By Katharine K. Zarrella
Ever since Diego Della Valle announced his plans to relaunch Schiaparelli earlier this year, the rumor mill has been spinning with supposed candidates for the house’s creative director. But who could possibly follow in the footsteps of Elsa Schiaparelli, the designer who, as illustrated in the Met’s recent “Prada and Schiaparelli: Impossible Conversations” exhibition, was one of the most compelling fashion figures of the 20th century? And more importantly, will this mystery designer and Della Valle be able to bring back the iconic house with dignity?
From the moment she launched her line with a range of trompe l’oeil knitwear in 1927, it was clear that Elsa Schiaparelli was a pioneer: a trailblazer of the bold, the beautiful, and the bizarre. The queen of sartorial surrealism, she was a close friend of Salvatore Dali, with whom she collaborated on the famed Lobster dress worn by Wallis Simpson in a 1937 issue of Vogue. Chanel, one of Schiaparelli’s competitors and contemporaries, reportedly called her “that Italian artist who makes clothes.” But Schiaparelli’s witty designs, from her shoe hat to her monkey fur heels to her skeleton dress, resonated with artists, eccentrics, actresses (Mae West and Marlene Dietrich were among her clients), socialites, and editors alike. And her influence on fashion has been unwavering.
Early on, there were whispers that John Galliano was up for the Schiaparelli job. From a strictly creative standpoint (let’s take his racist-rant heard round the world out of the equation for a moment), and considering he’s a visionary in his own right, one could see him succeeding in the role. Sadly, Della Valle’s rep dismissed the rumor. Last week, British Vogue reported that Canadian born, London-based designer Erdem Moralioğlu and Nicolas Ghesquiere (who will be leaving Balenciaga at the end of this month) were rumored to be in the running. The house declined to comment. But while taking over Schiaparelli would indeed be a thrilling challenge for any inspired designer, history has proven that restoring a sleeping fashion house to its original prowess is no easy task.
Just look at the gaggle of houses that have been pushed from the archive to the runway in the past few years. Vionnet was first brought back in 2006 under the direction of Sophia Kokosalaki. The house, founded in 1912 by Madeline Vionnet – who was best known for inventing the ever-flattering bias cut – has had a revolving door of designers ever since. Rodolfo Paglialunga found some success from 2008 to 2011, his first collection championing Grecian draping, a Vionnet signature. Upon his departure, Barbara and Lucia Croce, a set of Italian twins, hustled in for only three seasons before severing their relationship with the brand. The spring 2013 collection was designed by a house team, which turned out clothes that looked more like bridesmaids dresses than frocks born out of a pioneering couture house.
Then there’s the House of Worth. Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman who launched his house in Paris in 1858, is largely regarded as the father of haute couture. His made-to-order gowns were worn by everyone from Empress Eugenie to Sarah Bernhardt and he was the first designer to sew labels into his clothes. The house was relaunched in 2010 with Italian designer Giovanni Bedin at its helm. And Bedin’s first two couture collections, which fused Worth’s impeccable Edwardian corsets with thigh-skimming structured skirts or tulle tutus, showed promise. But for autumn 2012/2013, the designer turned out a range of ill-fitting jumpsuits and boned one-pieces with 19th-century details that looked better suited for last week’s Victoria’s Secret show than a couture runway. The clothes were skimpy, costumey, and stuck in another era. As a result, Worth has failed to break into the upper echelons of contemporary couture.
Another prime example is Halston, which has relaunched and changed hands several times since Roy Halston’s death in 1990. Harvey Weinstein bought the house in 2007, placing Marco Zanini at the creative helm. Then, for some reason, Sarah Jessica Parker got involved and began consulting on the diffusion line, Halston Heritage. Marios Schwab tried his hand designing the main line, but left in 2011. And now, all that is left are high street-quality designs that have nothing to do with the glamorous ’70s gowns Roy Halston designed for the Studio 54 set. The house was recently bought by a former BCBG exec, Ben Malka, and yet another rebirth is in the works. But from its celebrity collaborators to the sub-par designs, the relaunch attempts have made a mockery of the house. Perhaps we should just let Halston and his legacy rest in peace.
It must be noted that it’s not impossible to bring back a house with integrity. It was famously done in 1983, when Karl Lagerfeld returned Chanel to super-brand status with an irreverent collection that showed the house’s classic tweeds in the form of sexed-up mini skirts and played with the iconic double C logo. And most recently, Guillaume Henry breathed life back into Carven, a 1940s couture house that relaunched to great acclaim in 2010. Founded by Madame Carmen Tommaso in 1945, the house was an alternative to the formal aesthetic perpetuated by Dior. Today, Henry’s clothes speak to that carefree, feminine spirit, but cater to a forward-thinking, contemporary woman’s needs.
All things considered, it’s fair to say that despite the numerous examples of failure, it is possible to revive Schiaparelli with dignity. But it’s going to take a great talent to do it — someone who understands how to lift the house out of its historical surreal vacuum and into the 21st century. Someone who, like Lagerfeld, can be respectful, playful, and push away from literal interpretations of Schiaparelli’s groundbreaking garments. And, to avoid the game of musical chairs that so many of these revival houses have endured, it will take savvy, patient corporate management to entice said talent to stay. “I think it’s possible to do an incredible, small, charming luxury business,” Della Valle told the New York Times last May, adding that he’s not looking to turn Schiaparelli into a big brand. With that in mind, it would seem that Della Valle is on the right track.
I hope that the businessman and the designer he chooses (who, it should be noted, was supposed to be revealed in September but has yet to be named) will succeed. But I also hope that they’ll have enough of a vision to push the house forward, and won’t revert to doing something like, say, an enamel lobster bag. Elsa Schiaparelli will roll in her grave. Let’s not wake the dead without good reason.