This story appears in V137, available to order now
Lobster-patterned dresses, oblong diamond-encrusted necklaces and stiletto-style top hats. No, it’s not the plot of red Mill but rather the one-of-a-kind repertoire of Italian designer and seamstress Elsa Schiaparelli. Beginning his career in Paris, Schiaparelli circled around with Salvador Dalí and Paul Poiret as his trompe-l’oeil split and recognizable costume jewelry became the uniform of savvy Parisiennes. Although the house closed in 1954, its brilliance has been revitalized by current artistic director Daniel Roseberry. Today, Schiaparelli’s masterpieces come to life as the Parisian institution Musée des Arts Décoratifs unveils the retrospective exhibition Shocking! The surreal world of Elsa Schiaparelli, a few steps from the beginning of the house’s history and two decades after the museum organized a retrospective on the creation.
Encompassing the dynamic scope of Schiaparelli’s work, the exhibition features nearly 300 silhouettes from the couturier’s archives and a wealth of jewellery, sketches, ceramics and more. “We not only wanted to show the public, especially the youngest, the image of a legendary fashion designer, but to bring it to life because her work remains very current”, explains Olivier Gabet, director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and curator of the exhibition. “When you look at Schiaparelli’s designs from the late 1920s, they carry the spirit of that era.”
With baroque-inspired outerwear placed alongside pre-war cigarette-style trousers, visitors are guided chronologically, exposing Schiaparelli’s creative process and evolution as a sartorial force. In addition to showcasing Schiaparelli’s personal repertoire, photographs of artistic forces such as Man Ray, Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau illustrate the eternal connection between the arts and fashion. Like the ingenious work of Schiaparelli, the exhibition merges the surreal with the tangible, transporting viewers into a realm of unfettered imagination and fantasy. “The main lesson of the exhibition is that you have a woman here who, on her own, has developed an incredible signature as a fashion designer,” says Gabet. “And his signature embraced everything: creativity, imagination. It was daring. »
Shocking! The surreal world of Elsa Schiaparelli is presented at the Museum of Decorative Arts from July 6, 2022 to January 22, 2023.
Below, check out an extended Q&A with Olivier Gabet, director and curator of the Museum of Decorative Arts!
Magazine V: How did the Musée des Arts Décoratifs decide to stage Elsa Schiaparelli and revisit her heritage in this exhibition?
Olivier Gabet: It was both easy and complex, we were very lucky to pull off this exhibit – you can except dresses, Schiaparelli drawings, and more. On the other hand, which is quite complex, we wanted to borrow very fragile parts. For us, it was also a challenge to show these pieces to a new audience. The youngest have the image of Schiaparelli as a great couturier, a legendary figure. But we also wanted to make it very lively and modern, because when you look at Schiaparelli’s designs in the late 1920s, they bring the spirit of that time.
V: Can you explain the meaning of the exhibition title: Shocking! The surreal world of Elsa Schiaparelli?
OG: Very often, Schiaparelli is associated with surrealism, but his creations are very modern [and] contemporary at a time when so many fashion designers wanted to emphasize artistic inspiration and collaboration. Someone like Elsa Schiaparelli was certainly a great fashion designer, but was also considered by many of her peers and friends to be an artist in her own right. And it’s very important to underline this reality, the inspiration, the friendship with other artists, the work of art. She had a knack for having other people to work with her. And if today we rely on collaboration, at the time, it was revolutionary. And that’s something we also want to emphasize in the exhibition. And it shows that times have changed because often we have exhibitions of modern art and fine art, but it is important today to make Schiaparelli appear as a true leader of the artistic movement.
V: In the exhibition, there are more than 500 items ranging from clothes, accessories, perfumes, etc. How did you approach the curatorial process to decide what is included in the exhibition?
OG: The exhibition is a very complete vision. But it was very important for us to do everything is clear and intelligible so that visitors walk through the museum without any idea of the history of fashion – it is very, very important that people feel comfortable. And the exhibition is a balance between chronology and reality about the life of a real woman: the way she evolved, where she comes from, what she does later, the way she organized her own collections . We also create times when people can feel comfortable and understand what happened in the history of fashion: the 20s and 30s are a time of great creativity in fashion, and although it barely appears on the screens, we wanted to bring this vision to our visitors.
V: And can you describe how the exhibition is organized? What can the public expect when visiting the exhibition?
OG: The exhibition was approached more or less chronologically. Although Schiaparelli may be less well known than other fashion designers, her background and her work are very clear in the exhibition. By showing the creations and nuances of Schiaparelli, the exhibition is a journey through the life, mind and spirit of Schiaparelli. On the other hand, we also wanted to show the whole of Schiaparelli because, beyond being a fashion designer, she had an incredible heart and always did the best with her work. This was one of the main objectives of the exhibition and the conservation.
V: Schiaparelli had a major infatuation with surrealism which flourished in Paris. What did you learn about Schiaparelli’s life and practice by organizing this exhibition?
OG: Interestingly, she came from a very different cultural background than other fashion designers of the time. She comes from a very sophisticated family and grew up in Palazzo Corsini in Italy. His father and uncle were great luminaries of Italian culture. So she came from a very different background and was quite young when she arrived in Paris. She meets Paul Poiret, a great couturier of the time. And she was collaborating with many artists at that time and it was so important for us to make people feel that in the exhibition. And it’s also one of the main parts of the exhibition, highlighting how it went from a very singular path to a very artistic reality.
V: What do you hope visitors to the exhibition will learn about Schiaparelli’s work, life and legacy?
OG: The the main lesson is about creativity. And that’s very important today because you can be a wonderful marketer, you can be a merchandiser. But the main lesson of the exhibition is this: here you have a woman who, on her own, has developed an incredible signature as a fashion designer. And his signature embraces everything: creativity, imagination. And with all this creativity, for me, the main lesson is that you have to be crafty, you have to be creative to mark your time.