In this content, I will tell you the life story of Elsa Schiaparelli – a fearless Italian, as she was called, one of the most famous fashion designers!
The Italian designer, who was born 131 years ago, shocked but also delighted women with her creations in which she practically combined with the provocative, dressed noblewomen and movie divas and was a rival to Coco Chanel, and when she realized that her time passed, she withdrew from the fashion scene and spent her old age peacefully.
In the novel “Girls of Modest Means”, Muriel Spark, set in post-war London, when “the whole decent world was poor”, young hoteliers for women have one expensive evening dress that they wear alternately – and the dress is, of course, with signed “Schiaparelli”.
The creator, about whom Time magazine wrote that she was “crazier and more original than her contemporaries”, was a person who introduced many innovations into fashion between the two world wars, which are still present today. It was she who launched the first fold-over dresses, which were later popularized by Diana von Firstenberg, printed a pattern of letters, newspapers and notes on the fabric, used a zipper as a decorative element, raised her shoulders with pillows, dressed a woman in an evening suit, introduced the color “shocking pink”. Inspired by the pink “Cartier” diamond, she presented the first collections on a certain topic, such as zodiac signs or music, and organized the first directed shows with theatrical elements – acrobats also performed at the “Circus” show in 1938.
– She was full of ideas and approached everything phenomenally imaginatively and inventively, including her own life – told her granddaughter, actress and model Marisa Berenson.
Little Elsa showed her imagination very early, because at the age of six, for the first time in search of adventure, she escaped from the magnificent “Corsini” palace in Rome – they found her leading a parade on the city streets.
She was born on September 10, 1890, into a wealthy family. Father Celestino was a distinguished scientist, as was his brother Giovanni Schiaparelli, an astronomer who studied channels on Mars and knew for hours that he and his niece were observing the stars with a telescope.
The girl was named Elsa after a German nanny, and her mother, Maria-Louise, constantly compared her to her older sister, wondering how beautiful the older one was and not the younger one.
Elsa was really not a beautiful child, and she was also disobedient, always in rebellion against the rules and with a desire for unfettered freedom – just as she will be as an adult woman. She loved to do mischief, to dress in old clothes she found in the attic and to invent – so in a strict school with nuns at confession she confessed a whole series of absolutely incredible sins – and in her early youth she published a collection of songs that shocked family with erotic content.
When she was 22, she was sent to London to look after the children of family friends, and along the way she stopped in Paris, where she was invited to a ball. As she did not have a suitable dress, she made it herself, but that first creation was not particularly successful: it consisted of pieces of silk wrapped around the body and fastened with pins that fell out during the evening, so she suddenly had to withdraw from the dance floor.
Going to the USA
In London, Elsa went to a lecture on theosophy given by a certain Count Wilhelm de Wend de Kerlor, a striking Polish nobleman and follower of Madame Blavacki. Just 24 hours later, she married him. As the count was as poor as a church mouse, the couple lived on Elsa’s not particularly large dowry, first in Nice, and then in 1916 they decided to move to New York.
It was in America, during the First World War and immediately after, that Schiaparelli found a stimulating society of artists and intellectuals in which she fitted in perfectly: she befriended Gabriel, the wife of the painter Francis Picabia, and met the photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, the artist Marcel Disham who arrived in New York with a glass ball full of Parisian air, and Mana Ray, in whose photographs the ridiculous Elsa turned into the glamorous Schiap, a dark-skinned, somewhat exotic appearance with a deep look, always in her own creations.
She returned to Europe in 1922, as did her friend Gabriele Picabia, but without a husband (she left him when it was revealed that he was cheating on her with dancer Isidora Duncan, who did not hesitate to dance naked in front of Schiap), and then two-year-old daughter Marisa Louise Yvonne. which was affectionately called Gogo.
In Paris, where she moved in with her daughter, Elsa did a little of writing, and for herself and Gabriela she sewed elegant clothes of a specific style that caught the eye of the famous designer Paul Poirier. His time has passed – he returned from the war with destroyed nerves, and women, who tasted independence during the war years, were no longer attracted to his impractical-feminine models with barges and cleavages. However, the experienced designer unmistakably recognized the talent of the young Italian woman and encouraged her to pursue fashion professionally.
Her first collection, which she presented in 1927 in her apartment, consisted of hand-knitted geometric pattern sweaters that immediately conquered Europe and America, and she achieved the greatest success with a sweater with a red bow that looked like a real one, but was actually part of knits. When it was published in the American “Vogue”, that small and “witty” item of clothing, which is easy to put on, caused great excitement among the new generation of women from high society who had to dress alone, without the help of maids. Copies of it immediately appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, but Schiap didn’t mind, on the contrary.
– The moment they stop copying you, you know you are no longer valid – said the designer who in 1932 already employed 400 people and annually produced up to 8,000 pieces of sweaters, sports sets, skirts-pants, pajamas for the day, evening toilets…
– It gives clothes the spirit of modern architecture, modern thought and modern movement – they praised it in “Harper’s Bazaar”.
Schiaparelli designed pieces for a new way of life and from new materials – hats small enough to be worn in the cinema, capes made of transparent synthetic fabric “rodophane”, transparent nylons in color and with patterns.
She dressed women of her time in bold creations that required fearlessness from the person wearing them, so in a caricature published in the New Yorker magazine in 1939, a saleswoman shows an old-fashioned lady a futuristic evening dress, with the words: “Why would the lady was afraid? Schiaparelli is not afraid”.
No wonder then that among her clients were the bravest – Spanish skater, skier and tennis player Lily de Alvarez, who performed at the Wimbledon tournament in 1931 in her white silk skirts and caused a real scandal, and aviators Amelia Earhart and Amy Jones. , who wore “Schiaparelli” when she set a record in a solo flight from Gravesend to Cape Town in 1936 – she took off from Britain in a blue woolen waterproof suit and changed into silk muslin in the Sahara.
One of her first clients was the writer Anita Lus, who happily spent the wealth earned by the novel “Men Prefer Blondes” on the creations “Mainbocher” and “Schiaparelli”.
The boutique Schiap opened in Paris’s Vendôme square in 1935, adorned with Albert Giacometti’s golden pillars, Fernando Leger’s carpets and Man Ray’s spiral metal vases, enchants the space described by artist Jean Cocteau as “a devil’s laboratory where women fall into a trap and come out masked”, rich heirs, fashionable ladies and celebrities of all kinds made the pilgrimage. They were attracted to unconventional models, often created in collaboration with leading surrealists such as Cocteau, Salvador Dali and Meret Oppenheim.
Surrealism penetrated dreams, hidden desires and repressed thoughts, and exciting visual strategies emphasized the bizarre, fetishistic, dreamy and fantastic – and of course, sexual. In the summer 1937 collection, Elsa, for example, concentrated on one of the most provocative parts of a woman’s body, lips, which also inspired Dali’s famous pink sofa – “Lips Me Vest” – so her strict costume with lip-shaped pockets exudes sexuality symbolism.
The costume was worn by Dalí’s wife Gala, while Wallis Simpson, the future Duchess of Windsor, chose a dress inspired by Dalí, with an embroidered lobster significantly placed on the front, which, Dalí suggested, must be worn with a spoonful of real mayonnaise.
A wacky hat that looks like a shoe upside down, only Daisy Fellows, the widow of a French aristocrat caught in bed with a chauffeur, the heiress to the wealth of the Singer family, a sewing machine magnate, the most elegant woman in Paris, who was praised for owning “the elegance of a skeleton.” Guests at the Ritz in Paris climbed on chairs to get a better view of the monkey fur coat embroidered with gold made for her by Schiaparelli.
Actress Ruth Ford, also one of Elsa’s regular customers, wore a dress with “tears”, which, like a dream dress on Dalí’s canvas, with an animal skin pattern, removes the boundaries between clothes and body.
Schiap especially loved Millicent Rogers, heiress to the Standard Oil estate, a fashion icon of the time who, until her untimely death in 1953, bought expensive Charles James blouses and Mainbocher and Schiaparelli creations, traveled with seven dachshunds, and brushed her teeth with a toothpick of 24-carat gold and collected Indian artwork.
– She’s not afraid of anything. She can wear whatever she wants and always wears everything new – said Schiap for Rodgers, who dared to hang a necklace made of transparent plastic around her neck in which metallic insects were colorful and to wear an evening dress embroidered with metallic notes along the belt with a music box in a buckle. Both creations are now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Elsa successfully turned Jean Cocteau’s drawings into a refined embroidery, like the one on a gray linen jacket that, with Kokto’s embroidered signature, turns the woman wearing it into a work of art, or an optical illusion as in the case of the long evening coat she bought in London. Doris, Viscountess Castleros, a close friend of photographer Cecil Beaton, and owner of the “Venier dei Leoni” palace in Venice, which was later sold by Peggy Guggenheim.
These attractive, super-refined-looking women adored Elsa Schiaparelli’s equally refined creations, although Coco Chanel contemptuously described her as “that Italian, artist who sews dresses” (Schiap didn’t owe her: “that tailor,” she told Coco).
Hollywood actresses appreciated her, because they looked chic, confident and supremely elegant in her dresses, as befits divas. Greta Garbo fell in love with the crazy “Schiaparelli” hat in “Ninocka”, her dresses were worn by Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Catherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford, and Me West in the movie “Every Day is a Holiday “, appears in costumes worn by Schiaparelli using a tailor’s doll with the curves of a famous actress. The same curves are outlined on the “Schiaparelli” bottle of the “Shocking” perfume, which was designed by the artist Leonor Fini, and later redesigned by Jean-Paul Gauthier.
While the boldest creations were worn by those rare ladies from high society who had the money and courage for such exhibitions, Elsa, deeply convinced that the future of fashion was ready-made clothes rather than hate couture, allowed less adventurous women to enjoy her creations, but much more conventional, which she sold in several American department stores. This proved to be a wise business decision, because those lines brought her the greatest income and enabled her a beautiful and carefree old age.
During World War II, Schiaparelli spent most of her time in New York, where she devoted herself mainly to charity, and only returned to Paris after the war. She launched a new perfume, “Le Roy Soleil”, in a bottle of “Baccarat” crystal, designed by Dali, bright red lipstick “Stunning” and nylons in the same color, which were sold exclusively in the New York department store “Bonwit Teller” and opened a boutique on Seventh Avenue.
Withdrawal from the world of fashion
But nothing was the same anymore, women in the fifties went crazy for Dior’s “new-look”, and Elsa Schiaparelli’s glamorous creations suddenly lost their allure. Finding herself in a similar position as Paul Poirier after the First World War and aware that her time had passed, Schiap published an autobiography in 1954 entitled “Shocking!” and the bankruptcy of his firm.
Unlike Poirier, who spent his last days in misery, she had enough money. She alternately lived in a house in Tunisia and in a four-story building in Paris, cluttered with pink satin pillows, precious Aubusson rugs, and paintings by Picasso, Dali, and 18th-century masters.
Her granddaughter, Barry Berenson, described curtains of bright pink silk that blackened at the edges of the central heating, but Schiap never gave them to clean. She suddenly sold the house without informing her family – neither her daughter, with whom she had a rather complicated relationship, nor her grandchildren.
Elsa’s daughter Gogo, who, like her mother, appeared frequently on the social pages Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, married Robert L. Berenson, the son of art historian Bernard Berenson, in early 1941. The wedding took place in New York, and when it became it is clear that neither the bride’s mother nor the wedding dress will arrive from occupied Paris on time, Elsa’s old client from New York came to the rescue pearls, a sumptuous veil and an antique bouquet of tuberose and lilies served as a wedding dress.
The couple had two daughters, Marisa, one of the greatest beauties of the seventies, and a year younger Berinta, known as Barry. They both attended the most expensive Swiss boarding schools, studied dance with Gene Kelly and “how to behave” with Diana Vriland, and worked as photo models for a while.
Marisa later excelled in roles in the films “Death in Venice”, “Cabaret” and “Barry Lyndon”, and twice-married and gave birth to one daughter. Barry also acted, but when she married actor Anthony Perkins, with whom she had two sons, she devoted herself to photography. Perkins died of AIDS in 1992, and nine years later, on September 11, 2001, Barry was killed in a plane that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York in a terrorist attack on America.
Elsa was no longer a witness to all these family joys, births and tragedies. She died on November 13, 1973, at the age of 83, from the consequences of a stroke.
Four years before her death, she donated most of her creations to the Museum in Philadelphia, where a great exhibition of her works was organized in 2003. She was buried in a dress of her characteristic “shocking pink” color, and her signature was engraved in gold on the tombstone. The advice she gave to women is still remembered: “Dare to be different!” said Schiaparelli.
She certainly was!
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