Schiaparelli Haute Couture 2018/2019: A Tribute to Elsa Schiaparelli

Patricia Abaroa

Bertrand Guyon draws inspiration from Schiaparelli’s namesake for their Fall/Winter Collection: a woman with a rebellious spirit who famously collaborated with Dalí.

Design Director Bertrand Guyon didn’t have to look very far for inspiration for Schiaparelli’s Haute Couture Fall/Winter collection. Vibrant shades, feathers, sequins and embroidery point to one person: the founder of the haute couture house, Elsa Schiaparelli. Between two world wars, Elsa became a leading designer, one known for her boundary pushing designs. She embraced the Dada/Surrealist movement and merged it with high-fashion. So, when creating this collection, Guyon had plenty of material to work with.

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As the collection represents different aspects of Elsa’s life there is range in looks. Pieces venture from delicate and romantic to structured and glamorous, but they all exude drama and whimsy. Embossed and fluttering butterflies adorn delicate gowns, the dream-like creations give the allusion of women lavishly dressed for a secret garden party. A fitted black dress with embellished eyes is a contrast to the ethereal gowns, perfectly structured and fitting more into Schiaparelli’s daytime persona. Structured coats standout because of the details, like buttons made of turquoise clusters. There are also more literal, in your face (no pun intended) tributes to the house’s founder, like a frock adorned with an oversized graphic print of her face. The bold color palette includes navy, black, turquoise and her signature shade coined Shocking Pink in 1937.

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On the runway, models paraded in over the top animal masks and headpieces, designed by milliner Stephen Jones, renowned for his imaginative creations. This animal fascination is not just following suit with one of fall’s biggest trends, it’s a direct interpretation of Schiaparelli’s love of animals. Her adoration for animals is also seen in animal print garments and the use of feathers—which Elsa often donned for an evening out.

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To fully appreciate all the nuances in Schiaparelli’s Haute Couture Fall/Winter collection, one should understand the life of its founder and the fashion house’s beginning.

Elsa was born in 1890, in Rome’s Corsini palace, to an Italian aristocratic family: her father was a professor and the Director of the Lincei Library and her mother was a descendent of the Medicis. Since an early age, Elsa had an adventurous and rebellious spirit. In 1911, Elsa published Arethusa, a collection of sensual poetry. Her parents were not pleased. They sent the young woman off to a Swiss convent. Elsa’s rebellious nature would prevail, and after taking on a hunger strike in protest of her new home, her parents were forced to remove her from the convent.

In 1913, Elsa went off to London with her sister’s friend. There she met theosophist Count Wilhelm Wendt de Kerlor, and the two married in 1914. They lived in Nice for two years before moving to New York in 1916. In 1922, two years after their daughter’s birth, the two separated and Elsa returned to Paris. That’s when the magic really began.

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The haute couturier rose to fame in the 1920s. Her debut collection, debuted in 1927, featured trompe l’oeil imageries (an art technique used to create ta 3D optical illusions) that became her trademark. Her creations were heavily influenced by main figures of the surrealist movement, like Dalí and Cocteau, and with their sensibilities being in tune, they also served as collaborators. Her most famous collaborations unfolded with Dalí, with whom she created, most notably, the Lobster Dress and the Skeleton dress. The two garments were on different ends of the spectrum: one was colorful and fun (and said to allude to sensuality), while the other was a statement on the Depression Era and criticized for being in bad taste. Her avant-garde creations appealed to socialites, artists and Hollywood elite, including Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, all who shared in Elsa’s non-conformist attitude towards fashion.

Elsa’s surrealist aesthetic was a natural fit with the popular artists of the 1930s, but a stark contrast to another renowned designer of the time, Coco Chanel. Chanel and Elsa’s differences did not for friends make, and they became rivals in the world of fashion. Chanel is famously quoted as calling Schiaparelli “the Italian artist who makes clothes” while refusing to speak her name. While Coco Chanel looked to create functional and stylish clothes in muted palettes, Schiaparelli experimented with color and draping, and at one point used fruits and vegetables as a theme in a 1941 collection.

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As much as she was an artist, Elsa was also extremely innovative. She was the first to design a built-in bra for a bathing suit, to pair jackets with evening gowns an created the first tuxedo dress in haute couture. In 1934, she graced the cover of Time Magazine, being heralded as a genius, and was the first female designer to ever do so. Elsa’s Parisian fashion house closed its doors after the Second World War, as women’s sensibilities geared them to the softer lines and proportions of Dior’s New Look.

The house reopened in 2012, at 21 Place Vendôme (right where Elsa left it). Marco Zanini was appointed Design Director in 2013, where he remained at the hem until 2015, when Bertrand Guyon was appointed. Guyon is a graduate of the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, and has previously worked with Valentino, Givenchy and Christian Lacroix.

Schiaparelli’s everlasting legacy includes the notion that fashion can have a sense of humor. During the Prohibition, the designer created the Speakeasy Dress, which came with a hidden pocket for a flask (talk about function!). She’s famously quoted as saying: “In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous.” For Fall/Winter, Bertrand Guyon proved that the house’s fashion choices are outrageous, but also that sometimes a look to the past can still be contemporary and modern. 

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