October 2014

Alyssa Harad

nonfiction

Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest

Do you need a day suit? Something to command respect? Consider this navy blue skirt and matching jacket, the stiff, heavy fabric cut to emphasize the shoulders and balance the hips, nearly military in its sharp presence save for its rounded collar, which is lined in pleated salmon pink silk and crawling with embroidered insects. And, oh yes, its matching necklace -- startlingly realistic plastic bugs suspended in a transparent strip of plastic so they appear to have landed on your collar bone of their own accord. Perhaps you are looking for that perfect final touch for your evening wear? How about these long black opera gloves whose fingers end in sharp gold talons? Or maybe you prefer these, in teal, with rows of silk-lined ruffles extending from the knuckles that look for all the world like very beautiful gold and teal flayed flesh?

This is just a taste of Elsa Schiaparelli’s uncanny vision. At the height of her fame in the 1930s, Schiaparelli occupied a 98-room atelier in the heart of fashionable Paris on the Place Vendôme. Her couture designs were coveted by the rich and famous, adopted by Hollywood, and ruthlessly knocked-off by international manufacturers who followed her every move. She is justly famous for the startling and witty clothes, touched by Surrealism, that resulted from her collaborations with artists including Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, and Leonor Fini, but many of her ideas were so influential their author became invisible. In a little more than ten years she invented wrap dresses (sorry Diane Von Furstenberg), wedge heels, evening dresses with matching dinner jackets, reversible coats, built-in bras for swimsuits, shirt-waist dresses, culottes, jumpsuits, and the extended, padded shoulders whose sillhouette would come to define the 1940s -- by which time Schiaparelli was sick of them and had moved on to the next thing. The vivid fuchsia she developed and named shocking pink makes a regular resurgence.

Schiaparelli put a shy Katherine Hepburn into her first pantsuit and made a beseiged Duchess of Windsor look simultaneously girlish and dangerous in a white gown with a giant red Dali-painted lobster on it (complete with bits of parsley). Her clothes flattered, but they were uninterested in seduction. Rather, they demonstrated verve, daring, elan. They were a kind of armor meant to shock and delight -- “hard chic,” Vogue called it.

What kind of mind created these clothes? What kind of life? In Meryle Secrest’s Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography, the designer appears to be just as dazzling and defended as her clothes. Tough and inventive from the start, with a streak of mysticism, she ran away from her upper class Italian family when they tried to marry her off. She landed in London, and eventually made her way to New York accompanied by one William De Kerlor, a man she married almost immediately after they met, who turned out to be a con and would-be psychic and magician. Schiaparelli became his assistant and de facto manager, appearing on stage and managing the accounts.

Though she draws from Schiaparelli’s own (very strange and highly constructed) autobiography, Shocking Life, for her early chapters, Secrest has greatly expanded on earlier accounts with new research on the designer’s wayward husband. It is easy to see how her time on the vaudeville circuit would serve Schiaparelli in Paris where everything was a performance, and we have a strong sense of her forward movment. However, perhaps because she’s found so much new material, Secrest also gives us nearly half a chapter on De Kerlor’s activities after Schiaparelli has left for Paris with their daughter, GoGo and had, as far as we know, no contact with him. (She told GoGo he was dead.)

It’s the first sign of a problem that is most present in the long middle stretch of the book -- the lack of a central question or arc that leads us back to Schiaparelli as a person. Secrest is a seasoned biographer with more than half a dozen well-received titles under her belt. She has a brisk, breezy style and a sidelong humor that meshes beautifully with the juicy quotes she plucks from the fashion press and the charming voice of Schiaparelli’s longtime friend, Bettina Bergery, whose diaries and letters form the backbone of her research. We are treated to vivid accounts of the Paris social scene -- including the decadent balls of the late 1930s that were the natural milieu for Schiaparelli’s creations. The portrait she paints of the cutthroat fashion industry make it clear how unusual Schiaparelli’s success was and the ceaseless vigilance and inhuman amounts of work it required, while her detailed histories of the artisans necessary to couture make it clear why a phenom like Schiaparelli could only have existed in Paris.

But these anecdotes and secondary character sketches scramble the chronology of the story and too often they are only loosely connected to one another and to Schiaparelli, who remains somewhere off to the side or out of the room altogether for pages on end. When she is onstage, she remains a fairly static figure. Over and over again, we are told that the designer was incredibly charming but hard to know, that her commanding presence carried a hint of suppressed melancholic depths, that she could talk anyone into anything but held everyone at arm’s length. Finally, 209 pages in, Secrest spends several pages telling us all the things we will never know about Schiaparelli. It’s a strange choice, as though Secrest had gotten halfway through her project only to give up on knowing her subject.

The book regains focus and momentum in the section on Schiaparelli’s wartime activities. As Secrest tells it, the designer cultivated a careful neutrality, maintaining advantageous contacts sympathetic to the Germans (some of whom were longtime close friends) that, combined with her native ability to talk her way through nearly anything, allowed her to travel back and forth between New York and France while thousands of refugees waited without hope. Her travels, combined with her outspoken defense of French couture under the Vichy government, eventually led to her investigation by the FBI in the United States and the seizing of her assets by cash-starved England. The way Secrest untangles the scattered evidence to to tell this story is both even-handed and genuinely exciting.

Schiaparelli never fully recovered from the great interruption of World War II. Her world -- the artistic and social life of pre-war Paris -- had disappeared, and with it went the source of her seemingly endless font of ideas. Nevertheless, she managed to mentor both Yves St. Laurent and Hubert de Givenchy. The latter extended the life of her Paris boutique and then brought about its final demise -- as Schiaparelli predicted he would -- when he left to start his own business, taking his clients with him.

Secrest ends her book with Schiaparelli’s denouement and death, fading from the scene -- at one point a TV announcer introduces her as the creator of shocking pink and her perfume, Shocking -- indomitable and defended to the end. But there is more to tell: in 2012 the Metropolitan Museum of Art staged a joint retrospective on Schiaparelli and Prada, elevating Elsa Schiaparelli’s work to the art she always claimed it was. One can imagine a series of such pairings -- think of her work next to Alexander McQueen’s fantasies -- tracing the lasting impact of Schiaparelli’s ideas. In the meantime, hundreds of images of her astonishing work are accessible to anyone with an internet connection. They’re as detailed a portrait of their maker as we’re likely to get.

Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307701596
400 pages