"I can remember not so long ago a penthouse on Park Avenue. With a real tree, and flowers, and a fountain, and a French maid. And a warm bath with salt from Yardley's. And a little dress that Schiaparelli ran up."
Busby Berkeley, Gold Diggers of 1933
Reviving a brand can be a terribly tricky and long business, involving money, marketing skills and talent in equal measures. In some cases this perfect alchemy worked pretty well, in others it didn't work at all, making people wonder if the late designer who founded that brand or fashion house was actually turning in his or her grave (definitely the latter when it comes to Goga Ashkenazi and Vionnet...). That brings us to the house of Schiaparelli.
Largely forgotten for decades (to the point that quite often not many people knew why one of the photocopying machines at the Rome-based Accademia di Costume e di Moda was called "Elsa"...) though silently pilfered by many (see her woman's torso perfume bottle and Jean Paul Gaultier's; her iconic jumpers tattooed like a sailor's chest borrowed by Gaultier year after year; her ironic and surreal designs at times reinterpreted by the late Franco Moschino, or John Galliano's newspaper print), Schiaparelli remained for years the secret dream of a few of researchers, academics and university lecturers sniggered at by the fashion elite. In her supporters' eyes Schiap was indeed an independently fierce stubborn-minded woman with a whimsical vision, and the living embodiment of that perfect marriage between art, fashion and fun.
Then, in 2006, Italian entrepreneur and Tod’s President Diego Della Valle bought Schiaparelli, and, little by little, her trademark designs started resurfacing here and there on this or that runway. Last year there was the Prada and Schiaparelli exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (the first one after the Philadelphia and Paris exhibitions in 2003 and 2004) that proved to be more about advertising contemporary accessories and selling museum tickets than actually giving visitors the chance to discover something new about Schiaparelli. In the meantime, rumours spread about the new creative director at Schiaparelli, a guessing game that has involved many throughout the years and that started by randomly naming Giles.
Last May ex-model Farida Khelfa was appointed spokesperson for the label and a year ago the fashion house opened a couture salon for Schiaparelli in Place Vendôme, Paris (where Schiap's store and atelier used to be based) stuffed with arty pieces (chest of drawers by Vincent Darré, chairs by Gio Ponti, a rug by Fernand Léger, and so on). In just a few years, Schiaparelli passed from the undesirable vegetative state of "girlfriend in a coma" to the more desirable yet equally static position of "beauty sleeping", at least until this year when it was announced that Christian Lacroix was returning to haute couture with a one-off tribute to Elsa Schiaparelli.
Unveiled last week in the Pavillon de Flore of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs during Paris Haute Couture Week, the collection was accompanied by magniloquent words of approval by a press too scared of not being invited a second time in case they had spoken their mind. Lacroix came up with roughly 100 sketches, and 18 designs were then selected and executed following the highest couture standards.
From the pictures you can see that the collection respected all the costumey and historical canons contained in Schiap's DNA: a black woollen dress with amphora line featured leg-of-mutton sleeves; turbans in billiard green duchess satin added a vibrant note of colour; a pink-and-black striped duchesse satin dress included a giant bow on the back; shocking pink draping wrapped up a black satin bustier; bolero jackets called to mind the 1938 "Circus" collection; goat fur on tops and spilling out of booties referenced Schiap's monkey fur; a coat ("Signature") and a wool crepe jumpsuit ("Souvenir") with large pockets evoked the functionality of the "Cash and Carry" collection; while Schiap's passion for insects reappeared in the name of a design, "Scorpion", a double cape of night leather satin trimmed and embroidered with braiding and black lace featuring elytron wings effect in the back.
Lacroix the master of religious representations in a poetical key also called to mind Schiap's Paradise collection in "Sacerdoce", a short cape in black velvet, faille and satin with puff sleeves, embroidered pockets and Watteau back closed by tricolored satin; "Sacré-coeur", a camisole top in coral wool crepe with sleeves embroidered in lace and jet on harem pants in black faille with shirring bustle in the back and “Sacristie” a short little coat in violet cashmere with hooded cape and wide belt embroidered with palmettes and cashmere motifs in black braiding.
The French designer showed he perfectly knew the history of the brand and the house and paid further homage to Schiaparelli giving each design a name starting with an "S".
Yet, quite strangely, there was something missing here apart from the will to shock the bourgeois, one of Schiap's aims. The sport and flying suits, the skeleton sweater and the trompe l'oeil knitwear that made Schiap famous were indeed absent. Why didn't they reinvent some of them in a more modern key maybe recreating her classic sweaters with glow in the dark yarns?
There also seemed to be a strange discrepancy between the sketches and the presentation. While the former were beautiful, the latter was a bit messy and the inanimate dummies didn't help (were they a way to save money or a way to do a museum-like presentation?). The intoeing pose of some of the mannequins seemed unelegant, while their uncovered thin joints were unpleasant to look at. Maybe it was intentional, hinting at the fact that these clothes are not for wearing since there are no plans to produce or sell them (did Lacroix create them not with a client but with a film, opera or musical about Schiaparelli in mind?).
In a way this point sparks further questions: what is indeed the final purpose of this house and of this collection in particular? Schiaparelli was famous for her fragrances in iconic bottles, but also for her quirky costume jewellery: why didn't they release a fragrance or a small collection of affordable accessories or jewellery pieces for young people and used this collection to launch them? Fragrances are money making products for fashion houses, so why not starting from there? Copyright issues? Laziness? Lack of research skills and ideas or a combination of all this? Who knows.
There is also another interesting point to make since, so far, all the decisions about this brand were dictated by visibility rather than substance. For example, the couture salon opened in Place Vendôme to much fanfare, but it's not being used to sell couture and there were no talks about starting a comprehensive archive of rare and previously unseen images (did any of you readers ever tried tracking down images of Schiaparelli designs published on Italian fashion magazines from the '40s? Because if you ever did, you know that this is a previously unseen world for many researchers). And while it's important to give visibility to something (especially in the fashion industry...), visibility without substance is useless.
When a few months ago it was announced the Lacroix-Schiaparelli connection, the fashion house also stated that different designers may have been involved in the brand and that the house was also interested in a series of art contributions and in an annual event with leading names in the contemporary art world who will be asked to give their interpretations of Schiaparelli. Now, this issue leads to another question - who will pick the leading names in the contemporary art world (is there an art expert or will it all be based on the “you have one of those, so I'll have the same”-principle ruling Palazzo Grassi and Prada's Ca' Corner della Regina in Venice?), or will this just be about the dreaded "collaboration(s)" word revolving around art, fashion and whatever, that will just generate media revenues? Again, who knows.
For the time being the most interesting point to make is how ironic that the house that Elsa built is maybe destined to end up under the creative directorship of men: Lacroix did this Haute Couture tribute, while rumours say that Rochas' Marco Zanini, a skilled man who doesn't have Schiap's ideas, may be appointed creative director for the ready-to-wear section.
Schiaparelli was born in Italy and lived in France, and surely you don't need to focus on the nationality of a designer when you're hiring someone for a job, but it's funny how Della Valle who is always claiming he is interested in promoting Italy, is not able to find an Italian female designer capable of carrying forward Schiaparelli (fashion outcast Cinzia Ruggeri, maybe?).
Maybe Schiap will turn into something pretentious, a mixture of art and old style elegance that will not be selling and that will later on prompt Della Valle to turn his gaze to London and find some young and hip creative with a quirky vision as he did with his Jefferson Hack and Katie Grand collaborations to revamp his Tod's and Hogan lines.
Maybe investing in a ouija board, evoking the ghost of Elsa and consulting her about what to do would be a wiser move, or maybe sitting down and drafting a sensible marketing plan and decide what they really want to do with this brand would be a bit better than building anticipation, creating expectation and then covering their path sending forward a couturier who is virtually untouchable in terms of skills and crafts but who won't be selling what he has just created.
As this article goes online Diego Della Valle, who is also a sharehoder of RCS Mediagroup, publisher of Italy's largest daily Corriere della Sera, is still engaged in a battle with the Fiat group over the plans to restructure the publishing business and over the control of the Corriere. He actually seems to have quite clear ideas about this fight and about the editorial independence of the newspaper. Hopefully he will soon get clearer ideas also about what to do with Schiaparelli (or find better advisors). In the meantime, the beauty sleeps on...
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