Extravagance and a wink: an exhibition rediscovering the imagination of designer Elsa Schiaparelli

11:00 p.m., July 26, 2022

The wondrous can bloom in myriad sequins on austere suits or condense into a simple flower-shaped button. The seamstress Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) liked to provoke. The designer called her favorite colour, a shimmering fuchsia pink, “shocking”. She also titled her autobiography with this scathing adjective (shocking life), published in 1954, a year after his fashion house went bankrupt. Almost fifty years after his death, his boldness no longer really bothers.

Decorated with a red lobster spread between the thighs (a drawing with a sexual undertone by Salvador Dalí), the white evening dress raises smiles today, while it was worn by Wallis Simpson, future Duchess of Windsor, in 1937 and caused a scandal. But as the current exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD) in Paris shows, the visual shock is still there.

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The brightest yellow collides with the fiery pink. The fantasy of “Schiap”, the diminutive given to him by his friends and his granddaughter, the actress Marisa Berenson, ranges from sparkling wink to ostentatious extravagance. Also with timeless masterpieces like the evening cape Phœbus from the winter collection 1938-1939. Embroidery sparkles on the back of this terry cloth and silk crepe coat. This gorgon’s head with hair transformed into sunbeams, a creation of the painter and costume designer Christian Bérard, petrifies visitors as soon as they enter, where the theatrical attire dominates.

Creations that are often overshadowed by his life

In addition to more than 200 costumes, jewelry, gloves or hats, photographs by Man Ray or Horst P. Horst and some paintings by Pablo Picasso, Raoul Dufy or Leonor Fini, the curators Marie-Sophie Carron de La Carrière and Olivier Gabet have woven a non-chronological one Frame. It underlines Schiap’s connections to the artists of his time as well as to designers of the late 20th century or today, such as John Galliano, Azzedine Alaïa or his successor Daniel Roseberry, whose baroque clothing is presented. All inspired by the eccentricity of the “Italian”, as her best enemy Coco Chanel scornfully called her.

The course focuses on “surreal worlds” the stylist instead of her detailed biography. It must be said that the life of Elsa Schiaparelli has often overshadowed her creations: she comes from an ancient Roman family with an academic father and a mother of Medici descent, and grew up in a palace before breaking with her surroundings. In London and then New York, she lived with an aristocrat who practiced clairvoyance and the occult before abandoning him for his infidelity. Then drive to Paris with her daughter, nicknamed “Gogo”, under her arm. Divorced, penniless, Elsa Schiaparelli had to start all over again in her 30s, but with the support of the great couturier Paul Poiret.

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Schiaparelli has one eye and one day notices a sweater knitted by an Armenian refugee. She orders him a “pullover”, a sweater on which she draws a trompe-l’oeil: an elegant, white tie tied on one side, which can be seen in the exhibition in an equally modern way. This casual piece of clothing is a hit, especially in the United States. Schiaparelli, 37, is launched. Then she calls on artists, especially surrealists, to collaborate. Jean Cocteau gave him drawings: you can admire a cloak adorned with two profiles drawing a vase crowned by roses in coiled ribbons. Leonor Fini carved the bottle in the shape of a female bust of the perfume Shocking, generous shapes modeled on the voluptuous body of then-sex symbol actress Mae West.

Drum buttons, butterfly fastener closing a jacket, zipper clearly visible, black dress with padding forming a skeleton … on structured clothing with a slightly pronounced waist, square shoulders, it scatters elements that take the costume to other places, to imaginary worlds.

“Shocking! – The surreal worlds of Elsa Schiaparelli »at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris (1st), until January 22, 2023. madparis.fr

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