Schiaparelli and her Brilliant Couture House
Did you watch the Oscars last Sunday? Perhaps you all found the actual ceremony a bit long and late for us East Coasters. I was already jet lagged from my trip to Austria in the first place so I never made it past the first few actual awards. However, I did watch quite a lot of the red carpet interviews and had my “interior monologue” about the fashion as they walked the carpet. I know it is sort of silly, but I do this just to see what the fabulous people are wearing and what kind of fashion risks they are taking. Or not taking. One of the showstoppers for me on the red carpet was this dress by worn by the actress from “Green Book” Linda Cardellini in Schiaparelli haute couture. Pink was the front runner of trends at the 91st Academy Awards last Sunday, and Linda was truly stunning in her “shocking pink” gown. Funnily enough, I felt like folks didn’t really talk about there dress when running down the best dressed list the following day. Maybe I stand alone here, but I felt the need to look into the history of the Schiaparelli after seeing this dress.
Elsa Schiaparelli was a woman beyond her time. An innovator, a businesswoman, and responsible for many “firsts” of the couture and fashion industry. She saw beyond the business of fashion for her time, anticipating moves for her brand to become successful that are common for modern fashion house now. She introduced the idea of licensing your brand, including the first to introduce designer sunglasses under Schiaparelli’s name- a practice that is a practically a right of passage to every designer house now. She collaborated with some of the top artists, including Picasso, Dali, and Warhol. She was the first to give themes to her collections and shows starting in the early 1930’s. She anticipated business strategies and trends in the industry that no brand hasn’t adapted today.
Born in 1890 in Rome, her parents and close family were filled with professors, aristocrats, and intellectuals. Elsa was expected to follow in their footsteps as she left to study philosophy, even though she dreamt of becoming an actress. She published a collection of poems in 1911, which were seen as overtly sensual and her parents upon discovering them sent her to Switzerland to a convent. Two years after, Elsa leaves and travels straight to London to assist her sister’s friends in their childcare. It is in London that Elsa slowly gets introduced to an avant garde circle of artist friends. One day, Elsa accompanies a friend to her dress fitting with Paul Poiret, the largest couture house at the time. Even though Elsa could never afford such pieces, Paul took a liking to her and allowed her to borrow some pieces to wear. This initial introduction to a couturier work with brilliant fabrics, craftsmanship, and luxury stuck with Elsa and served as an eye opening moment.
She begins as a freelance designer soon after, helping a friend with a brand that was in a decline, when in 1927 she has a simple yet genius and proving idea. She creates a hand knit pullover in 1927 that was deemed an instant success. The first version was black and white donning an trompe-l’oeil motif, but it was adapted to black and bright colors with bows, hearts, sailor tattoos, and skeletons soon thereafter. Vogue raves about the sweater as celebrities snatch it up, and it becomes a best seller in the United States.
The next year, Elsa debuts a knitwear collection with variations of the prized motif sweater and also comprising of swimsuits, beach pajamas, ski suits, sportswear ensembles and evening dresses. This mixture of couture and sportswear was so instantly popular, not to mention visionary, she was offered licensing agreements with American textile manufacturers. She also launches her first fragranced, named “S” as Schiaparelli was superstitious in the fact it must begin with the letter S.
She shows her first haute couture collection in 1929, where she is one of the firsts to use both decorative and functional zippers. Soon after she begins the practice of filing fashion licenses in the United States, a practice that is most common amongst design houses today. It was truly visionary of her to do so in the time. Schiaparelli is still at the helm of the couture house, a hit amongst celebrities, with her pullovers often seen on sports champions.
With the dawn of the new decade, Elsa continues to release a series of “firsts” that would pave the way for designs for decades to come. She releases a strong-shoulder suit, dubbed “hard-chic” which would later inspire the power suit. She files a patent for a one piece swimsuit with a built in bra called “falsies”. Unheard of at this time, they would become standard practice later in evening gowns, day dresses, and more.
In her 1930 collection, she previews her first wrap dress and an evening dress with a jacket, which sparks the trend of wearing coordinating dresses and jackets. She is asked to publish an article, her first in an American magazine, and creates a divided skirt, or culottes, which causes a huge scandal in England. She shows her first runway collection in its entirety at Saks in New York in 1931.
By this point in her career, the couture house has grown to 400 employees and eight ateliers. They also boast a couture ready-to-wear boutique. Schiaparelli is home to many innovations such as a crushed rayon crepe which is still a forerunner of fabrics today, and rhodophane a fabric as transparent and fragile as glass.
As result of these endless innovations, TIME magazine graces her with the cover! She was the first woman fashion designer to be given such an honor. It labels Schiaparelli as “one of the arbiters of ultra-modern Haute Couture”. To celebrate the imminent success of the couture house, Elsa begins to clip out newspaper articles and creates a print of it aptly named the “newspapers print”, which still serves as inspiration to runway shows seen today.
She collaborates with Salvador Dali, first making a powder compact that is the shape of a phone dial. After they create coats and suits, many of which are are now seen as legendary pieces, such as suits with bureau-drawer pockets, shoe-hats, the lobster-printed dress, the tear dress, and the Le Roy soleil perfume bottle. Although Elsa has released multiple perfumes by this stage, in 1937 she releases Shocking and with that released the invention of the color shocking pink “Elsa then had a chromatic vision: she invented shocking pink, a pure, vibrant, undiluted, intense and lively pigment.”
Elsa hands over the couture house for the next 4 years as tensions in Paris rise from the war. She spends time in New York and delivers a series of conferences across the United States speaking about clothes and women. In one conference, 36,000 people came to hear her speak. While she was in Dallas, she becomes the first European to receive the Neiman Marcus award for services to fashion.
Although she continues to send aid to Paris, she stays in the United States for the duration of the war. Immediately after Paris is liberated, she returns home and to her couture house. Hubert de Givenchy is hired as the creative director of Schiaparelli boutique in 1947 where he stays at the helm for four years before going on to launch his own couture house.
Elsa causes a sensation with the release of the Constellation collection in 1946. This anticipated the emancipation of women and their ability to begin traveling more and consisted of six dresses, one reversible coat, and three folding hats, all under 12 lbs. The Second World War shook some of Elsa’s overflowing creativity and brilliance. She had fought to keep her couture house in order to maintain jobs, even launching a practical and comfortable collection: zippered jumpsuits with huge pockets intended to replace a handbag, a maxi coat with a built in bag, and transformable dresses.
Although Elsa was not short of successes, she notes that the world of Haute Couture has changed. She makes the difficult decision in 1954 to close the couture house and devotes herself to writing her autobiography Shocking Life. She died peacefully in her sleep in 1973.
In 2012, the couture house of Schiaparelli opens at Hôtel the Font Pertuis, the very place the late Elsa left it. Two years after the first haute couture runway show since 1954 is presented during Paris Haute Couture week. Bertrand Guyon is appointed the design director in charge of Haute Couture and Prêt-à-Couture collections where is still at today. How happy are we that they did that? Very happy indeed. Truly tickled pink!