Today I wanted to talk to you about one of the most prominent Italian designers of all times: Elsa Schiaparelli. Recently there has been a Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (aka: the Met Ball) and this year it was dedicated to two Italian fashion icons: Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada. We'll talk about the first one today:
Elsa Schiaparelli was - as we mentioned before - an Italian fashion designer (born in Rome in 1890). Along with Miss Coco Chanel, her greatest rival, she is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in fashion between the two World Wars. Starting with knitwear, Schiaparelli's designs were heavily influenced by Surrealists like her collaborators Salvador Dalí and Alberto Giacometti. Her clients included the heiress Daisy Fellowes and actress Mae West.
Schiaparelli did not adapt to the changes in fashion following World War II and her business closed in 1954.
Elsa led a refined life with a certain amount of luxury provided by her parents’ wealth and high social status. She believed, however, that this luxury was stifling to her art and creativity and so she removed herself from the “lap of luxury” as quickly as possible. Schiaparelli moved first to New York City and then to Paris, combining her love of art and design to become a couturier.
En route to London, Schiaparelli was invited to a ball in Paris. Having no ballgown, she bought some dark blue fabric, wrapped it around herself and pinned it in place. In London most of her time was spent visiting museums and attending lectures. Schiaparelli went on to marry one of her lecturers, Count William de Wendt de Kerlor. In 1921 they moved to New York, where Schiaparelli immediately responded to the modernity of the city. Her husband distanced himself from the city and had abandoned his family by the time their child was born.
Schiaparelli was later introduced to Gaby Picabia, ex-wife of French Dadaist artist Francis Picabia and owner of a boutique selling French fashions in New York. Through her work there, Schiaparelli met artists like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. When Gaby and Man Ray left for Paris, Schiaparelli joined them.
In Paris, Schiaparelli - known as "Schiap" to her friends - began making her own clothes. With some encouragement from Paul Poiret, she started her own business but it closed in 1926 despite favourable reviews. She launched a new collection of knitwear in early 1927 using a special double layered stitch created by Armenian refugees and featuring sweaters with surrealist trompe l'oeil images. Although her first designs appeared in Vogue, the business really took off with a pattern that gave the impression of a scarf wrapped around the wearer's neck.The "pour le Sport" collection expanded the following year to include bathing suits, ski-wear, and linen dresses. The divided skirt, a forerunner of shorts, shocked the tennis world when worn by Lili de Alvarez at Wimbledon in 1931. She added evening wear to the collection in 1931, and the business went from strength to strength, culminating in a move from Rue de la Paix to acquiring the renowned salon of Madeleine Chéruit at 21 Place Vendôme, nicknamed the Schiap Shop.
A darker tone was set when France declared war on Germany in 1939. Schiaparelli's Spring 1940 collection featured "trench" brown and camouflage print taffetas. Soon after the fall of Paris on 14 June 1940, Schiaparelli sailed to New York for a lecture tour; apart from a few months in Paris in early 1941, she remained in New York City until the end of the war. On her return she found that fashions had changed, with Christian Dior's "New Look" marking a rejection of pre-war fashion. The house of Schiaparelli struggled in the austerity of the post-war period, and Elsa finally closed it down in December 1954, the same year that her great rival Chanel returned to the business. Aged 64, she wrote her autobiography and then lived out a comfortable retirement between her apartment in Paris and house in Tunisia. She died on 13 November 1973.
Schiaparelli was an innovative woman and fashion designer. She had a lot of "firsts" in the fashion industry. Her career began with her introduction of graphic knitwear to the world of fashion with knit patterns and emblems. These led to her fanciful prints of body parts, food, and many more unusual themes. She was the first to use brightly colored zippers, appearing first on her sportswear in 1930 and again five years later on her evening dresses. Not only was she the first to use brightly colored zippers, but she was also the first to have them dyed to match the material used in her garments. She was the first to create and use fanciful buttons that looked more like brooches. They came in the shapes of peanuts, bees, and even ram’s heads.
In Parisian fashion, she invented culottes, introduced Arab breeches, embroidered shirts, wrapped turbans, pompom-rimmed hats, barbaric belts, the “wedge,” a soled shoe that would trend through the 20th century and into the next, and mix-and-match sportswear, the concept of which would not be fully recognized for another forty to fifty years.
While her innovations in fashion design were numerous, it was her creation of the runway show as we know it today that was most influential. Her modern idea of a fashion show included a runway with music and art, and the use of elongated, shapeless women as models. She believed that this boyish figure would best display the clothing. Many people do not realize the true sum of her impact on fashion and the fashion industry.
So what do you guys think of Elsa Schiaparelli? Do you think she's had a deep and profound impact on today's fashion?