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Where They Were Then

Where They Were Then: Elsa Schiaparelli

Where They Were Then BY bea koch 11/08/2013




This seriously bold designer has long been a favorite of badass, rule-breaking women. Schiap (as her buddies called her) was basically the fashion world’s matriarch in the early 20th century, and her work is still referenced season after season…after season. Here, the highlights. 


1890 - Elsa is born into the lap of luxury and grows up living in the famous Palazzo Corsini in Rome. Her father is an Orientalist scholar and the director of the Lincei Library, but it’s her uncle, an astrologer, who has the biggest impact on her: He’s all about inviting Elsa to stargaze with him.


1904 - The desire to shock polite society is in Elsa’s blood. At 14, she writes a book of scandalous poetry and is sent to convent school for her trouble.


1913 - Eager to avoid marriage to a Russian nobleman favored by her parents, Elsa says ciao to Rome and takes a nanny job in London.


1914 - Elsa meets, and quickly—like, in a matter of days—marries the impoverished Count Wilhlem de Wendt de Kerlor, a handsome Polish guy who lectures on spiritual mysticism. The newlyweds head to Nice. Nice.


1916 - Elsa and Wilhelm move to NYC, and on the boat over, Elsa befriends Gabrielle Picabia, the wife of Dadaist painter Francis Picabia. The foursome becomes tight, and Gabrielle introduces her new pals to the cool kids—i.e., her artist friends living in and around Greenwich Village.


1920 - Elsa has a baby! Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha is quickly nicknamed Gogo—and Elsa quickly becomes a single mom when Wilhelm has an affair with modern-dance icon Isadora Duncan.


1922 - Ready for a fresh start, Elsa and Gogo get out of Dodge NYC and move to Paris.


1924 - Though Elsa’s been making clothes for herself and her friends for years, she starts takin’ it seriously when she gets some encouragement from a VIP: Paul Poiret, the legendary couturier, who helps Elsa land some freelance gigs.


1927 - HERE WE GO. Elsa starts up a small atelier, featuring hand-knits. The original designs are geometric, but Elsa quickly lands on her breakthrough style—a trompe l’oeil bow sweater that makes it onto the cover of French Vogue!


1928 - Already branching out, Elsa introduces her first perfume, S.


1931 - Elsa loves to push the boundaries—which makes like-minded customers flock to her. When one such fan, the Spanish tennis player Lili de Alvarez, wears a Schiaparelli divided skirt (basically culottes) to a tournament, and people freak.


1932 - Holy expansion, Batman! Just five years after starting her line, Elsa employs over 400 people who produce roughly 8,000 garments a year. And! She also opens a ready-to-wear store, making her the first designer ever to do so.


1935 - To celebrate the opening of a new shop, Elsa prints up some fabric…decorated with press clippings about herself! The new digs are on ritzy Rue Vendome, and the store is nicknamed the Schiap Shop.


1936 - Returning to her Dadaist roots, Elsa collabs with Salvador Dalí on a chest-of-drawers suit and a dress with a big ol’ lobster on it. Cecil Beaton shoots the latter on style icon Wallis Simpson.


1937 - Serious fashion moment ahead: Elsa introduces her signature color, shocking pink, and a perfume inspired by and named for the color.


1940 - Gogo heads to New York to work for her mother’s perfume business, and Elsa follows, starting a lecture series “Clothes and the Women”—and keeping an eye on that kid of hers.


1941 - Amidst WWII, Elsa throws herself into volunteering—even doing a stint as a nurse’s aide at Bellevue Hospital. Schiaparelli the line keeps running, though, with collections designed by associates.


1945 - Elsa’s return to Paris is heralded by the press…but the New Look, championed by Christian Dior, has taken the fashion world by storm. Elsa’s designs, while still striking, aren’t quite The Thing anymore.


1947 - Elsa adds another future-big-name to her roster when Hubert de Givenchy joins the company to run her boutique. And she becomes a grandmother! Gogo gives birth to Vittoria Marisa Schiaparelli Berenson, who—spoiler alert—will grow up to be an actress, model, and It girl.


1950 - Preparing for retirement, Elsa buys a house in Tunisia and becomes OBSESSED with restoring it.


1953 - Menswear! Courtesy of an American licensing deal.


1954 - Elsa releases her autobiography Shocking Life and then does something way more shocking: She closes the doors of Schiaparelli.


1973 - Elsa passes away in Paris at the age of 83. She is buried in shocking pink.


2006 - The CEO of Tod’s, Diego Della Valle, buys the Schiaparelli brand, telling WWD, “The idea with Schiaparelli is to propose the brand with all its modernity, and represent dreams, art and all the most sophisticated things we can do.” Ok then.


2012 - The annual exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute is titled “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations.” It’s based on a series of articles that Vanity Fair ran back in the thirties that featured made-up convos between luminaries, including Elsa and Stalin! The exhibition focuses on the striking similarities between Prada and Schiaparelli’s lines and their desire to innovate.


2013 - Gone but definitely not forgotten: Christian Lacroix (with the backing of Diego Della Valle) pays homage to the legend at Paris Haute Couture Week with a tribute collection inspired by Schiaparelli’s most iconic designs. The Musee des Arts Decoratifs is decorated with birdcages—a favorite of Schiap’s—but this time they’re filled with iPods.



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