While not a new book, this autobiography was originally published in 1954, it has been reproduced, this year, by the V&A Museum with a cover illustration by their Student Illustrator of the Year, 2017.
Elsa Schiaparelli is an illusive pillar of fashion. While we know the name - pronounced skap-ə-REL-ee - we don’t really have many images of her. She’s not a fashion character like her contemporary, Chanel. The image in my head is of a dark haired woman wearing a 1930s-type velvet dress with a sculptural hat, but, other than that, she’s fairly anonymous.
V&A - Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli - £8.99
Italian by birth, but French in her sartorial spirit, she’s a stylish rolling stone who gathers no moss, moving between countries like a migratory bird. She falls into fashion and runs with it. She talks about herself in the third person and, while not a stickler for dates, you get a rough idea of the time by events like the war and the Queen’s coronation.
The book is a whirlwind trip of her life journey up until 1954 when she closes her couture house. She lives until 1973.
Schiaparelli feels like a free spirit who has the confidence to design what she wants and follows her instinct, but she isn’t hung up on the idea of ‘fashion’. It just comes naturally to her. She was the first to use shoulder pads, animal prints and was the inventor of ‘shocking pink’, hence the name of the book. She collaborated with artists including Jean Cocteau, Alberto Giacometti and Salvador Dalí, producing windows and interesting pieces for her fashion label.
She resonates through fashion today. Her first perfume, Shocking by Schiaparelli, was in a bottle shaped like a female torso. Jean Paul Gaultier? She produced newspaper printed fabrics. John Galliano at Dior? And pioneered the idea of playfulness and unusual motifs. Martin Margiela?
She’s made me want to visit Hammamet in Tunisia, where she retires to, and she’s the kind of character you would watch and take note of whatever she does, wherever she goes or whatever she produces.
Schiaparelli, as a brand, has so many tropes it’s a shame it didn’t have a renaissance like Chanel. It would have made for far more interesting fashion. Can you imagine somebody like Galliano at Schiaparelli? So good.
The name was bought in 2007 by Diego Della Valle, who owns the Tod’s brand, but, it wasn't until September 2013 when Marco Zanini was appointed as the head designer. It hasn’t really made any impact and feels like something somebody should have done 40 years ago. It’s much harder to make any inroads, today, with fashion so saturated, regardless of the history or pedigree.
Schiaparelli isn’t too worried about the details and you get a feeling she knows she’ll always land on her feet. The book is an enjoyable look into French couture and how the Second World War affected it from the shocking pink lips of a woman who pioneered an adventurous and surreal way of dressing. Lobster, anybody?