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It’s almost by entering through the small door that Elsa Schiaparelli initiated what was to become a legend in fashion and a new universe of elegance.
A reference for decades to come.
In January 1927, Schiaparelli the technician launches into knitwear. But not run-of-the-mill knits. Hers are mixed with metallic threads, mottled, or with trompe l’œil motifs; they will very quickly appear in the pages of the New Yorker or Vogue. From the very beginning, her clever knits sent women into a tizzy. Schiap’s reputation was launched. From then on, no novelty daunted her. Original, subtle, amusing, these creations set down the foundations for the DNA of her spiritual fashion. During her career, fully conscious that her inventions were unique, Elsa Schiaparelli officially filed several patents such as the one for the support bra of a bathing suit… in 1930!
The same year pullovers signed Schiaparelli appear, she launches the pant-skirt. Practical, functional, she wore it herself on the streets of London in 1931, which made urbanites turn around and notice her, all quite intrigued by this elegant woman who feared nothing.
The same year, Spanish tennis player Lili de Alvarez was rebuffed by the British press when she wore a costume on the court made of a tunic and a divided skirt created by Schiap. Scandalous!
No matter, nothing seems to discourage Elsa. Always attentive to an era witness of a new lifestyle mixing sports with automobile driving, she designs for her fans the first wrap-dress starting in 1930. What a liberation, what comfort! At the outset of this decisive period, which for Schiaparelli lasted during the entire 1930s, she imposes a line that sets off the waist and broadens shoulders, a total opposite from the streamlined silhouette of the 1920s.
Arletty was even featured on the silver screen in one of her creations for the film « Je te confirme ma femme » that came out in 1933, with shoulders marked by « fagots » sewn high up on the sleeves. Amongst « architectural » models by Schiaparelli in 1933, some bring to mind the broad shoulder-build of footballers. For sure, Elsa does not cater to timid souls. Her strong personality expresses itself through her creations.
Always on the lookout for novelty, she pursues her couture laboratory and in August 1934 for the Fall-Winter 1934-1935 season, she produces a revolutionary material, named « glass fabric», technically known as Rhodophane.
That same season, shoulders are the anchoring point of the silhouette for which she comes up with a great variety of sleeve holes.
To celebrate the launch of her couture salons at 21 Place Vendôme on January 1st 1935, where the house has opened up again today, Schiap draws her inspiration from collages by Picasso and Georges Braque and asks fabric-maker Colcombet to print on real fabric articles mentioning her in the American, English, Swedish, German and French press. In years to come, it became one of the most copied, plagiarized innovation used in the history of fashion.
Everything inspires Elsa Schiaparelli. Not only technical feats. From a Venetian commedia dell’arte cape, she creates dominos for the evening in crumpled silk taffeta, the Simoun, an exclusivity designed for her by Bianchini. It was immediately adopted so that at the ball given by socialite Madame Jacques Balsan, three of the most elegant women of Paris were wearing it. None of them were taken aback by this? On the contrary, this was a confirmation of their affirmed taste for real style. Schiaparelli’s true spirit of freedom has no frontiers. Totally unabashed she incorporates utilitarian elements such as the Eclair zipper into her collections, and even better, knows how to make them obvious.
During the presentation of her 1935 Winter collection, buyers were put off by this audacity. Placed in the most unexpected and exposed places, fastenings enable to create effects of draping and volumes with transformations.
In 1936, inspired by pullovers worn by Soviet parachutists, her flared skirts both amuse and make the silhouette more fluid.
Always facetious, playing on opposites, she transforms a detail stemming from military wear into a much more innocent accessory, the removable Peter Pan collar. For Winter 1936, it’s drawer-pockets created with Salvador Dali to enhance suits that positions this uncommon designer in the surrealist world. From 1935 to 1937, she transforms her long morning coat with a military touch, recognizable from far away thanks to its golden snail-shaped buttons into a « Persian » or « Maharaja» sprit, according to the Vogue of that period, ornamented with trompe-l’œil jewel buttons and rich embroideries in the Louis XV style. These were to be one of the fetish pieces of pre-war fashionistas.
Constant renewal, exploring, launching new trends remains the ongoing concern of Elsa Schiaparelli. Thus, in 1936, she shortens evening dresses and stops the hem at 25 centimeters from the ground.
A little revolution in the totally codified wardrobe style of that era. Before the dark days of the upcoming war, these dancing dresses with waists cinched by a glass belt were ideal for waltzing.
This desire of lightness also expresses itself that year through a butterfly print, probably inspired by a photo by Man Ray from the same period, one of the greatest successes of Elsa Schiaparelli in Paris, but also on the American market where she was already quite well-known. The more the world darkens, the more Schiaparelli offers an alternative to the anxiety prevailing in Europe with themes that bring joy to her collections and boost the morale of women. Thus, the Circus wardrobe of 1938 coincides with the International Exhibition of Surrealism and allows her to come out with a great number of wardrobe inventions.
Balloons, small animals, childish drawings… all seem gathered in a joyful topsy-turvy universe that has already made Helena Rubinstein an unconditional fan. Botticelli or the astrologists --in homage to her dear uncle, astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli-- will also be part of her fantasy couture, signature style of this grand Lady who seems to concentrate all on her own the imaginary that lacks in Parisian fashion. In 1939, while Europe is dancing on a hotbed about to explode, it’s the theme of music boxes that encourages Elsa Schiaparelli to conceive musical clothing.
One more extravagance. Faced with the hard reality that is starting to impose itself, Schiap has not finished showing how resourceful she can be. Eleven days after the declaration of war, she produces a pantsuit that allows to descend into shelters during air raids with the proper accessories (paper, lamp torch…) to slip into pockets as well as a bag created for this purpose. For the Spring of 1940, her gusset pocket jackets are called “Cash and carry”, everything can be taken in case of an emergency.
From an old stock, she picks out buttons that she uses for her suits, due to lack of supplies. “To make the best out of a bad situation”, seems to be her motto…And constantly, there is a pervading sense of joy, ongoing fantasy in order to enchant the world. Thus with silk handkerchiefs, she builds up a series of lozenges that morph into an evening dress… But on 11 May 1941, things take a turn for the worse. Peril pushes Schiaparelli to seek exile in the United States from where she returns in 1945. From then on, Elsa Schiaparelli insists more on silhouettes and colors, even if in 1947, her amazing tunic in black jersey trimmed with monkey fur of the same color is still part of her wide array of surprises.
At the time of the dominating New Look, she creates a sensation by adopting a daring attitude, by launching an exclusive hue, a brown-red that she names Defended Fruit. In 1949, she radicalizes her vision with the construction of square panels and hemmed with wire.
On 12 June 1951, she launches her first ready-to-wear and accessories collection designed in Paris and made in the United States. Because Elsa Schiaparelli is not just an iconoclast in terms of clothing creation, but also a visionary who knows how to anticipate her era and the metamorphosis of her clientele’s life style. The 1950s and the emergence of a new design symbolized by Vespa scooters are for her an occasion to push innovation even further: glasses trimmed with feathers or in platinum decorated with a diamond, wild hats and futuristic visors. In 1956, young Andy Warhol, fascinated by the Vespa parked in front of the couture house on Place Vendôme, draws a model in his sketch book using the caption « Schiaparelli ».
An essential legend of fashion during the first half of the 20th century, Elsa Schiaparelli seems to always be one step ahead of imagination.