The exhibition Shocking! Les mondes Surréalistes d’Elsa Schiaparelli at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, that runs until 22 January 2022, promises to show the link between the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and the surrealist art movement in the late 1920’s and 30’s.
At least the title suggests that that is what visitors will get to see. Unfortunately, to me the exhibition seemed like a step in the marketing plan of the owners of the house of Schiaparelli. Elsa Schiaparelli closed her fashion house in 1954. Diego della Valle has owned Maison Schiaparelli (the name and archives) since 2014 and hired new creative director Daniel Roseberry in 2019. On the Schiaparelli website we can read that the house has been actively involved in putting together the exhibition.
This makes sense since they own the archives, however the recent work of Roseberry for the brand was featured heavily in the exhibition. His striking couture designs, that admittedly are interesting takes on the visual language established by Elsa Schiaparelli take center stage in two or three of the first exhibition rooms. The final two exhibition rooms are dedicated solely to the house’s recent work for people like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé.
The Italian Schiaparelli moved to Paris after living in Britain, the south of France and New York and Boston with her somewhat sketchy German husband. She had met Gabrielle Picabia (wife of artist Francis) on a transatlantic journey and through her she met Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and others. Although Schiaparelli was from an aristocratic, intellectual family and her apartment and servants were paid for by her family, after her divorce she wanted to take care of her daughter and herself. The famous fashion designer Paul Poiret encouraged her to start her own fashion line.
In 1927 Schaiparelli designed a collection of knitwear with trompe l’oeil effects which was featured in Vogue. Later she added evening wear to her collection and was quite successful with her clothing line. So successful in fact, that she opened a shop on Place Vendôme near the Ritz Hotel. Even though Schiaparelli had no formal training in pattern making and design, or maybe because of that, she was an innovative designer. For instance, she developed a wrap dress that flattered all body types. Schiaparelli designed dresses for film stars and sold cosmetics and perfume under her name.
After her move to Paris and through her friendship with the Picabias and Man Ray Schiaparelli became part of the artists’ scene and started working with surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau. Together they created pieces of clothing that were wearable but could also be considered art.
That is what makes the work of Elsa Schiaparelli truly exceptional, and I was hoping that the exhibition at Musée des Arts Décoratifs would showcase that more. Instead, the exhibition was just part of the Schiaparelli fashion experience. Expect a relaunch of the perfume Schocking! very soon…