10 September 2017

Elsa Schiaparelli - fashion designer

Clothes inspired by Surrealist art 

Elsa Schiaparelli left Rome in search of  adventure in around 1912
Elsa Schiaparelli left Rome in search of
adventure in around 1912
The designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who is regarded along with her rival Coco Chanel as one of the key figures in the fashion world between the two World Wars, was born on this day in 1890 in Rome.

Heavily influenced by the Surrealist cultural movement – the artists Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau were among her collaborators – she became a favourite of some of the world’s most recognisable women, including the American actresses Greta Garbo and Mae West, the German singer and actress Marlene Dietrich, and the socialite and heiress Daisy Fellowes.

Her style shaped the look of fashion in the 1920s and 1930s, often featuring elements of the trompe l’oeil artistic technique to create optical illusions, such as the dress she made with Dali’s collaboration that seemed to be full of rips and tears, or the evening coat she designed with Cocteau that featured two female profiles facing one another which, viewed another way, created the impression of a vase for the fabric roses adorning the shoulders and neck.

Other designs, such as the Lobster Dress and the Skeleton Dress, both influenced by Dali, satisfied her taste for the outrageous.

Schiaparelli was also an innovator.  She was among the pioneers of the wrap dress, she invented the divided skirt – a forerunner of shorts – that the tennis player Lili de Alvarez wore at Wimbledon in 1931, was the first to create designs that included zips in the colour of the fabric and the first to make brooch-like buttons and fasteners.

Schiaparelli's 1938 coat-dress, designed with Jean Cocteau, is typical of her Surrealist style
Schiaparelli's 1938 coat-dress, designed with Jean
Cocteau, is typical of her Surrealist style
She was also the first to come up with the idea of a catwalk show, featuring parading models in artistically designed stage sets with accompanying music.

The colour Shocking pink was her own creation, a shade of magenta inspired by a Cartier diamond owned by Daisy Fellowes.  Originally called Schiaparelli pink, it was first used by her on the packaging for her first fragrance, which she called Shocking, and thereafter became known as Shocking pink.

In fact, there was very little about Schiaparelli’s life that followed conventional patterns.

Born into wealth in Rome, her family home was an apartment in the baroque 18th century Palazzo Corsini, a sumptuously grand palace in the Trastevere quarter of the city that was once home to royalty and now houses one of Rome’s most important art galleries.

Her mother, Maria-Luisa, was a Neapolitan aristocrat, her father, Celestino Schiaparelli, a prominent scholar and academic who for a while was Dean of the Sapienza University of Rome. His brother, the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, was notable for identifying what for many years were believed to be canals on Mars.

Elsa herself studied at the University but was soon courting controversy, publishing a book of sensual poetry deemed so shocking her parents sent her off to a convent in Switzerland, where she promptly forced them to bring her back to Rome by going on hunger strike.

Schiaparelli's trademark colour, Shocking Pink
Schiaparelli's trademark colour, Shocking Pink
She was soon bored with being confined to home, however, finding her lifestyle, while comfortable, to be unfulfilling, and embarked on a series of adventures that took her to London, Paris and New York, where she travelled in the company of a highly unsuitable husband, who called himself Count Wilhelm Frederick Wendt de Kerlor.

They had met in London after she attended a lecture he gave on theosophy, the study of the mystical and the occult, in which she had a fascination. He agreed to help her with her English and a relationship developed. In fact, he was essentially a con-man, passing himself off at various times as a doctor, a lecturer, a detective and criminal psychologist.  Yet he had a charisma she found hard to resist, they were married in 1914 and when he was deported from England in 1915 she followed him to Paris, Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo and eventually New York.

De Kerlor continued his dubious business practices in New York, attracting the attention of the authorities, and the couple both at times feared deportation, Elsa having been suspected of spreading support for Bolshevism among the Italian community. They had a child, Maria-Luisa, known as Gogo, in 1920, after which De Kerlor disappeared, abandoning his new family.

She returned with her daughter to France but went back to New York, having an affair with an opera singer, Mario Laurenti,  before his sudden death in 1922 prompted her to quit America and settle in Paris.

Schiaparelli models the knitted top with the trompe l'oeil collar that launched her career
Schiaparelli models the knitted top with the
trompe l'oeil collar that launched her career
Schiaparelli’s career in fashion grew from the need to earn an independent income.  Although she had worked in a fashion boutique in New York, it was only after a friend introduced her to a couturier, Paul Poiret, that the idea of a career in the industry began to have some appeal.

A proposal that she could set up a business selling French haute-couture in New York came to nothing but her time in Poiret’s company allowed her to observe his methods, and she began to design clothes of her own. In 1927, she launched a collection of knitwear featuring the trompe l’oeil touches that would become her hallmark.

The collection was featured in Vogue magazine, after which her order book expanded rapidly. She steadily acquired more clients and added to her range, taking on more staff and opening her first shop, the House of Schiaparelli.

Her reputation grew and grew.  By 1931, an established star and celebrity, she was operating from prestigious premises in Place Vendôme.

Everything changed with the Second World War, however.  Soon after Paris fell to the Germans in 1940, Schiaparelli fled to New York, where she remained until the end of the conflict. After she returned to Paris, with austerity biting hard and other designers catching the eye, the business foundered and she took the decision to close in 1954.

Schiaparelli died in Paris in 1973 and for a while her work was not nearly as well remembered as that of her rival, Chanel. But there has been a revival of interest recently. In 2012, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art featured her work, along with that of Italian designer Miuccia Prada, in a major exhibition.

The Palazzo Corsini was Schiaparelli's home as a young girl
The Palazzo Corsini was Schiaparelli's home as a young girl
Travel tip:

The Palazzo Corsini, which overlooks the Tiber on Via della Lungara, just across the road from Villa Farnesina, was erected for the Corsini family – the Florentine aristocrats who were represented in the capital by Pope Clement XII (formerly Cardinal Lorenzo Corsini) – on the site of a 15th-century villa, to a design by the architect Ferdinando Fuga. The villa had previously been the home of Christina, Queen of Sweden, who moved to Rome after abdicating.  The first floor of the palace now houses the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. Most of the works were donated by the Corsini family and acquired by the state in 1883. It encompasses mainly Italian paintings from the early Renaissance to the late 18th century, although there is also a Van Dyck and a Rubens. For more information visit www.barberinicorsini.org

The Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere
The Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere
Travel tip:

Trastevere is a charming medieval quarter which is popular with visitors to Rome for its down-to-earth atmosphere and quaint cobbled streets. The central Piazza di Santa Maria has a homely neighbourhood feel, although the Basilica di Santa Maria, which dominates the square, contains some beautifully elaborate golden mosaics by Pietro Cavallini.  Behind the Palazzo Corsini is the University of Rome’s botanical gardens, with more than 7,000 plant species, while the nearby Gianicolo hill, seldom scaled by many tourists on account of a 20-minute climb, offers some of the best views across the city.

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