Designer Elsa Schiaparelli merges Surrealist art and fashion with flair

Resurrection’s a feat fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli would appreciate after dying nearly 40 years ago in 1973. Talk about a revival. Elsa Schiaparelli’s come back to life. It’s positively Surreal.

Elsa herself: A gelatin silver print of Schiaparelli by Man Ray sold for $4,000 in a Profiles in History auction.
Photo courtesy ProfilesInHistory.com

Her spirit’s infusing the 21st century like an I.V. Here’s what I mean.

Oh, wait … You don’t know her? If your world is fashion, jewelry, perfume and vanity, you do. If your passion is firearms, knives or coins, you may need an introduction.

A nutshell recap might say: Droll character, born in 1890, was an occasionally impoverished Roman convent girl anarchist, daughter of wealthy aristo-llectual parents. Moved to Paris via London and New York, picking up a husband (who left her in Manhattan) plus Dadaist and Surrealist pals Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Raoul Dufy, Alberto Giacometti and Jean Cocteau along the way.

The art and artists she encountered influenced and informed her imagination and fashion designs, which led to iconic hijinks, such as a lamb-cutlet hat, suit with drawers, shoe chapeau and lobster dress, to mention only a few flamboyant concoctions. (Her themes always make me hungry.) Arch-rival of Chanel (as in Coco), Schiap (as she was known by her friends) had a daughter (Gogo) and managed to mix provocative moxie into a personal recipe of elegant taste — despite the fact she could neither sew nor sketch.

Madcap millinery: The artist Eric captured Schiap’s autumn 1936 Hurricane Hat on the cover of Vogue, about which the magazine commented, “It looks as if the dressmakers are becoming Surrealists.”

A fearless innovator, Schiap’s fashion collaborations were genius, whether in jewelry with the early figural clips and their flights of fancy; her maniacal millinery; fantasy jackets with trademark trompe l’oeil effects and shaped buttons (most by Jean Clement, but some created by American company B. Blumenthal, which had smartly set up shop in Paris); perfume bottles with Surreal designs and Dali artwork, plus nifty-modern S-named colognes. Who else could create embroidery deserving of the label “impertinent?”

Known as a marketing genius, Schiaparelli was also a licensing brainiac. Perhaps you might have expected Schiap gloves, girdles, hose, even wigs, but calendars, playing cards … and mattresses? Why not: One of her scents was called Sleeping.

Schiap also pushed the textiles envelope by going with revolutionary synthetics to mix with luxe fabrics. Ilya Sandra Perlingieri said in a 1980s Threads Magazine article that Schiap transformed the textiles industry. The same story noted she was a punk precursor via designs that included ripped dresses, exposed zippers and safety-pin accents.

The first sign Schiap was enjoying a 21st-century resurrection was the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s announcement of a Costume Institute exhibit (through Aug. 19, 2012) called “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations.” See, I told you: Schiap’s alive and well – and chatting with Miuccia. (OK, so it’s actress Judy Davis speaking for Schiap, not the real voice of Madame.) They are conceptually paired, in part, because both are considered sartorially cerebral signore. If you make it to Manhattan this summer, get to the Met for a heady fashion fix.

Perfume pin: Jewelry is often offered as a premium with perfumes in France. Case in point: a Surreal sun brooch like the stopper in one of Schiap’s most elegant perfume bottles designed by Dali for Le Roy [sic] Soleil. Pin, $150-plus.

Sign No. 2: It’s not like any Schiap jewelry is so common you’re tripping over it (even after her name was purchased), and most collectors are thrilled just to acquire her 1950s parures of watermelon tourmaline stones or crackled-glass chunks known in the vernacular as lava or moon rocks. But what’s rarest are the early 1930s-’40s figural pieces, such as her Circus Collection population, or the Shocking Scamp fencer perfume bottle brooch. Finding it, or one of her ostriches, would knock anyone off a tightrope, so you can imagine the high that comes from finding another figural of the early Elsa era, an ebony clip typically called a Blackamoor (but really a Tahitian native straight out of Gauguin). Granted, it’s attributed versus signed, but it’s an occasion for hyperventilation (and its reverse side is exactly like a famous signed piece). One version of it, first attributed in Barbara Berger’s “Luxe et Fantaisie,” features the head draped with lush molten-glass leaves, while another (also in “The Jewelry Face Book of Pins & Pendants”) has the same tendrils but in enameled brass. It’s rare, and proves again that anything can be anywhere. Also worth noting: Even her 1950s jewelry sets are often offered at prices higher than her Persian lamb and fur coats.

All abuzz: Colorful 1950s Schiaparelli dragonfly pin in one of multiple hues was featured in a large 1957 magazine ad; pin $250-$350.

Yet another sign: My business partner consigned a Schiap dragonfly brooch that belonged to his late mother. Happily, I located an original ad for it, so we were able not only to date the pin exactly (1957), but also see the collection’s entire grouping, which included lobster, crab, peacock and llama. The ad also lists her boutique addresses at the time: South Hill Street in Los Angeles, Fifth Avenue in New York City and the Place Vendome in Paris. (Speaking of her Paris place: a 1935 Dufy painting of the interior sold at Sotheby’s for $192,750.)

The next sign: Harper’s Bazaar ran a retro-history story on Schiap’s presence in the magazine and mentioned that designers at fashion houses from Lanvin to Jil Sander had 2012 spring collections with direct mode maps to Schiap.

Also, Schiap was on tap at “Antiques Roadshow,” where a Season 16 roadie in Atlanta brought along two pairs of mid-1950s Schiaparelli eyeglasses: one rendered in 14-karat gold with real pearls, the other silver-plated with crystal stones. Appraiser Steven Porterfield of The Cat’s Meow said the gold glasses were prototypes, valued at $6,000 to $9,000. The second pair plus original case brought the lot up to a high estimate of $11,700. So keep your eyes open for this madcap couturier’s spectacularly spendy spectacles, including her more “reasonable” striped-awning sunglasses.

Fashionably fooling the eye: The Philadelphia Museum of Art was the lucky recipient of this famous 1937 creation by Jean Cocteau with Lesage for Schiaparelli. It was featured in a 1988 Threads magazine feature about Schiap. What do you see first on the coat: two faces in profile, or an urn brimming with roses?
Image from Threads courtesy The Philadelphia Museum of Art

This made me recall reading about debonair leatherman Diego Della Valle (laid-back captain of an Italian luxe-goods empire including Tod’s) purchasing the Schiaparelli name several years ago. Della Valle has relaunched the Schiaparelli brand and re-opened Maison Schiaparelli at 21 Place Vendome in Paris. (Visit Schiaparelli.com for more details.)

Continuing on: Sunday, April 22, I had to log on briefly to contact people purchasing jewelry for Mother’s Day and was going to sign off right away, but I decided to conduct a short Schiap quest. I ended up searching 16 minutes for anything out there, just to satisfy curiosity stoked by “Roadshow.”

A quick scan showed ear clip vinaigrettes in original box, plus perfumes from 1943’s Shocking Radiance to 1938’s Sleeping, in full retail regalia, and a full box of mini-soaps that looked like hot-pink mints, all at the Perfume Bottles Auction. Charles A. Whitaker Auction Co. had Schiap dress fabric, a terrific trompe l’oeil purse, and … then the phone rang.

And then Schiap spoke to me straight from the grave. Sort of.

Caller ID said it was one of my kids. It seemed a little early on a Sunday for him to call from California. “Hello?”

“Hi. How are you?” he said. I could tell by the level of cheer in his voice he was at a sporting event. I would have guessed a Dodgers game, but it was early in the day for baseball and the Cardinals weren’t in town, so he wouldn’t sound quite as chill as he did.

Happy Tahitian? Carved ebony 1930s fur clip figural attributed to Schiaparelli, usually referred to as a Blackamoor, $2,500-$5,000.
Photo courtesy The Jewelry Face Book of Pins & Pendants

“I’m at Santa Anita,” he explained, “and there’s a horse in the next race named Schiaparelli. I thought maybe you’d want to place a bet.”

I stared out the window, trying to absorb this. Was this for real?

I said, “Are you kidding?”

No.

I said, “I’m sitting here doing a search for Schiap after seeing an item on ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ and now you call about this?”

He didn’t say anything.

“It’s a filly?” I asked.

Yes.

“OK,” I said. “Twenty-five dollars.” Long pause.

“Gee, mother, that’s a little steep,” he said.

(Was I supposed to put down two bucks on such a thing?) “I don’t know, honey …”

“Gotta go!” he interrupted. “Gotta place the bet!”

Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang. “You won!” he said. He put $20 on the flannel-gray filly from Kentucky to win, and she did.

And then I went Schiapping with my shocking-green $58.

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