Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 – 1973) More well-known for fashion design (she was Coco Chanel’s most serious rival), Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome in 1890. She studied philosophy at the University of Rome and, during that time, published a book of provocative poetry that shocked her conservative family.
Schiaparelli was sent to a convent where she stayed until she went on hunger strike. At age 22, she took a job in London as a nanny. On her way to London, Schiaparelli was invited to a Parisian ball. Without anything appropriate to wear, she bought dark blue fabric an improvised a gown by wrapping the fabric around herself and having it pinned in place.
In London, later in New York, she moved in intellectual circles. She eventually met Gaby Picabia, the ex-wife of French Dadaist artist Francis Picabia. Gaby owned a New York boutique selling French fashions. Through her work there, Schiaparelli met artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. When Gaby and Man Ray left for Paris, Schiaparelli joined them.
There, in the 1920’s, she established her first fashion house. The business had a bumpy beginning despite favorable reviews and her first designs appearing in Vogue magazine. The dress pattern that propelled Schiaparelli’s career and fame gave the impression of a scarf wrapped around the wearer’s neck.
Her “pour le Sport” collection expanded to include bathing suits, ski-wear, and linen dresses. The divided skirt, a forerunner of shorts, shocked the tennis world at Wimbledon in 1931. Schiaparelli also included evening wear in her 1931 collection. It used Robert Perrier luxury silks which gained her more attention and fame. It enabled her to move from the Rue de la Paix and acquire the renowned salon of Louise Chéruit at 21 Place Vendôme that was nicknamed, “The Schiap Shop.”
When Paris fell to the Nazis in the early years of World War II, Schiaparelli sailed to New York for a lecture tour and remained there until the end of the war. When she returned to Paris, much had changed.
The house of Schiaparelli struggled in the post-war period and Elsa finally closed it in December 1954; the same year her rival Chanel returned to the business. At age 64, Elsa wrote an autobiography and lived as a comfortable retiree traveling between her Paris apartment and a house in Tunisia. She died 13 November 1973.
Schiaparelli believed that costume jewelry was integral to an overall look. Her friendships with Dadaist and Surrealist artists Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau and Christian Berard provided the use of their designs in her work. The influence is evident and compelling.
In 1936, Schiaparelli introduced “shocking pink” to her collection and it became her signature color. In 1949, she opened a store in New York and licensed Ralph DeRosa to make jewelry stamped or tagged “Designed in Paris-Created in America.” This included mass production of costume jewelry and accessories made by the David Lisner Company authorized as the American agent and distributor for Elsa’s earlier French-made pieces.
Schiaparelli’s early jewelry had imaginative, bold, and innovative designs. In her later years, the jewelry lacked the striking look of her earlier work.
She is best known for whimsical designs inspired by nature, circus themes, and zodiac signs. Her designs also include Native African Art and Jungle Primitives. In 1938, she created one of her most memorable designs inspired by the Surrealists and called, “Rhodoid.” The necklace utilized a newly developed clear plastic studded with colored metallic insects giving the illusion that bugs were crawling directly on the wearer’s skin.
She also designed chunky, prong-set molded iridescent glass stones (called watermelon) and aurora borealis rhinestones developed by Swarovski. Many of these large faceted, colored glass stones were produced in the mid-50s. The company used pot-metal, sterling silver and gold plated backings for them. Husband and wife Coppola e Toppo designed many early pieces for Schiaparelli.
In 1954 Schiaparelli sold her Paris business much to the dismay of assistants Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Cardin and moved back to New York. There her focus was on costume jewelry and she produced a series of abstract, floral and faunal designs.
She sold the rights to her name and business in 1973. American manufacturers continued producing her designs until 1974.