, what would Elsa do today? Adapting to the working system of Haute Couture was not easy, he says, but he has learned to love this business model. His latest show confirmed the success of the 21st century Schiaparelli: more sculptural, more gold-plated, more Dalinian, more Haute Couture than ever. Roseberry was the king of Paris on Monday and his Schiaparelli looks to the future with confidence. This year the brand is launching its first ready-to-wear collection and plans to expand its sales channels. We’ll see if they manage to bring surrealism to the streets.

To learn more:

  1. Schiaparelli,  where the history of the brand can be consulted, along with its most important creations and the artists that collaborated with it.
  2. Shocking Life, Elsa Schiaparelli autobiography
  3. BoF podcast: Daniel Roseberry on the Schiaparelli challenge.
  4. Dressed podcast, The History of Fashion: Elsa Schiaparelli.

Image: @schiaparelli

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