Elsa Schiaparelli, the creator of Maison Schiaparelli, was an Italian fashion designer. She was famous for her eccentric designs which took inspiration from the Surrealism movement and for the use of the “shocking pink” color. During her career, she collaborated with artists such as Salvador Dalì and Giacometti; her legendary uniqueness made her one of the most important European couturiers of her age.
Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome in 1890 in a family of aristocrats and intellectuals. Her dream was to become an actress, but she studied philosophy and was suddenly sent to a convent in Switzerland. She moved to Paris in 1922 and worked as an antique dealer trading art objects, then she became a student of the designer Paul Poiret after visiting his boutique on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Her creations were sold to various small fashion houses, her creativity started to blossom and she became a freelance designer, fully expressing herself. But in 1926, she closed her first fashion-house due to financial difficulties.
Nevertheless, in 1927, Elsa Schiaparelli reinvented the idea of the Pullover and faced a huge success, launching her career. Until then, it was considered a rural garment due to its shapelessness, but she adjusted its form and added a trompe-l’oeil motif in order to make what it was instantly considered a masterpiece. In fact, she worked with a seamstress to create sweaters with a bow design and a knot on the neck in trompe-l’oeil. Then, new pullovers were sold and imitated in the United States and featured in Vogue in 1927.
La Maison, the collections and the artists
In 1928 she moved the business to Rue de la Paix, Paris, creating “Schiaparelli – Pour le sport”, where she produced a collection of eclectic knitwear pieces, decorated with trompe-l’oeil bow ties, skeletons, marine tattoos, fish, and turtles; in black and white or really contrasted colors. Her first collection was photographed in Vogue in July and was followed by her first perfume “S”.
In 1932 the house expanded and became “Schiaparelli – Pour le sport, pour la ville, pour le soir”.
In 1935, she moved to Place Vendome 21, in the Hotel de Font Pertuis, a luxurious place with five floors, over 700 employees and a ground floor boutique. After facing a huge success in France and USA, she became the first female designer to appear on the cover of the Time Magazine in 1934. At the same time, she opened an office in New York and a Store, as well as some Salons in London. From then and on, she created innovative and successful designs, experimenting with materials, colors, and shapes.
In Paris, Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with artists such as Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalì, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti in order to create jewels and accessories inspired by Surrealism and Cubism. She invented hats such as the “Mad Cap”, inspired by art pieces, in velvet and sometimes with metal feathers, that could be molded into different shapes. She experimented with new fabrics such as the first printed paper-like fabric based on the papier collé technique used by Braque and Picasso or Rhodophane, which seems to be glass.
In 1934 it was the turn of a crushed rayon crepe dress that looked like tree bark.
Among her collaborators, there were talents such as Roger Vivier for shoes and Lina Baretti, Jean Clément, and Jean Schlumberger for jewelry. She introduced the Pret-à-Porter in Paris: her best clients were Wallis Simpson, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Gala Dalì, Nush Eluard, Ginger Rogers, Juliette Gréco, Marie-Laure de Noailles.
Art and jewels were part of her creations, concurring in representing symbols, her ideal and her view of life. She chose contrasts and complementary colors to dress independent and strong women; her collections were often based on a single theme (“Le Cirque”, “Commedia dell’Arte”, “Stop, Look and Listen”) and enhanced with a real show with light effects. Elsa Schiaparelli also produced costumes for films and theme parties organized by famous personalities in Parisian society.
1937 was the year of the “shocking pink”, a vibrant pink with a small amount of red to make it more intense. She defined it as the only shade of pink that was “as powerful as red”. She then launched the perfume “Shocking!”, with a packaging in the color of Shocking Pink and whose bottle represented the body of Mae West. It resulted in an incredible success.
In the late 1930s, Schiaparelli transformed the plastic zipper into a colorful decoration of a dress instead of hiding it. In 1938, she collaborated with Dalì in the creation of the Tears evening dress, part of the Circus collection, supposedly in reaction to the growing tensions and the Spanish civil war.
Elsa Schiaparelli was forced to leave Paris for New York. The “Cash and Carry” collection, launched during World War II, put utility at the center of her Haute Couture designs. E.S. designed jumpsuits with large zips and pockets. The “Siren Suits” integrate bags to pre-empt air raids. Camouflage print is first introduced in Haute Couture. At the end of the war E.S. returned to France. Then, she created the famous Skeletons dresses, as a reminder of all victims of hunger during WWII.
Post WWII, In 1947, Hubert de Givenchy became the creative director at Schiaparelli’s. He will stay 4 years before launching his own Maison. However, with the arrival of Christian Dior the same year as Givenchy and Balenciaga in the 50s, Schiaparelli noticed the decline of her idea of the female silhouette. In 1954, the year Coco Chanel, her biggest rival, returned to her activities, Schiaparelli declared bankruptcy, resulting in the closing of the fashion house. Elsa Schiarapelli published her autobiography “Shocking Life” and died in 1973.
The Italian entrepreneur Diego Della Valle relaunched the Schiaparelli brand in 2010, restoring the place Vendome house. In 2013 the first collection Haute-Couture by Christian Lacroix was presented.
From 2013 to 2019 the role of the creative director has passed from Marco Zanini, Bertrand Guyon to, nowadays, Daniel Roseberry. In 2017 Schiaparelli was awarded the official Haute Couture label by the French Ministry of Industry and the French Couture Federation. Today Elsa Schiaparelli is considered as one of the most influential Italian designers of the 20th century and the Museum of Decorative Arts, in Paris, displays “Shocking! The surreal world of Elsa Schiaparelli” an exhibition dedicated to the career (until January 2023)
Main fashion moments
- 1927, the trompe l’oeil sweater
- 1929, the first perfume “S”
- Aspirin Necklace (1931): a collab with the writer Elsa Triolet
- 1932, the Mad Cap
- 1934, the first woman designer to appear on the Time cover
- the three fragrances Soucis, Salut and Schiap
- the shocking pink and the perfume
- the lobster dress: a collaboration between Elsa Schiaparelli and Dalì
- 1938, the Zodiac Collection
- 1940, the Sleeping perfume
- Le Roy Soleil
- 1950, the tuxedo dress