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Elsa Schiaparelli, a true legend of fashion

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

"The perfect dress, the one that will never go out of style, is just one: the dress of freedom”.

Elsa Schiaparelli

“She slapped Paris. She smacked it. She tortured it. She bewitched it. And it fell madly in love with her”

— Yves Saint Laurent on fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli

The powerful name of Chanel dominates the catwalk today, thanks to the successful marketing strategy which has been re-launching the brand during the last decade. The popularity of Chanel has been literally exploding since 2009. Every fashion lover dreams to have the black quilted medium classic bag one day and the double CC logo has been having a strong impact on people’s mind making it, together with Coca Cola, one of the most redundant logos of all times. I am not here to write a dissertation on marketing strategy, let’s be clear, but I have always been so eager to understand why people out there is so found of Chanel. And why this is not the same for Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani or Christian Dior whose designers contributed in the past to bring a lot of innovation to fashion, as much as Modemoiselle Coco did. The answer I found reading up and surfing the web, to sum up, is: marketing. As easy as that!

I still have vivid in my mind when in 2009 Kim Kardashian was caught by paparazzi exiting the Chanel boutique in Beverly Hills, dressed CC from head to toe and posing with a huge Chanel shopping bag, even more visible than Kim herself! This picture reached everybody and soon the Rue Cambon brand became the most desirable fashion trademark in the world. It created interest towards fashion victims who, almost unconsciously, developed a real Chanel fever. Kim became a tactical testimonial of the brand and today Mr Karl Lagerfeld, Artist Director of Chanel, can be very satisfied of the Kardashian pick he made in 2009 to re-launch the brand. To create interest; to create needs using an influent testimonial …that’s the basis of branding strategy.

Chanel is perhaps, among all fashion brands, the most loved by women around the world today for its timeless allure and the history of its founder. However, reading up the news of the time I found out, with my great surprise, that Elsa Schiaparelli is without any doubt the most influent fashion personality and designer in history. It is highly likely that you, as me, are not very familiar with the brand name Schiaparelli and cannot associate this name with an image.

During both the ‘20s and the’30s, two fashion houses were constantly in competition for the throne of fashion system: the Maison Schiaparelli, designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, and the Maison Chanel of designer Gabrielle Chanel.

Two rival brands very different from each other: so innovative and glamorous the first, more classic and sober the second. Their designs reflected the personality of their artist directors: the shocking colourful innovative creations of Elsa Schiaparelli fitted perfectly her cheerful and odd personality, whilst Mademoiselle Coco who had a strong character but less eccentric, opted for more sober colours or even black and white most of the time. Customers of Schiaparelli dressed to impress, that’s why the need of colourful clothes was essential to reach the scope.

Chanel is today the most renowned and successful brand in the world. However, this wasn’t always the case. At times Coco existed in the background of Schiaparelli’s success. During the roaring 20’s and the glamourous 30’s fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli was considered the queen of women’s fashion. She was born in Italy from an aristocratic family and, as a little girl, she developed a growing interest for art and beauty. Her love for fashion consolidated when she met Paul Poiret in his atelier at Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris.

Paul Poiret, the greatest stylist and tailor of the first decade of the 20th century, who gave a new image of woman finally free from the constraints of the busts, showed her some of his works. Elsa was eager to become a fashion designer herself but she did not have any technical skills of pattern making and clothing construction. Paul Poiret became her mentor and taught Elsa how to drape fabric directly on the body, eventually using herself as the model. This is how she began her activity, simply relying on her impulse of the moment and the serendipitous inspiration as the work progressed. She begun to create her garments by manipulating and draping.

Italian revolutionary fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 – 1973)

Elsa Schiaparelli in her studio

Elsa Schiaparelli in her beloved parisian house

Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli roaming around London wearing her latest fashion design, the trousered skirt or culottes.

If Paul Poiret taught Elsa the technical skills, most of her inspiration came from art, especially from the Surrealism and the Dadaism movement. Some of her friends like Man Ray, Baron de Meyer, Alfred Stieglit, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalì, Francis Picabia (all members of the Parisian avant-garde in the 1920s and ’30s) were sometimes involved in designing her clothing.

She was so innovative and creative, she loved to experiment new and original styles. Her creations were simply artwork and so unique: they were colourful (Elsa Schiaparelli invented the shocking pink as we know it today!), extravagant, eccentric yet classic. From a monochromatic dress to a dress embellished by appliqué with a vase of flower, stars, sun etc… all subjects “copied” from one of her friends paintings. She was the first to experiment with synthetic materials in couture, allowing her to effectively turn her creations into art. That is why she was called the artist of fashion.

“A dress from Schiaparelli ranks like a modern canvas.”

- Janet Flanner, The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent at the time.

We owe to Elsa Schiaparelli the most important innovation to fashion:

  • she introduced for the first time the concept of the modern fashion show;

  • she was the pioneer of “prêt-à-porter”, her couture house was the first to offer clothing off the rack quickly dismantling the practice of made to order fashion;

  • she invented the wrap dress;

  • she invented the trousers skirt or coulotte;

  • She enjoyed playing with juxtapositions of colours, shapes and textures, and embraced the new technologies and materials of the time;

  • she invented the shocking pink;

  • she was the first to experiment with synthetic materials;

  • during Prohibition in the United States, Schiaparelli's popularly-named "speakeasy dress" provided a hidden pocket for a flask for alcoholic beverage;

  • she offered the first clothes with visible zippers in 1930 (zippers became a key element of Schiaparelli's designs, visibly fastening necklines and running down sleeves and skirts).

Elsa Schiaparelli reached the pinnacle of her success in 1934, when she opened her first boutique in 21, place Vendôme in Paris called “Schiap Shop”. Elegant women from all over Europe and North America, looking at her creations on the pages of Vogue, got crazy for her. During the same year, this fashion icon was the first female fashion designer to grace the cover of Time Magazine.

Even though her competitor Coco Chanel, who was put in the background of Schiaparelli success, had tried to put her down so many times in an attempt to steal her some customers, Schiaparelli success was just at the beginning. Her dresses were a true revolution in fashion and, among her myriad of customers, there were movie stars (that she dressed on and off set): Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Wallis Simpson, Juliette Greco, Marlene Dietrich, Lauren Bacall, Gala Dalì, Mae West, Ginger Rogers and Vivien Leigh regularly attended her défilés.

Marlène Dietrich in Elsa Schiaparelli, 1930's

Marlène Dietrich in Elsa Schiaparelli evening dress, 1930's

Elsa Schiaparelli, Evening ensemble, 1937

Katherine Hepburn in Elsa Schiaparelli

Portrait of Daisy Fellows in Elsa Schiaparelli ensemble, 1933

Elsa Schiaparelli summer dress, photographed by André Durst, 1937

Model Simone Micheline Bodin wearing Schiaparelli

Joan Crawford wearing a Schiaparelli dress, photographed by Edward Steichen, 1932

Unstructured classy dress by Maison Schiaparelli

Portrait of Diana Vreeland wearing an Elsa Schiaparelli ensemble, photographed by Louise Dahl Wolfe,1937

Schiaparelli Blouse - FW 1938-39 - by Elsa Schiaparelli

Elsa Schiaparelli, Evening Ensemble, 1938, detail of the embroidered kacket

Woman's Dinner Jacket - Rayon crinkle crepe, silk crepe, gilded metallic thread embroidery Spring 1940 Designed by Elsa Schiaparelli

Elsa Schiaparelli Jacket, Spring 1938. The jacket was inspired by a Botticelli painting of Venus standing in a forest.

Evening jacket, House of Schiaparelli 1937-39 cotton, silk, metallic thread

This Schiaparelli's dress is from 1938. She invented her signature colour, the shocking pink

Elsa Schiaparelli intented the wrap dress

The "tromp l'oeil" sweater, 1927

Collaboration with surrealist artists involved two main personalities of the anvant-garde with which Elsa Schiaparelli was particularly close such as the painter Salvador Dalì and the poet Jean Cocteau.

With the help of her friend Dalí, she designed most of her extravagant and eccentric creations like the “Lobster Dress,” the “Shoe Hat,” the “Tears Dress" and a slender gown and veil patterned with Dalì’s trompe l’oeil rips and tears to give the illusion of lacerated flesh. With her friend Jean Cocteau she collaborated on two designs: an evening coat with a vase of flowers appliqué on the back and a jacket and skirt adorned with a woman’s braid down one sleeve and an arm clutching a knot of ribbons across the front, that makes one think of Cocteau’s heroine in “La Belle et la Bête”.

Schiaparelli was one of the first fashion maisons to understand the importance of accessories. She designed an amazing jewellery collection inspired by surrealist movement. Her pieces were truly original and designed for those who wanted to impress, always keeping it classy and elegant. Schiaparelli's perfumes were noted for their unusual packaging and bottles.

The Lobster dress made in collaboration with Salvador Dalì

Schiaparelli Tears Dress made in collaboration with Salvador Dalì, 1939

Another collaboration with Dalì: the Skeleton Dress

The signature"Shoe Hat" made in collaboration with Salvador Dalì, 1937/1938

Two collaborations with Jean Cocteau: a long evening coat with a vase of flower and, at left, a sequined evening jacket with an arm clutching a knot of ribbons across the front , at right, both from 1937




Elsa Schiaparelli handbag, 1938

1930 Schiaparelli basket bag


One of the beautiful bottles of Schiaparelli's perfumes. This is a 1937 bottle of "Shocking" perfume by Elsa Schiaparelli. The shape reminds me of Jean-Paul Gaultier's perfume bottle who obviously took inspiration from Elsa's.

Other accessories

It's hard to believe to me that this is a compact mirror case and that it was designed by Schiaparelli in 1935

During the WWII Elsa Schiaparelli moved to New York to escape from the bombings and she stayed there until the end of the war. When she came back in Paris she found that fashions had changed and the New Look of Christian Dior, which rejected pre-war fashion, ruled the cat-walk. The style of Schiaparelli was too much eccentric and struggled in the austerity of the post-war period, so in 1954 the stylist declared bankruptcy and retired from the fashion world. In the same year her great rival Chanel returned to the business.

A fascinating look inside 'Schiap's life. Soon after Elsa Schiaparelli closed her activity in 1954 she wrote her autobiography named "Shocking Life"

Even though Coco Chanel was in the shadow of Elsa Schiaparelli, the house of Chanel has been kept alive by Karl Lagerfeld making it the most desirable brand in the business of fashion.

The good news is that, after more than 50 years, Diego Della Valle the CEO of Italian leather goods bran Todd's purchased the name Elsa Schiaparelli in 2007. With an attempt to bring the company back to its glory, he re-opened the “Schiap Shop” its original location in 21 Place Vendôme. The Maison Schiaparelli just makes haute couture custom dresses for celebrities and demanding customers.

From the catwalk: Schiaparelli fashion show, 2016

Jaime King in Schiaparelli Haute Couture at ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ LA premiere



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