The distinctive designs of Elsa Schiaparelli can only be described as outrageous and ironic, and yet these innovative creations infused the romance of art together with the spirit of surrealism. With the ability to make fun, yet sophisticated, garments, worn by the likes of Mrs Wallis Simpson, The Duchess of Windsor, Schiaparelli’s innovative designs have inevitably secured her the title of being one of the most respected iconic fashion designers of the 20th Century.
Born in Rome on 10th September 1890, to a well-to-do family, Schiaparelli originally studied philosophy. She married young, moved to New York and gave birth to her baby girl, Marisa, but unfortunately the marriage broke down when her husband left her, so together with her daughter, Schiaparelli returned to Europe and settled in Paris. With no profession and penniless, Schiaparelli wanted to become a scriptwriter but found herself working within the fashion industry. This was to mark the beginning of a long and successful career, and it became her lifelong passion. In 1928 Schiaparelli designed her first garment. A black jersey with white trompe l’oeil bow, it was noticed by a department store buyer who immediately placed a large order. It was at that point that Schiaparelli realised her life would be devoted to fashion and she opened a studio in Paris.
By 1933 her designs were being compared with the work of her counterpart Coco Chanel. A great rivalry grew between the two iconic 1930s’ fashion designers and Chanel’s envy seeped through when being asked about the work of the Italian Designer. Undeterred by this, Schiaparelli opened a shop in London and then took over Madam Cheruit’s fashion house at Place Vendome in Paris, renaming it after herself. Concentrating on clothing that was ironic yet provocative, she wanted women to stand out and attract attention, which is why she began to take an interest in surrealist artists such as Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau.
Although she became firmly part of the Surrealism set, a special relationship was formed with Salvador Dali, as she found great inspiration from his work, and it was Dali in 1937, who came up with the idea for the outrageous “Shoe” hat. This inspired Schiaparelli to create many more flamboyant hats including the “Lamb Chop” which was worn by Daisy Fellowes, the Singer sewing machine heiress. Another collaboration between Schiaparelli and Dali was for the famous “Lobster” dress worn by the Duchess of Windsor, Mrs Simpson. As with all of Schiaparelli’s designs this dress was made for fun and had the element of amusement by featuring a large red lobster. Although her career in the fashion industry began predominantly with designing clothing ranges, as with any designer of this time, Schiaparelli started to look to other areas within the fashion industry, one such being, costume jewellery. She believed that jewellery was an art form within itself and as with her clothing created quirky and unusual pieces. Very different to the designs of her contemporary counterparts, the launch of the “Shocking Pink” collection in 1936 again showed Schiaparelli instilling her own injection of surrealism. This vibrant colour was something completely different as women still tended to wear the “little black dress” and her collection of jewellery along with cosmetic ranges was worlds apart from the otherwise contemporary designs of this time. Launched in a blast of advertising campaigns the “Shocking Pink” collection was quite obviously surrealism lead, with an advertisement depicting a typical surrealism image indicating that Schiaparelli always wore her heart on her sleeve. The “Shocking Pink” jewellery ranges included a “Lava Rock Necklace” with shocking pink lava stones which today would cost between £400-£500.
Aside from the jewellery, another of Schiaparelli’s most collected areas has to be her innovative perfume bottles. She created many scents with the first being “Shocking” which was launched in 1936. The bottle was designed in the form of a female torso, which had been inspired by the hourglass shape of Mae West, a 1930s film star, for whom Schiaparelli designed clothes. These bottles are now highly sought after and range in price from £250 upwards. Another scent, “Zut”, released in the 1940s has a bottle shaped as a woman’s legs with a skirt around the ankle. Looking at these early innovative 1930s’ designs, it is quite obvious where today’s designer, Jean Paul Gaultier, gains inspiration for his highly collected scent bottles shaped like male and female torsos.
In 1940 Schiaparelli fled from the Nazi Occupation in France and took refuge from World War II in New York. She refused to design any clothes until France was liberated and only returned to Paris in 1945, once the war was over, to re-open her fashion boutique. However, since the end of the war her avant-garde creations were no longer popular and so she returned to New York to set up her first Readyto- Wear boutique. By 1954 she decided it was time to close down her boutique in Paris and so held her final fashion show and then ceased production. She returned to live in New York in order to concentrate on her costume jewellery designs.
During the 1950s Schiaparelli designed some gorgeous abstract pieces of jewellery using colourful glass and stones. These today are much easier to find than her earlier 1930s’ pieces and are all marked with her signature – although as with any top designer there are fakes on the market, so only buy from reputable dealers. Prices range from £400 for a paste bracelet to £1,000 for a set consisting of earrings, bracelet and pin made from lava rock stones, faux pearls and cabochons.
Combining art with fashion Schiaparelli was once quoted as saying “Dress designing is, to me not a profession but an art.” This passion for mixing the two loves of her life is visible in everything that she designed from the clothing and hats to the innovative perfume bottles and costume jewellery. She succeeded where no other fashion designer has – by allowing women to expand their choices and stand out in a crowd rather than just following contemporary fashion trends.
Sadly this prolific designer passed away in her sleep on 14th November 1973, aged 83. Although we have lost the design genius that was Elsa Schiaparelli, her lifelong determination to inject an artistic element into the fashion industry has ensured that, through her works.
Design For Life – Elsa Schiaparelli – Fashion Designer by Tracy Martin (follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyMartin01)