CR Muse: Elsa Schiaparelli, Fashion’s Biggest Collaborator

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

Surrealist, comedian, fashion visionary—there are many ways to define Elsa Schiaparelli. Her singular take on design is both extremely influential and unmatched. To her, clothing could be fun. Clothing could be art. Clothing could be an extension of one’s personality. But arguably, Schiaparelli’s biggest impression on fashion has nothing to do with design itself: She invented the artist collaboration.“Working with artists…gave one a sense of exhilaration,” Schiaparelli once said. “One felt supported and understood beyond the crude and boring reality of merely making a dress to sell.”

By far, Schiaparelli’s best-known collaborator was Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. Their first creation together was a compact makeup case that resembled a telephone dial. It was a small item, but its humorous and unexpected design was indicative of what was to come. Nothing was off-limits. They worked together on gowns—one featured a lobster painted on it (famously worn by socialite Wallis Simpson), while another was made out of fabric that was painted to look as though it had been ripped. Her dresses were even featured in some of his paintings. Dalí also created advertisements for her, and even designed a perfume bottle for her. While the Spanish painter often drew inspiration from Schiaparelli, she was equally inspired by Dalí’s work. Her famous shoe hat, for instance, was based off a photo of Dalí with a woman’s shoe on his head. Their minds complimented each other in ways that were mutually beneficial—and groundbreaking.

Dalí wasn’t the only artist who captured Schiaparelli’s attention. Sculptor Meret Oppenheim designed a fur-covered bracelet that was included in her 1936 winter collection. Painter and costume designer Leonor Fini also created a bottle for her Shocking perfume, and illustrated many of her collections. Photographers Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, and Man Ray all captured her pieces, with the latter (along with Pablo Picasso) even creating art based off her patterns and clothing. For Schiaparelli, working with artists wasn’t only about how introducing their talent into the world of fashion. It was a give-and-take relationship, with her own creativity stimulating others. Her career is proof that fashion is a creative endeavor in and of itself. What’s even more interesting, though, is her unusual journey to becoming a designer.

Elsa Luisa Maria Schiaparelli was born in Rome in 1890. Her mother was a descendant of the Medici family, the Italian aristocrats who were famous patrons of Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Her father was a professor and director of the Lincei library. Meanwhile, her uncle was a famous astronomer.

Despite all the opportunity surrounding her, Schiaparelli seemed adrift in her youth. Her first passion was acting, but she studied philosophy. She wrote poetry in her free time. At 23 she went to London, supporting herself by caring for her friend’s child. There she met her first husband. They married in 1914 and eventually had a daughter, Yvonne. Due to money issues, Yvonne’s illness, and her husband being absent, Schiaparelli filed for divorce and returned to Europe. It was on her return trip that she met and befriended Gabrièle Picabia, French art critic and wife of Dadaist Francis Picabia, who would later introduce her to art-world social circles.

By pure chance, she once found herself waiting for a friend in Paul Poiret’s shop in Paris. He was completely taken with her, and though she couldn’t afford to pay him, he lent her clothes. It was her first entry to the world of high fashion, and it became the perfect avenue her creative pursuits. By the mid-1920s, Schiaparelli was working as a designer. Her first hit was a sweater with a trompe l’oeil bow on the front. By the 1930s, her couture house was in full swing. She had numerous celebrity fans, from Katharine Hepburn to Vivien Leigh, and she even became the first female fashion designer to cover Time magazine. But her success was short-lived.

During World War II, Schiaparelli left her business in the hands of a trusted assistant and moved to New York. As Italy was a German ally at the time, her presence in Paris was “risky,” but she continued to help the French people from afar. Though she returned to Paris when the city was liberated and eventually found popularity and acclaim again, the mood had changed in the world of couture. Schiaparelli closed her house for good in 1954.

She died in 1973, at age 83. In 2007, Italian business mogul Diego Della Valle quietly acquired the brand, and in 2013, Schiaparelli fully revived under the helm of current designer Marco Zanini, who also restored houses Halston and Rochas. Schiaparelli’s legacy is still very much alive, most notably through her lasting influence on Surrealism in fashion. One only has to visit the Met’s latest exhibit, Camp: Notes on Fashion, to see numerous examples of how designers have injected an element of humor into fashion. But arguably, Schiaparelli’s most innovative strength was in her ability and desire to work with others. When Raf Simons works with Sterling Ruby, when Supreme taps Cindy Sherman, when Louis Vuitton partners with Jeff Koons, we have Schiaparelli to thank for opening our eyes to the idea that art and fashion go hand in hand.

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