You might say the history of 20th century fashion boils down to the 1930s face-off between Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. Though it is Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look that’s often cited as giving Ms. Chanel the heartiest run for her money, Ms. Schiaparelli was her most realistic rival. The battle between Schiaparelli and Chanel was the battle between the eccentrically wealthy and the upwardly mobile, the avant-garde and the purity of modernism, the daring and the conservative.
For almost 100 years, it has seemed as if Chanel had won. Certainly from a brand perspective: though it floundered for a time after the designer’s death, Chanel was revived under Karl Lagerfeld in the 1980s and invented the system of constantly reworking a set of house codes, which fashion designers at legacy houses still follow today. Lagerfeld also kept the ghost of Chanel herself alive and well by championing snobbery, obscuring his roots, and regularly muttering pithy bon mots. Schiaparelli, on the other hand, was mostly dormant until about a decade ago, when Tod’s Group acquired the business and attempted a rocky relaunch. It wasn’t until early 2019, when the brand hired Daniel Roseberry, an American import who came of age under preppy freakster Thom Browne, that the designer’s spirit, and the house itself, began to find traction again.
But while Schiaparelli remains a cult concern compared to Chanel, between today’s political turmoil, the fashion industry’s constant intermingling with the art world, and the emphasis on outrageous and even shocking clothes that drive style on the red carpet and social media, it may be Elsa Schiaparelli’s world, not Coco’s, that we are now living in.
A retrospective opening this week at Paris’s Museé des Arts decoratifs proposes as much—indeed, that she was not simply ahead of her own time, but predicting one very much like our own. “It’s quite incredible, because you have really the mix of everything we love and everything which is important in the world of today,” says Olivier Gabet, the museum’s director and a curator of the show, of Schiaparelli’s designs and philosophy. “It’s really now. It’s not just [of] ‘today.’ Schiaparelli is really now.”
Even today, Ms. Schiaparelli’s clothes look, to borrow her favorite word (which also serves as the title of the exhibition), shocking. “She escaped very fast from the very limited point of view of beauty in fashion,” says Gabet. “She wanted to make fashion [not] only beautiful. She wanted to make fashion smart, interesting, relevant, risky, alluring. Many of her silhouettes can be very elegant and very chic and very classical. But sometimes you have a quite disturbing vision of fashion.” The famous lobster, for example, is placed “in a very strange location on the dress,” almost drooping down between the legs of the wearer. Or a pair of leather gloves with gold fingernails, which are as perverse as they are appealing. “She’s someone who expresses a pure sense of freedom in creation,” says Gabet. She sought what could be beautiful as well as off-putting.
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The exhibition displays the works of several designers who created under the influence of Ms. Schiaparelli, such as Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, Azzedine Alaïa, and John Galliano. But even if those designers found mainstream success—Galliano led Dior for 15 years, after all—their more outré clothes were still considered oddities. Now, even if it is dubious that a true avant-garde can exist in a fashion industry that is so enmeshed with popular culture, the freaks are center-stage. Roseberry’s first retail space, a little treasure box ensconced in Bergdorf Goodman, is an oasis of weirdness amid racks and racks of exactingly good taste. Celebrities have also gravitated away from tasteful red carpet looks, understanding that a reputation as a fashion risk taker can reap rewards. Under Roseberry, Schiaparelli has cultivated a new class of fashion eccentrics, like Jeremy O. Harris, Ella Emhoff, Richie Shazam, and Julia Fox, but also dressed Lady Gaga for the inauguration of President Biden in 2021.
Roseberry says that duality of working both outside and within the system is his strongest kinship with the eponymous designer. “This woman was known for very flagrantly disregarding so much about tradition and couture in her time,” he says, “and at the same, in the same moment, you have to acknowledge that at the peak of her power had almost 400 people working on the Place Vendome. So she was hyper luxury and a serious challenger of all of the traditions that are normally coming hand-in-hand with luxury.”
“She wanted to make fashion smart, interesting, relevant, risky, alluring.”
What also makes the designer’s work feel so urgent is the reemergence of the surreal. The global mood is a decidedly surrealist one, with political, artistic, and pop cultural life all resembling a kind of dream state. A sense the off-kilter and bizarre has infiltrated luxury, not only under Roseberry at Schiaparelli, but at houses like The Row and Loewe. The strange and the extreme, rather than good taste, animate much of fashion and style today.
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Still, for all that feels so now about Ms. Schiaparelli’s work, the extent of her inventiveness remains underappreciated. She collaborated with Jean Schlumberger before he designed jewelry for Tiffany, for example, and her relationships with artists were far more complex than the contemporary projects between artists and designers tend to be. (Her closest intellectual heir is Miuccia Prada, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute staged an exhibition on the pair in 2012. Still, Mrs. Prada is far more pragmatic in her designs than Ms. Schiaparelli, even if the two are neck and neck for sheer eccentricity.)
And the most impressive element of Ms. Schiaparelli’s world was the fandom, and fashion sensibility, that her work cultivated. If Chanel championed an understated chic, Schiaparelli’s designs were more demanding; they required a boldness bordering on a lack of self-awareness. Her designs created commentary in a symbiosis of dress and wearer: Wallis Simpson, an undeterred “fallen woman” in Schiaparelli’s lobster dress, with that perverse crustacean sprawled awkwardly across the bodice, its tail over her netherregions; tennis champion Lilí Álvarez in her skirted trousers on the courts in Europe; and early gender fluid fashion icon Marlene Dietrich in her baroque suits. The clothes drew in controversial women who felt they had nothing to hide or apologize for and, indeed, enjoyed courting a contentious view of themselves through style.
The exhibition makes a number of intriguing claims, in particular that Schiaparelli, in her collaborations with artists like Salvador Dalí and Meret Oppenheim, pioneered the interplay between the art and fashion worlds, and that she was a savvy marketer, plunking her name on a perfume and trumpeting the color pink. (The latter effort presages the recent efforts of Bottega Veneta to promote themselves through the ubiquity of an electric, supernatural green.) Perhaps most tantalizing about Schiaparelli, though as both a woman and a buzzy brand today, is the invention of clothes that flatter their wearer physically and spiritually, and poke at public opinion with totally originality.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.
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