Schiaparelli’s designs deliberately subverted traditional notions of beauty - fanciful, bizarre, and irreverent ideas that she developed early in life. Berated by her [Italian] mother for her homely looks, she grew up thinking of whimsical ways to beautify herself.Elsa Schiaparelli was truly a woman ahead of her time.
Her astronomer uncle tried to allay her concerns about a cluster of moles on her cheek by noting their resemblance to the Big Dipper; years later, she recreated the constellation on the chairs in her salon, in embroideries, and on a cherished brooch.
Schiap once took flower seeds and sowed them in her ears, mouth, and nose, in the hopes that she would blossom into a beauty. “To have a face covered with flowers like a heavenly garden would indeed be a wonderful thing!” she wrote in her autobiography.
Newly arrived in Paris in the mid 1920s after the break-up of her marriage in New York, she quickly made influential connections in the surrealist art world, collaborating on various designs with such artists as Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali.
She made her name as something of an innovator. In addition to such dramatic concoctions as the Lobster Dress, gloves with gold claws and the Shoe Hat, her design ideas spawned the wrap-around dress, the “miniature hat” fascinator, the peplum jacket, harem pants, culottes, the wedge heel, the women's "power suit" with shoulder pads, the perfume bottle in the shape of the female body, and, of course - Shocking Pink!
Famously described as “ ...an aggressive, brawling, warrior pink” by Yves Saint Laurent, this new and vibrant colour was well suited to the extravagant styles of '30s couture and the glamour of Hollywood, became popular again in the "colour explosion" of Carnaby Street in the '60s, and of course endures today.
Elsa's popularity waned in the face of stiff competition from her hated rival Coco Chanel - she sneeringly called Elsa "an Italian designer who makes clothes",; to which Elsa retorted by referring to Coco as "that milliner" - and others such as Christian Dior and his "New Look", and the House of Schiaparelli closed in 1954. Eventually she purchased a house in the resort of Hammamet (popular with the rich and famous of the "jet set"), and spent her retirement moving between Paris and Tunisia until her death in 1973.
Yet, to great fanfare - and with the support and backing of such grandees of fashion as Diana Vreeland and Christian Lacroix, the House of Schiaparelli has risen once more. It was re-launched in time for Paris Fashion Week in Autumn 2012. Read more about the revival, and M Lacroix's tribute to Elsa.
Facts about Elsa:
- The surname Schiaparelli is pronounced with a hard "ch", as in "school".
- She single-handedly created the concept of the "boutique" when she started selling her sweaters and accessories in the corner of her popular salon in the Rue de la Paix.
- She was grandmother to Cabaret actress Marisa Berenson and Antony Perkins' widow Berry Berenson, who was killed in the Twin Towers terrorist atrocity (12 years ago tomorrow).
- In her heyday, her clients included Mae West (upon whose curvy figure the aforementioned "torso" perfume bottle was based), Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor and the heiress Daisy Fellowes. Her style was beloved of Anna Piaggi and John Galliano.
- She experimented with acrylic, cellophane, a rayon jersey called "Jersela" and a rayon with metal threads called "Fildifer" - the first time synthetic materials were used in couture.
"Dress designing ... is to me not a profession but an art. A dress cannot just hang like a painting on the wall, or like a book remain intact and live a long and sheltered life. A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens another personality takes over from you and animates it, or tries to, glorifies or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty."
"Never fit a dress to fit the body but train the body to fit the dress."
"I gave to pink the nerve of the red, a neon pink, an unreal pink."
"In difficult times fashion is always outrageous."
"The moment people stop copying you, you have ceased to be news."
Elsa Schiaparelli (10th September 1890 - 13th November 1973)