After Christian Lacroix announced he would present a one-off collection under the resurrected label Elsa Schiaparelli, he had this to say about the label’s namesake– “In this veritably elegant character, there is a spirit which is simultaneously mathematical, literary and even poetic, which collides with the worlds of arts, theatre and cinema,” he told the magazine L’Express. “Elsa is a sacred sphinx who will never cease to make us question things, all the while offering new puzzles by way of answers. My wish is to reinstate her at the centre of her fashion house and on the stage through which she seduced the world.” Needless to say, that was translated from French.
While some fashion followers may cheer the news, hoping it brings some much needed pizzazz to the couture shows and spreads the name Schiaparelli beyond just the fashion initiated, I met the announcement with an eye roll. And it’s not just because I find Lacroix’s designs garish and ugly.
The name Schiaparelli is indelibly tied to Paris in the years before WWII. To successfully revive, or even pay tribute to it, a designer needs a respect for history matched with a keen sense of the current zeitgeist. Lacroix, who had trouble keeping his own label reflective of the times, is not up to the task. He risks dragging Elsa’s name down along with his.
In 1927 Elsa Schiaparelli, an upper-class Italian divorcee living in Paris, created a simple knitted sweater whose only point of difference was a design of a white butterfly bow at the neck. The optical illusion was a fitting launch pad for the designer who wedded practical separates with witty, surrealist detailing. Although her advertisements described “bons vetements de travail” (good work clothes) it wasn’t long before ‘Schiap’, as she was known, embraced her flights of fantasy.
As Charlotte Seeling writes in Fashion: The Century of the Designer, “Elsa turned Surrealism into fashion by adopting its principle of taking ordinary objects out of their familiar settings and showing them in a completely different context. Everybody knew the shoe that became a hat, with its red sole cheekily turned up; the gloves adorned with gold fingernails; and the rag dress, that grand evening gown for very formal occasion with a pattern suggestive of much wear and tear. Its matching cape was decorated with real tears and thus caused a scandal–as punk fashion would do four decades later.”
Schiap thought buttons boring, so she replaced them with crickets, circus ponies, and sugar cubes. She constructed necklaces of transparent plastic and toy insects. Collaborations with Salvador Dali led to a purse shaped like a telephone and an evening gown decorated with a lobster. Picasso inspired fabric resembling old newspapers. The bottle for her best selling perfume Shocking! was based on Mae West’s corseted torso. (Jean-Paul Gaultier would rip off the same concept years later.) It’s perhaps too fitting that the one preeminent figure Schiap didn’t get along with was Coco Chanel, the designer that really did create simple bons vetements de travail. The two women had a legendary feud. Schiap called her “that boring little bourgeois.” Chanel called Schiaparelli “that Italian who makes clothes.”
Although the designer was both of her time and ahead of it, Schiaparelli had difficulty adjusting to the economic and social realities of post-War France. She closed shop in 1954, but lived off the royalties from her successful perfumes until her death.
Like Schiaparelli, Lacroix is a fantasist who didn’t allow practical concerns to infringe on his creativity. This stubborn romanticism was the French designer’s claim to fame, but also his downfall. In The End of Fashion Teri Agins describes a New York City show he threw just a week after the stock market crash of 1987. It was here that the designer, heralded as the savior of couture, introduced American socialites to his voluminous pouf skirts in vibrant colours and baroque patterns.
“You know,” millionaire Gloria von Thurn und Taxis whispered to Donald Trump, “you can’t go to the bathroom in these dresses.”
As Agins writes, “Lacroix would turn out to be the soufflé that refused to rise…the retail collections [he] created were fanciful eye-candy but flops on the sales floor.” In the first five years of its existence his eponymous label never turned a profit, raking up more than $37 million in losses. Most telling to Agins, and in direct contrast to Schiaparelli, Lacroix’s first perfume C’est La Vie retailed so poorly, stores pulled it from the shelf.
Lacroix briefly revived the brand Emilio Pucci in the 2000’s, another historic Italian label intimately linked to a long dead era. He also dabbled in costume design and Air France flight attendant uniforms. He declared bankruptcy in 2009, after which his company ceased production.
“A Lacroix style is born and even if it doesn’t appeal to everyone, so much the better,” the designer wrote haughtily in 1997. “The barefooted, jewelry-less woman, skimpily dressed in worn-out togs, creates a ghost-like vision that satisfies only the most pessimistic, of which I am not one…”
A designer, particularly a couture designer, needs a strong vision and the confidence to see it through. But designers must not think of themselves as artists creating works just for art’s sake. At the end of the day, be it a trompe l’oeil sweater or a pouf skirt, clothes need to sell. From the beginning his critics questioned what, if anything, his aesthetic had to do with modern workingwomen, but Lacroix refused to change course. It’s true that regular women in the 1930’s weren’t rushing out to buy Schiaparelli’s lobster dress, but enough wanted to buy into Schiap’s vision and point of view that the designer lived off perfume sales the rest of her life.
A large reason her name isn’t widely known today outside the world of fashion is that, unlike her old rival Coco, Schiaparelli’s brand wasn’t continued and adapted by new a new generation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But if you were to resurrect Schiaparelli with the long term in mind, I would suggest a designer with a proven track record with sales.
What about Tom Ford? He made Gucci and Saint Laurent relevant again by paying tribute to their archives while making them modern and sexy. In particular, his Saint Laurent ready-to-wear collection for spring/summer 2003 had quirky surrealist touches (a shoe with enamel lips, buttons imitating nipples, a iron pendant shaped like a phallus) that would have made Schiap proud.
The fact that the Schiaparelli relaunch is touted as a one-time event makes me suspicious. It seems like a publicity stunt, but for whom? In hindsight, Jennifer Saunders’ character Edina Monsoon on Absolutely Fabulous (known for wearing the most absurd outfits because “It’s Lacroix, darling! Lacroix!”) is the perfect spokesperson for the French designer–a fashion victim whose gaudy designer clothes blinded her from the realization that she just didn’t get it.
Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_.