Shocking! Famed fashion house Schiaparelli revived

PARIS -- Shoe hats, lobster dresses, and spiraling goggle glasses could easily be part of a closet inventory belonging to Lady Gaga.

But these objects were all spawned from the mind of another woman, who was born _ incredibly _ in 1890: the avant-garde Elsa Schiaparelli.

The house of the influential fashion designer, and hated rival of Coco Chanel, is being revived this fall, in one of the most highly anticipated fashion events of 2012 in Paris. There's been a flurry of activity this year, including actress Farida Khelfa being named as house ambassador.

If Schiaparelli is no longer a household name _ her business folded in 1954, and she died in 1973 _ her design firsts have certainly lived on: newspaper prints, exposed zippers, perfume bottles in the female form, shocking pink, and _ arguably _ the first woman's power suit.

"The house Schiaparelli is really the DNA of fashion," says Khelfa. "When you see the world of fashion across the century, you can see all the people she has inspired _all the great couturiers of the last century and this one."

The new house will, of course, inherit all the iconic house codes, but _ lacking an artistic director and any clothes dating past 1954 _ it surely must be one of the most curious fashion relaunches in recent times.

But why strike now?

"It feels like the right moment... and things are moving quickly," said Khelfa who added they've finally found a key piece of the puzzle in reacquiring the original showroom on the 21 Place Vendome, which will set the tone for the clothes production, expected next summer.

"It's really something to be in the very place of creation. We can imagine the boutique downstairs, with all the window displays made by (artist Salvador) Dali. ... In her day, there were three great women at Place Vendome: Schiaparelli, Madame Chanel and Madame Gres. Now we're back."

Inside the revamped showroom, Schiaparelli bigwigs have painstakingly recreated her surrealist universe. Original artifacts that artists designed for the Schiaparelli boutique are proudly on display. Across five salons, glittering gold columns by Alberto Giacometti, a powder compact in the shape of a telephone dial by Dali, a wacky colored carpet by Fernand Leger, spiraling metal glasses created by Man Ray.

Also featured is a "cabinet of curiosity" which featured the perfume Shocking _ a reminder of why the Schiaparelli name became world renowned. A one-foot (30-centimeter) curved fuchsia perfume bottle stands provocatively in the shape of the bust of Hollywood sex symbol Mae West _ a design echoed by designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier. "Shocking" was an adjective on high rotation in the Schiaparelli vocabulary. She invented a bright fuchsia hue _ the now world famous "shocking pink" _ that she chose as the house's signature color.

In 1948, according to company lore, a survey of Americans put Elsa Schiaparelli at the top of their list of most famous French people. But they still couldn't pronounce her name: the "Sch" is hard, as in "school."

A much-publicized exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in May, featuring Schiaparelli's dresses alongside modern Prada ones, introduced her melodic name to whole a new generation, but showed how avant-garde her designs remain.

People "had trouble seeing which was the dress from 1927 and which was from 2012," says Khelfa. "Often the 1927 ones looked more current! That's true avant-garde."

Paris-based fashion writer Rebecca Voight sees the launch as hugely promising. "She still has such an incredibly vibrant image and what a name. The people behind the launch are really in the know, so there's really no reason they'll get it wrong. The question is who will (the designer) be?"

The identity of the artistic director remains the biggest question mark.

The pressure for the launch to succeed may perhaps explain why there's still been no formal announcement, although it was scheduled for September.

Khelfa and Schiaparelli CEO Camilla Schiavone dismissed rumors that John Galliano might be in the running, but they both refused to reveal a short-list.

Schiavone tried to explain away the secrecy.

"The house was rebought in 2006. Now, we have the property. We've waited so long to get it right. We're not interested in running after someone. But you will know in the next three weeks or so. The first, what I call, ready-to-couture collection will probably be June 2013."

Ready-to-couture is a concept Schiavone hopes will keep the classy profile of the Schiaparelli name. Garments won't be available in boutiques but will be made-to-measure for select clients who are invited to the 21 Place Vendome for fittings. Though the house says the aim is to produce highly wearable clothes, the first collection will be shown during the Paris Haute Couture week _ fittingly, alongside historic rival Chanel.

In their heyday, Coco Chanel dismissed Schiaparelli as "that Italian artist who makes clothes." Schiaparelli responded, equally cattily, calling Chanel "that milliner."

Fashion rivalries are in vogue at the moment. A highlight of this year's fashion calendar involves the media pitting the two new designers at Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior against each other.

So after 60 years does the Schiaparelli revival signal there'll once again be handbags at dawn on the Place Vendome?

"No! Chanel is Chanel. It remains Chanel," says Khelfa. She hesitates: "But Schiaparelli is coming!"


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