The Legacy of Elsa Schiaparelli Reignited
After 60 years, the Schiaparelli label is back. Boasting immense growth since the iconic Chanel rival died out in 1954, the empowering memory of Elsa Schiaparelli, creator of countless groundbreaking high fashion innovations, is ever-present in the contemporary designs of Maison Schiaparelli. If you thought Chanel had conquered the Schiaparelli brand, you were dead wrong.
One fateful day in 1954, Elsa Schiaparelli and her team thought the house of Schiaparelli had closed its doors forever. Despite giving Chanel perhaps its first bona de run for its money, and despite its own distinctions that landed beauties like the Lobster Dress on the Duchess of Windsor and now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Maison Schiaparelli couldn’t adapt to postwar fashion.
After decades of robust innovations that changed fashion forever, Elsa closed the doors of the five-floor, 98-room building that housed her 700-plus employees — 21 place Vendôme — for the last time. Little did she know the doors would reopen in her honor exactly 60 years later.
Between becoming the first female fashion designer to ever grace the cover of TIME and closing up shop 20 years later, Elsa Schiaparelli wrote a story for the ages — one of heart, rivalry and, of course, fabulous looks. At 83, 19 years after ending her brand, she passed away in her sleep. But her spirit still moves fashion movers-and-shakers like Maison Schiaparelli director Bertrand Guyon. More importantly, her designs have been revived to haunt Chanel with the threat of doing it better — this time, working around the endless barricades that come with haute couture.
Before diving into the iconic rivalry that loomed dormant yet unresolved over Chanel throughout the past 60 years, we need to understand the muse that was and that inspired Elsa’s work. While Chanel lasted longer and perhaps is the more household-recognized name, Elsa’s designs changed fashion from within.
Elsa’s brand is only newly a haute couture look, but she was a seamstress herself once upon a time. She was born in Rome in 1890 to a family of academics and intellectuals, but she had an eye for Hollywood and fashion. Her collegiate work in philosophy bored her, and she preferred to write sensual poems that landed her isolated in a Swiss convent.
She never liked to do what she was told, and she broke rules with ferocity. After publishing Arethusa, a collection of poems that made her parents very uncomfortable to say the least, she went on a hunger strike to get herself out of the convent. She escaped to London where she found love, marriage and, most importantly, freedom.
When her husband failed to meet her expectations and help out with their sick daughter, she asked for a divorce not ten years after marrying. With a new sense of freedom, she jetted o to Paris with her polio-ridden daughter. Though
she lived a modest life and often struggled with money at this time, she had a taste for lovely art. She hung around fashionable friends who could afford expensive looks, and eventually couturier Paul Poiret began lending her high-end clothing that would sell beautifully after appearing on an “atypical woman” like Elsa.
Her creativity began with Poiret’s generosity and soon led to a flourishing desire to design. Ever the spirit of her brand, Elsa and a friend acquired a dying company and used it to launch the first of Elsa’s countless iconic designs — the knit pull-over sweater with a trompe l’oeil motif around the collar.
Once Vogue published her, Elsa knew what she had to do. In 1927, her business began out of her small apartment, soon to move to the iconic 21 place Vendôme. Over the next ten years, Elsa would become one of the most important fashion designers of her time, stopping at nothing to bring her innovations to the top. She daringly displayed a visible zipper on the runway for the first time ever, all the while practically inventing themed collections. She sewed fashions for beautiful, famous women all the while creating looks that we still see on high-fashion models and in stores.
Fashion is born by small facts, trends, or even politics — never by trying to make little pleats and furbelows, by trinkets, by clothes easy to copy, or by the shortening or lengthening of a skirt. -Elsa Schiaparelli
As her designs took the runway by storm, she focused on serving women much like herself just a few years prior — working and in need of practical clothes that look good. She put pockets in dresses and coats, a severely under-appreciated innovation that became a huge trend again just a few years ago.
After the war, Elsa felt that her humanitarian focus during wartime had created a gap between her brand and the world of high fashion. She closed the doors to her now-famous fashion house and began writing her autobiography.
Elsa’s distinct mark on the fashion industry left the world teeming with innovation, practical fashion, and the color she famously created, Shocking Pink. She worked with the great artists of her time, including Salvador Dali, and created a profound challenge for the previously unrivaled Chanel.
Today, the brand is an especially fabulous ode to Elsa’s legacy, drawing on the minds of Diego Della Valle and Christian Lacroix to ensure the haute couture label’s success.
Source: Courtesy of Schiaparelli
Words by Zöe Hannah
Article Originally Appeared in Love Happens Volume 2, 2018
For more design and fashion inspiration check out Volume 2 of Love Happens Magazine