Much of the buzz at Paris Fashion Week this season surrounded the debut ready-to-wear collections of the new creative directors at Dior and Yves Saint Laurent: Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane, respectively. But another prestigious fashion house is waiting in the wings for its own decisive moment: Italian businessman Diego Della Valle (of Tod’s and Roger Vivier) is in the process of reviving Schiaparelli, the namesake house of the iconoclastic Italian couturier Elsa Schiaparelli. In Paris this week, a lucky few were given a preview of her world. Della Valle has restored the grande maison at 21 Place Vendôme (the address of the original Schiaparelli atelier) to its former glory, complete with gilded mirrors, quilted sofas in Schiaparelli pink, and the works of Cocteau and Picasso hanging on the walls. The former house of Schiaparelli closed its doors in 1954.
Farida Khelfa, longtime muse of Azzedine Alaïa and Jean Paul Gaultier and now the glamorous spokesperson for this new venture, has been put in charge of educating people on the significance of the brand. “Not everyone knows the history: who she was, how important she was, what she did, and the spirit of the house,” she says of Schiaparelli, settling on the sofa. And “this is the best place to do that: we are at Place Vendôme, in the historical building. Diego waited until he had the whole building (expect the second floor) to relaunch the house.”
The announcement of the launch was made in May, but Della Valle has still yet to announce a creative director. As such, it’s likely the first collection won’t be presented until spring 2013 couture week next June. Inès de la Fressange was reported to be involved, though Khlefa seems unaware of this detail. “She works with him on Vivier, so perhaps she is consulting a little on this as well.”
Whoever is appointed will have a challenging task ahead of them. Schiaparelli was a true artiste of her time; she collaborated with the likes of Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dalí, and her legacy is insurmountable, even today. “I worked with Jean Paul Gaultier, and he of course knows a lot about Schiaparelli,” says Khelfa. “He was always saying this is very Schiap [gesturing] and this is Schiap ... And when you see the Cocteau drawing for Yves Saint Laurent, that was actually very Schiap ... the newspaper print that John Galliano did ... Everybody took a piece of her and reinterpreted it.”
In May, Schiaparelli was the subject of Impossible Conversations, a conveniently timed exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute that put the designer in conversation with Miuccia Prada. It was well received—it had 339,838 visitors, making it the fourth-most-visited Costume Institute exhibition in the past 10 years—and it certainly ignited new discourse on Schiaparelli. “We could not have hoped for more or for better timing,” Khelfa acknowledges of the exhibition. “It was very interesting to see what she did and what she designed—nearly a century ago now.”
More recently Schiaparelli’s influence can be seen in elements of Lanvin’s fall 2012 collection—a surrealist brooch in the shape of hands—and even at Céline, who presented a heel this season that featured painted toenails on the toe.
So what is the modern-day vision for Schiaparelli? “It will be demicouture, and we have to make it very now,” she says. “We want to keep the spirit alive and the dream alive, but we have to find a new way. She had Dalí do the windows of her stores, so maybe we can find a new Dalí? That’s the designer who is going to decide that, because he is going to be in charge.” He? “He, or she,” she says quickly, insisting that she doesn’t know when an announcement will be made, or if Della Valle has even appointed someone. “He doesn’t tell me things.”
At one point, rumors circulated that John Galliano might have his comeback via the new vision of Schiaparelli (a rebirth in every sense), but both parties have denied this. Galliano obviously has the theatrical chops and the couture experience to tackle this project, although dramatic design is not on trend at the moment: key players Simons and Phoebe Philo are leading the charge with a simpler aesthetic.
“Schiap’s designs were not overdone, though,” says Khelfa. “When you see the clothes, everything was very simple, very well cut, and suddenly you have just some embroidery or just one detail—a long white dress perfectly done in organza, with a print. Of course we are not going to do the same as Schiap—maybe we can take some of her spirit, but the idea is going to be quite different. We are in the 21st century, it’s another millennium, and the world has changed.”