With the launch of a new couture collection and a major exhibition in Paris, Elsa Schiaparelli’s spirit is more alive than ever.
In the life of a journalist there are always many firsts. Interviewing a leading artistic director of a celebrated Parisian couture house seated on a staircase, surrounded by old mannequins and boxes, however, definitely feels like novelty. But, after all, we are in Schiaparelli’s headquarters, a brand that since its launch in 1927 has never done things the mundane way, from collaborating with Jean Cocteau on surrealist designs, to twisting things around with a “shoe hat” in partnership with Salvador Dalí. For the Italian founder Elsa Schiaparelli, nothing was off limits to escape “the material and dull reality of the making of a dress to sell.”
The reason why we are hidden behind an emergency door for this interview with Daniel Roseberry, Schiaparelli’s artistic director since 2019, is less fantasy, and more pragmatic. This was the morning after the presentation of its Fall 22 couture collection, and the headquarters of the brand in the heart of Place Vendôme was bursting with buyers, editors, and other fashion fauna eager to congratulate Roseberry for another runway triumph. It was also the morning post the opening of Shocking! The Surreal World of Elsa Schiaparelli, a new retrospective exhibition held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs until January 22, 2023. “You have moments in the life of a house that really feel like a full circle: a show, a museum exhibition, a cocktail, and dinner surrounded by your friends and family… It’s thrilling and I’m really proud with all we did,” says the artistic director, who previously worked for more than a decade at Thom Browne. “My family who flew in from the US are still in a state of shock in a way, but they loved to be a part of it, and experience the reality of what it means to be living and working in couture in Paris. It’s a lot to process.”
When we start talking about the 34 looks presented on the runway, Roseberry notes that the collection was all about unapologetic beauty and romance, without any underlined complicated message. “My mother always asked me if I wouldn’t feel more complete as a creative if I was making clothes that impact people’s lives on a bigger scale, like creating for less expensive retailers such as Target or Walmart,” confides the designer. “But my life didn’t change by going to Target. It changed by looking at McQueen or Dior by Galliano shows. That kind of beauty was what inspired me the most and where I started this collection. I wanted to make things that felt unapologetically romantic, but still sharp, chic, interesting, and conceptual. But in a dreamy way.”
However, in Roseberry’s fashion dictionary, beautiful doesn’t stand just for pretty. His parade of corseted looks accessorized with dramatic straw hats, velvet jackets embroidered with flowers, and designs celebrating different parts of the female body felt like a silent yet powerful statement, released in a time of so much instability around the globe, from wars to enforcement of regressive laws. “As a designer you have the responsibility of making work that reflects the time. We are living in times of such tragedy and negativity, that I wanted to create something that, more than just an escape, is an antidote to the ugliness of what it means to be alive today,” says the designer, who surprised the public by selecting the score of Jurassic Park as soundtrack for his show. “I think that when things are so hard and falling apart, this sort of dream-like state is what I find is most compelling. I guess it was a statement, even a political statement if you want.”
This capacity of commenting on the times we are living in – while being ahead of them – is also the overarching mood felt at Shocking! The Surreal World of Elsa Schiaparelli. Curated by Olivier Gabet and Marie-Sophie de La Carrière, the exhibition brings together 520 works, including 272 silhouettes and accessories by Schiaparelli herself, displayed alongside paintings, sculptures, jewelry, perfumes, ceramics, posters, and photographs by Schiaparelli’s friends and collaborators: Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau, Meret Oppenheim, and Elsa Triolet. It also showcases creations designed in honor of Schiaparelli by Yves Saint Laurent, Azzedine Alaï a, John Galliano, Christian Lacroix, and, naturally, Daniel Roseberry. As you walk through the rooms, you will find pieces that still raise eyebrows today, like the famous Lobster dress, or a telephone powder compact. “If you ask me what my favorite thing about this exhibition is, what I loved the most was to have a deeper sense of how her personality was, and how it was imbued into every single thing that she did. Her sense of humor and wit were also revealed to me. Even when she was doing things that felt dark or glamorous, or comical or surreal, you know there was always this unifying voice,” concludes Roseberry. “Elsa Schiaparelli had freedom and boldness, and just didn’t give a damn about people’s opinions.”
Originally published in the September 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia