When I was studying art at college, I was always in mixed emotions about the visionarie that was and is Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 – 1973). There is overwhelming admiration and yet confusion about her work. Sure, I adored the infamous ‘Schiaparelli Pink’, a gorgeous hot pink that was hard to ignore. Her strong aesthetic and imagination was enviable.
My favourite secret was her start to fashion was influenced by none other than Paul Poiret. Known for his revolt against the confinement of the existing fashions at that time; with the tight-fitting corsets and garlanded clothes. His simplicity and attitude towards fashion was quoted a "pivotal moment in the emergence of modernism." An exceedingly high accolade for a new designer breaking through.
THAT ITALIAN ARTIST WHO MAKES CLOTHES
I myself find a huge inspiration on the catwalk is Schiaparelli, with her designs influencing and creating new designs. The most prominent would be ‘The Skeleton Dress’ in 1938. An undeniable successful collaboration with Salvador Dali. They created a surprising sharp silhouette. An image recreated by Giles for his SS 2009 and for Dior by John Galliano in 2000. Christian Lacroix AW 2008 collection consisted of oversized ribcage necklaces and with Alexander McQueen’s luggage the influence was apparent.
An underline of darkness and the unnatural that seemed to echo in her work. There is a small whisper that she was before her time. In this day and age, she would be embraced and celebrated too be alive and so successful seems a sad curse that follows so many mavericks.
Schiaparelli herself was inspired by Sonia Delaunay and was constantly involved with art and technology. She did collaborations with Jean Cocteau and surreal artists such as Salvador Dali and Alberto Giacometti. Her rival Chanel called her “that Italian artist who makes clothes.”
I find the Coco Chanel’s rivalry with Elsa Schiaparelli interesting and illuminating how to extraordinary designers had such a petty difference. Both are famous with their different visual style. Cristobal Balenciaga was famously quoted saying that “Coco had very little taste but all of it was good”. Meanwhile he described Schiaparelli as "the only true artist in couture" had "lots of taste but it was all bad".
Controversially, Elle Italy wore a shoe hat in a spread shot by Karl Lagerfeld, the head designer of Chanel; a strong move that I feel Chanel would have deeply despaired at. Another inspired by the shoe-hat was renowned hat-designer Stephen Jones and shoe-designer Manolo Blahnik who collaborated for the first time to make a superlative homage to her surreal creation.
A MATTER OF TASTE
Her visual images were so revolutionary she was imitated by others alike modern day designers, consequently her business shut down due to her designs being copied. Italian Elsa made an impressionable imprint on the fashion world. Her style was surreal and she injected fun and glamour into women’s daily lives, telling them to assert their individuality and urging women to wear theatrical clothes publicly.
Schiaparelli was infamous for her bold use of colour, using zips in her sportswear in 1930 and then shockingly using them on evening dresses in 1935. Her use of shocking pink was so iconic is it is now dubbed ‘Schiaparelli Pink’. Her runways were influential even to today as she chose to use boyish figure models to show her clothing.
An individual who have taken enthralling risks, she wasn’t afraid to be ‘ugly’ and revolt against the traditional ideology. She will always be remembered for her journey of a voyage of innovation and avante garde designs. A true milliner forever challenging and inspiring other designers. It seems we have the lost the great and struggle to find the next maverick and cling on to the past. I think we will struggle to find a new textiles artist with such talent and such a vision. Hopefully one day someone in the present day will inspire a collection, an article, a world.
In the lasting words of the stanza XV of Louis MacNeice's "Autumn Journal" (1939):
‘Or give me a new Muse with stockings and suspenders
And a smile like a cat
With false eyelashes and finger-nails of carmine
And dressed by Schiaparelli, with a pill-box hat.’