Elsa Schiaparelli was the leading Parisian fashion designer of the 1920s and 30s after Coco Chanel.
Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome on September 10, 1890, of Italian and Egyptian heritage. She was great-niece of Giovanni Schiaparelli, who discovered the canals of Mars. She had a colourful childhood, although she did many things to shock her parents. She caused a sensation when she attended a ball in Paris with material just wound around her body, when it started to unravel.
When only 18, she married William de Wendt de Kerlor, a theosophist. She remained with him as he drifted around Europe, eventually reaching America, but he abandoned her when her daughter was born. She then returned to Paris, a young woman with a child to support.
She tried to get a job with POIRET and Maggy ROUFF, unsuccessfully. However in 1928, she had some luck. She had drawn a design of a black sweater with a white trompe l'oeil bow at the neck. MAINBOCHER admired it and had it shown in the French VOGUE.
Anita Loos purchased on, and a buyer for a New York store ordered 40 with skirts to go along with them. Elsa was surprised at the success of her sweater and recruited a group of Armenian women to knit them. She bought some good cheap material for the skirts, and rounded up another group of women to make these. "Schiap" was in business.
She rented a studio at 4 rue de la Paix and put up her notice board "pour le sport". She started making clothes for Golf, tennis, skiing and swimming. Her designs started appearing in VOGUE.
By 1929, she was selling all sorts of reversible, practical and convenient clothes.
In 1930, she took over the downstairs studio and added "day wear and evening wear" to her notice board. The first of the Schiaparelli prints appeared.
She experimented with costume jewellery. The early 30's saw Schiaparelli consolidated techniques, bringing together expert craftsmen for couture. A skilled atelier meant a finished garment and excellent construction following her genius as a designer. She sniffed out unusual materials like glass-like cellophane giving an illusion of transparency.
Schiaparelli became famous for her black knit sweaters with a white bowtie pattern. She had a flair for the unusual and even hired Salvador Dalí to design fabric, producing a white dress with a lobster print. Schiaparelli was the first to use shoulder pads, hot pink, calling it shocking pink, in 1947, animal print fabrics, and zippers dyed the same colors as the fabrics. She is also well known for her surrealist designs of the 1930's, especially her hats, including one resembling a giant shoe and one a giant lamb chop, both which were famously worn by the Franco-American Singer sewing machine heiress Daisy Fellowes, who was one of Schiaparelli's best clients and who owned a pink gemstone that inspired the color shocking pink.
She collaborated with many surrealist artists, Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau, and Alberto Giacometti, between 1936 and 1939.
In 1934 Elsa Schiaparelli opened a shop in London and also moved her Paris salon to 21 place Vendome. In the window of her boutique she put Dali's handiwork along with other surrealist works, and it was a great attraction to people on their way to the Ritz Hotel nearby.
In 1936 she introduced her Egyptian look with pagoda sleeves.
In the same year the zipper was invented. Schiaparelli used it imaginatively in contrasting colours to her gowns. She used zippers in exposed places as decorations rather than hiding them away as fastenings. Furthermore in 1936 she also produced her 'DESK SUIT" inspired by Dali, with some false pockets, some real, being a subdued variations on a theme.
Her shocking clothes seldom offended any of her clients. Mrs Reginald Fellowes, Wallis Simpson later Duchess of Windsor, Millicent Rogers and Lady Elsie Mendl were among her elegant clients. It was even said that Daisy Fellowes managed to carry the lamp chop hat off. She dressed many movie stars both on and off the screen, including Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson and Tallulah Bankhead. Her frenzy with Mae West, led to the actress's hour-glass figure being used for Schiap's perfume bottle for "Shocking".
Another remarkable gown that year was the remarkable Dali lobster dress on an organdie field with parsley sprigs. Yet another was the musical notation dress. Dali also designed the textiles for the tear illusion dress of 1937 looking as if it had been torn repeatedly.
1937 also saw the back-to-front suit, with it's paradox of coming or going, which was copied by Karl Lagerfield in 1986. Another coat this year had cleverly embroidered profiles of faces by Jean Cocteau to form the illusion of a vase of roses. It was embroidered at the famous embroidery house of Lesage. Another Cocteau jacket bore his signature giving illusion of which part of the body was where.
Her hats continued to be fascinating; one with a hen in a nest was on the cover of VOGUE in 1938.
Schiaparelli loved colour, and had a way with unusual tints. They could be subtle or sharp or used in eccentric combinations. Turquoise linen with grape velvet piping, purple and olive green combined with dark red. A simple black dress became dramatic with lime green coat or fire engine red stockings. Most famous was her "shocking pink" a bright magenta, not a new shade but a new name for this shocking colour. When she died, she was buried wearing an antique Chinese robe of purest shocking pink.
There were 3 great fantasy collections in 1938, the pink and blue children's world of the CIRCUS collection, the lush natural insect life of the PAGAN collection and the frolic (which became the name of Schiaparelli's lipstick) of the HARLEQUIN collection.
During the 2nd World War, Schiaparelli's house closed and it re-opened in 1945. She offered examples of artistic clothing, but never with the inspired madness and exuberance of the 30's. Then she had combined art with couture, artisans and dressmakers in her atelier, until the creations became as one.
Her output slowed by World War II and the title of trendsetters going to younger designers such as Christian Dior, her couture house declared bankruptcy in 1954 and she moved to the USA.
She was briefly married to Count William de Wendt de Kerlor, once described as "a persuasive but inconstant Theosophist," and moved with him to Greenwich Village in New York City. They had one daughter, Marisa, known as Gogo, who was born in New York City in 1919. Schiaparelli's grandchildren are the actress Marisa Berenson and the late photographer Berry Berenson (Mrs. Anthony Perkins).
In 1951 Schiaparelli discontinued the couture part of her business, she limited her designs to accessories and in the 70's she made wigs.
She herself retired from active work in 1954 and in the same year wrote her autobiography entitled "My Shocking Life".
She died in 1973 at the age of 83. However her house was re-opened in 1977 by a designer team. Her lingerie and perfumes also still continue to be sold.
In September 2003 an exhibition called "Shocking Attire" opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on the 30th Annivery of Schiaparelli's death. It went on to Paris in January 2004. The exhibition and the book of the same name, set out to emphgasize the modernist roots of the designer known for her collaboration with Salvador Dali and the surrealists. This exhibition shows how much inspiration "Schiap's" work has been for all the modern designers.
The 30's were "Schiap's" decade. Whatever she made, made headlines. Her buttons were justly famous, including bullets, cupids, clowns, rabbit's hooves, drums and astrological symbols. Her buttons and fastenings were insects, butterflies, fruit, vegetables, anything that did not look like a button. If she used a plain round button, she used diminishing sizes. Her hats were sensational, inkpots, shoes, her famous lamb chop hat. Many of these designs owe their inspiration from Surrealism which was the rage throughout the 30's. Schiaparelli's close contact with Salvador Dali led to a great many surrealistic designs in her clothes, as well as a range of accessories many of which were a statement rather than intended to be worn on the street. Throughout the 30's Schiaparelli gathered an affluent, adventurous clientele that bought with a recklessness almost as free as the designers's imagination. In that decade, Pareis was the site of the great Surrealist balls, which in their mixture of masquerade and elegance, provided the perfect context for Schiaparelli's innovations and illusions. Schiap, a Roman women with huge dark eyes and a taste for the tasteless, succeeded in teasing and amusing the public.