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WMN Role Models: Elsa Schiaparelli

A woman, a brand, an history, a vision

By Beatrice Jennifer Tagliabue

How to shock a world that is already shocking? That’s the question Elsa Schiaparelli seemed to ask herself every time she had to design a collection or a new product.

Some people have heard about Schiaparelli only in recent times, thanks both to celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga that wore the brand in important occasions, and to the social media buzz made by fashion accounts and digital magazines.

The truth is that the Maison has been existing since 1927, but unfortunately with the outbreak of World War II the fashion house had to close, and its faith hasn’t been linear.

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In 2006 Italian entrepreneur Diego Della Valle, president of the Tod’s Group, buys the brand’s archive, and the next year all the rights.

Aiming to relaunch Schiaparelli, in 2013 he calls Christian Lacroix to design an exclusive Haute Couture collection of just 18 silhouettes presented at the Musée des Artes Décoratifs in Paris, and the following year Mr Della Valle appoints Marco Zanini as new chief designer.

Not having the success the president expected, Della Valle decides to nominate Bertrand Guyon new design director: the French designer has already worked next to Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli at Valentino. He manages to slowly revamp the brand, but not enough to result relevant for either clients and press. This mainly because of a poor marketing support rather than a lack of creativity, if I can say so.

In 2019 it’s Daniel Roseberry’s turn to lead the Maison, this time supported as he should. Maybe this time is the right one.

Luxury brands’ archives are holy, and who arrives at a fashion house has the duty to study their heritage to propose it in a more contemporary way, still maintaining the original codes and identity. But when it comes to Elsa Schiaparelli it is even more complicated as the designer has always travelled on her own time a place, a dimension made of Avant-gardes and very innovative vision.

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Let’s now find out who is Elsa Schiaparelli, the woman behind all of this.

That Italian artist that makes clothes”. This is what Coco Chanel used to say referring to Schiaparelli. The two women who were secretly in competition shared in reality something extremely important: both of them wanted to affirm themselves in an industry ruled by men, and both of them wanted to free women from the classical social convention they had to respect giving them freedom, strength and independence.

Curious, rebel and extravagant: still a kid Elsa used to show what later became her distinctive traits on a creative level.

In her autobiography The Shocking Life, she tells some fun facts of when she was a child, like that time she planted flowers seeds in her mouth to grow a beauty or when she jumped from the second floor with an umbrella to imitate a parachute.

Elsa’s trepidant soul made her parents decide to transfer her to a Swiss convent, but soon after she rebelled with a hunger strike, her father brought her back home in Rome.

Still a young woman, she moved to London, a city that better matches her restless soul. Here she met the Compte William de Wandt de Kerlor, who married only after 24 hours and with whom she goes to New York to escape the imminent World War I that was hitting Europe.

However, Compte William soon abandoned Elsa and their daughter Gogo, leaving them in a very difficult situation: this was the moment for Elsa to start shaping that strong and independent personality that will later characterize her works, and leaves with Gogo for Paris.

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The encounter with Gabrielle Picabia immerged Elsa in a world from which she would never come back and that freed her creativity: the world of Dadaism and other artistic Avant-guards.

But it was couturier Paul Poiret to really encourage her to transform her creativity into something tangible opening her label. Years later, he defined her the “Leonardo of fashion”.

1927: Elsa Schiaparelli rent a small place at 4, Rue de la Paix in Parigi, where she opened the Maison under her surname. She concentrated first on sportswear and knitwear, and the following year the Bow Knot sweater made her career take off. It was the first time that the trompe l’oeil effect was used in fashion, and the success received allowed her to move her fashion house to the historical address No. 21 Place Vendôme.

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This was just one of Schiaparelli’s “firsts” as she has to be credited to many innovations that contributed to build the idea of fashion we still have today: she used the zip and other unconventional materials in Haute Couture for the first time, she designed an evening jacket to go with gowns shaping a new silhouette, she designed for the first time the divided skirtculottes” that tennis player Lili de Alvarez wore, she was the first female fashion designer to ever appear on the cover of Time magazine, it was her to give a theme and a name for each fashion collections for the first time and she was the first in the industry to design a perfume exclusively for men.

Her real distinctive trait was, whatsoever, the complete collision with the art’s world, which led Elsa to collaborate with the greatest Surrealist artists. They both shared the vision of an imaginary scenario detached from reality.

Together with Salvador Dalì she designed quite a few dresses and accessories, among the most popular ones there are in fact the Lobster Dress and the Shoe Hat. Not only, she collaborated also with René Magritte, Man Ray, Picasso, Giacometti and Andy Warhol.

If on one side there was Chanel with her Little Black dress, a simple cut and a neutral color palette, on the other side Elsa Schiaparelli made the bizarre element her trademark, emphasized even more by the bright colors she used. One in particular, the Shocking Pink that she invented and made her own.

Mademoiselle Schiaparelli clothes didn’t have to reveal a woman’s beauty, because her true elegance was her wit.

In the upcoming years, Elsa’s artistic vision influenced many masters of fashion, one being Yves Saint Laurent who was a big fan of the Roman designer.

Today, Alessandro Michele’s Gucci and Pier Paolo Piccioli’s Valentino are those getting closer to her approach, especially with Haute Couture collections.

Nevertheless, Schiaparelli’s rebirth was not so random. In a world hit by a global pandemic and economic crisis, fashion had to change its modus operandi.

While pret-a-porter is getting closer to real life, high fashion is taking the opposite direction, returning to be the platform for fashion designer to express their creativity to the extreme to add values and meaning to brands.

If on one hand we are limited in going out and in human contact, one the other hand our minds are travelling different worlds and realities b

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