When you hear the name Schiaparelli you may think of a world-famous fashion house or celebrities on red carpets adorned in eccentric couture, but before it was one of fashion's biggest brands, it was just Elsa.
Source: Vogue France
Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome in 1890 to an aristocrat and a scholar. Before she began a career in fashion, she followed in the intellectual footsteps of her family and studied philosophy. Her studies inspired her to write and publish a book of sensual poetry, much to the dismay of her parents. This outrage led her to be sent to a convent, which she was only released from after going on a hunger strike.
After this, Elsa escaped to London where she nannied and began frequenting museums. In 1913, she met a man who she would impulsively get engaged to after only days and marry the following year. Together, they left London for New York, where Elsa would befriend Gabrielle Picabia. Picabia introduced Elsa to the world of avant-garde and surrealist art, something that would greatly influence her designs when she broke into fashion. This connection would also lead her to meet fashion designer Paul Poiret.
In 1927, Elsa created her first hand-knit sweater with an illustrious motif for herself. The motif was said to include images of a bow, pierced heart, and skeletons. The details she created on her sweaters caught people's eyes and allowed her to instantly gain recognition from Poiret and many others. She opened her own atelier the same year where she began to expand her brand.
Source: Victoria and Albert Museum
Her first collection contained sweaters with trompe l'oeil imagery, or optical illusions. Each of these sweaters displayed different illusions to neckties, and one even became so popular that it was selected to appear in French Vogue. This amped up the demand for Elsa's designs, causing her to begin assembling a team of workers. The growth of her brand would only continue, and she then went on to open her first ready-to-wear shop, House of Schiaparelli.
Source: Daily Art Magazine
In 1928, the Pour Le Sport collection expanded Elsa's repertoire from sweaters to swimsuits, ski-wear, and linen dresses. In this collection, she also designed the jupe-cullote, a divided skirt. This design was worn by tennis player Lilí Álvarez at Wimbledon in 1931 and shocked the world.
That same year, Elsa added evening wear to her growing brand and her store became known as Schiap Shop. The addition of evening gowns further strengthened the brand and made Schiaparelli more well-known as a designer.
In 1934, Schiaparelli was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, making her the first female designer to ever land the cover. The article referred to her as "one of the arbiters of ultra-modern Haute Couture."
Source: Palais Galliera
Elsa's journey with fashion and surrealism came to a high point in 1937 when she collaborated with Salvador Dali to create an array of items including the shoe hat. This collaboration not only took the worlds of fashion and surrealist art by storm, but it solidified Elsa Schiaparelli's place as one of the most iconic figures in fashion at this time.
Inspired by her astronomer uncle, Elsa was said to have been very interested in space and celestial objects. This was the reasoning for her iconic Zodiac collection that she put out in 1938. Along with embroider Albert Lesage, she designed an entire collection of intricate pieces displayed constellations, moons, and the signs of the zodiac. This was one of her most widely known collections at the time and exemplified her love of ostentatious style and intricacy.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Schiaparelli ventured further into the worlds of fragrance, eyewear, and lingerie. Each of these ventures was successful, and Elsa continued to design clothing that made its mark on the world along the way.
In 1952, Schiaparelli designed a multitude of pieces to be worn by Zsa Zsa Gabor in John Huston's Moulin Rouge. Some of the pieces came in a hot pink hue that became known as Schiaparelli's signature Shocking Pink.
Just one year later, Elsa decided to close her design house. This came in the wake of the war, which altered society in ways that changed the course of her career and the fashion industry as a whole. Despite her departure from fashion, Elsa's impact would be felt for decades to come.
Schiaparelli revolutionized the fashion industry in many ways. She was noted as the first designer to create zippers in the same color as the fabrics, the first to use detailed, "brooch-like" buttons on clothing, and the first to use music on the runway during her shows. She took steps that nobody before her had taken, and it paid off tremendously. It is almost undeniable that fashion as we know it would not exist without Elsa Schiaparelli.