Was Elsa Schiaparelli an artist or a fashion designer? Her great rival, Gabrielle Chanel, used to call Schiaparelli “the Italian” or “this artist who makes dresses”.

The two women are quite different: while Chanel is driven by a desire for revenge on a poor and obscure childhood that she will disguise once famous, Schiaparelli is a Medici descendant and was born in a Roman palace.

Whereas Chanel had its first boutiques financed by adoring men, Schiaparelli saw her personal fortune crunched by her husband.

Soon penniless, she discovers a taste for fashion and her eccentric creations attract the attention of the famous French designer Paul Poiret.

She applies a well-known architectural tradition in Italy to jersey sweaters decorated with trompe l’œil knots.

She meets the Dadaists.

Chanel may believe that she is insulting towards Schiaparelli by calling her “an artist who makes dresses” but the fact remains that the expression is, in all neutrality, totally true.

The structure of her dresses is not strictly speaking extravagant, but the decorations applied to them are unconventional. The “lobster dress”, imagined with Dali, is one of the best examples of this eccentricity, especially when it’s worn by a scandalous Wallis Simpson.

The accessories imagined by Schiaparelli are delirious: boots with hair, gloves decorated with red snakeskin nails or even a compact disguised as a phone screen. Famous artists participate in these extravagant creations: Cocteau, Dali, Giacometti or Elsa Triolet.

She liberates women’s bodies, inventing the culottes and treating the practical zipper like a piece of jewelry, when it was usually camouflaged. She uses a dazzling pink, the now-famous “shocking pink”, as her signature.

Schiaparelli encourages women to be seen and recognized and her creations richly decorated with Lesage embroidery say nothing else. It is extravagantly beautiful.

Many common points bring Chanel and Schiaparelli together: beyond their instinctive understanding of the need to liberate the female body, the use of jersey or the creation of sportswear clothes for active women, a sharp business sense, a real talent for promoting their pretty-ugly personalities and their brands, their lucidity as to the development of ranges of accessories and perfumes which are veritable gold mines are many points of convergence.

The Schiaparelli house closes in 1954 and Elsa dies in 1973. The house is taken over in 2006 and the dresses offered since then still play with the sense of extravagance of the founder and on her favorite color, the famous “shocking pink”.

The exhibition is running from July 6, 2022 to January 22, 2023 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

September 2, 2022