Wondernet’s “imaginary interviews” continue, and this time we are with the beautiful Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973), queen of the European salons in the period between the First and Second World Wars.
Designer, “surrealist” and “maverick”, innumerable creations in the fashion world owe their existence to Schiaparelli – iconic shocking pink, no less – as well as the discovery of endless creative possibilities generated by her novel fusion of fashion to completely different worlds, like art: her most famous collaboration?
With surrealism and Salvador Dali.
Her life? A true hymn to freedom!
Claudia: what is the first thing you would like to tell me about yourself?
E.S.: I was born in Rome where I lived at the famous Palazzo Corsini (my mother was an aristocrat, descendant of the historic Medici family), and there I grew up surrounded by artists and intellectuals. I studied philosophy, wrote poetry and I wanted to be an actress…
Claudia: but then you ended up in a convent Switzerland.
E.S.: I wrote a book of poems (Arethusa 1911), but it was too free and sensual for its time and for the conformist environment within my family. So they sent me to Switzerland. I just wanted freedom, emancipation. In the end I finally obtained it when I went to London for the first time, and then later when I moved to New York. It was in America that I discovered art and its most noble function: to express oneself, one’s desires and one’s freedom.
Claudia: in New York you entered the avant-gardes’ circle where you met great artists like Duchamp and Man Ray, who radically overturned traditional artistic values, giving life to a genre of art that was completely intellectual, free, cruel. It was in this context that you finally found your fashion vocation?
E.S.: Not exactly. In New York, I discovered a quality of art that I liked very much, so different from that which was perceived in the Roman intellectual circles during my childhood years: this mode of expression would later inspire my work. But my passion was really kindled – this was the experience I loved above all the others – when I moved to Paris in 1922 and visited Paul Poiret’s studio. With his clothes from the 1910s, he offered an image of the new female’s world, like by liberating the woman from the constrictions of the bustier. His fashion philosophy pleased me. A few years later, my first fashion house and my first collection, introduced in 1927, were born.
Claudia: the one with the sweater – tattoo or trompe l’oeil.
E.S.: Oh, exactly. It was knitwear that was made with a particular kind of two-toned stitching, with designs that seemed like they were attached to the leather. I began applying everything I had seen in the art world to my designs and directly to the fabric: Dadaism, Surrealism, African art. Then there was no stopping me. I took off and never looked back: bathing suits came on the scene, Cubist and African-inspired sportswear, then evening wear in 1931, then jewelry, perfumes, hats…
Claudia: those were the same years of Coco Chanel, but your proposals were completely different: simple, basic and austere on the one hand, and on the other, so exuberant and colorful, with material that was similar to plastic and paper, imaginative buttons, giant insect brooches, suits with drawers as pockets…
E.S.: I saw lights, animals, even acrobats, everywhere. And colors: orange, green, purple, all around… it was like a dream come true… everyone could have their own autonomous vision of the world.
Claudia: you forgot about the chromatic shades of shocking pink! And “Shocking Life” is the title of your autobiography.
E.S.: shocking pink? I invented it! In 1936, my fragrance, Shocking Schiaparelli was born. In fact, the packaging was supposed to do just that: “shock”. Even the bottle inside was shocking, modeled after the torso of the actress, Mae West. But I was among the first to choose materials like tweed, fabric made out of embossed tree bark, or artificial fibers.
Claudia: you did have one thing in common with Chanel, though: the new prêt-à-porter formula. It was a real revolution and is still part of our fashion universe today. But your real contribution to modern fashion was the fashion show; in the way we moderns understand it. What would you say your winning attributes were?
E.S.: theatricality and provocation. The presentations of my clothes were actual themed shows with art and music. And of course provocation. I enjoyed provoking people. One day in Copenhagen, walking to the fish market, I saw women sitting along the channels wearing hats made of folded strips of newspaper. I returned to Paris and cut out all the articles that talked about me, put them together and had them printed on silk and cotton. It was 1935, and that printed cloth became my new collection. I called it “Stop, look and listen.” The collaboration with Salvador Dali was also provocative: telephone-shaped bags in black velvet embroidered with gold discs, large organza evening dresses painted with huge lobsters, with explicit erotic references, and even hats in the shape of shoes. The moment was an absolute and of great import, because it was pure experimentation with free reign to the imagination. Because the perfect dress that resists fashion and life is only one: the dress of freedom.