Not since Paris couture was orphaned by the loss of the house of Christian Lacroix in 2009 have I encountered that particular heady concoction of exuberant fantasy and meticulous old-world craftsmanship. Four years have felt like 60 and so, when I heard that Lacroix would return to make the first Schiaparelli collection since 1954, it seemed more than apt. Is it possible we have conjured this collection out of air, just by longing for it.
Tantalisingly, Lacroix’s work for Schiaparelli was a one-off, on display at Les Arts Décoratifs in July. The day after the opening, amid the magnificent pieces on their mannequins, we talked about the process of wandering the city and conceiving them. Lacroix’s strong empathy for Elsa Schiaparelli was clear. In their sensibility, both designers share a certain southern, Latin esprit that marks them out from Paris’ Cartesian coldness. Christian admits as much: “I like the idea that somebody from the South, from Rome, built this concept of French glamour. I like the idea that ‘French’, ‘Paris’, ‘Parisienne’ are all fantaisies made by foreigners. Paris needs its strangers. We have the set,” he laughs, “but we need the actors.”
It’s not an idle figure of speech. When I ask what it was like for him to return, he insists it felt nothing like “coming back to couture”. “For me,” he says, “it was like stage design. It was like a musical about Schiaparelli and I was in charge of the costumes. When I was a teenager, I was in love with the Coco musical on Broadway, the Cecil Beaton.” This feeling, for Lacroix, is “something very complicated”: “For many years I never felt I was a designer. I was my twin pretending to be a designer. I was looking at him from the outside. I’ve always felt much more rooted in reality when I was on stage.”
That heightened, theatrical reality forms the deepest possible connection between Lacroix and Schiaparelli, whose most intense and vivid influences were Surrealist – in her collaborations with Dalí and elsewhere. Like the Surrealists themselves, Schiaparelli is now too often misread as a purveyor of eccentric escapism. But there was an unmistakable sharpness to the fantastical wit so evident in her work and theirs: just as we cannot understand Breton and the rest without appreciating their radical aesthetic revolt against repressive social forces, so we should recognise Schiaparelli’s legacy as anything but froth.
Christian has known that about her since he was 12 years old and, leafing through his grandmother’s magazine collection one rainy day, saw in Vogue a picture of a girl dressed for the bomb shelter in Schiaparelli. That was “my very first image of her”, he tells me. “The jumpsuit she did for the war in March 1940. It was her last collection in Paris before escaping. She was the only one who did something connected with reality. The others were politically correct, subdued – or else escapist, extravagant things, big hats, blah blah blah… But she did a jumpsuit for going into the shelters.” He showed me the piece in this collection that’s a tribute to that very suit: “Exactly. I just exaggerated the pockets and added red.”
Who said resistance couldn’t be fun and glamorous? With obvious delight, Christian told me about the clothes Schiaparelli made to accommodate wartime changes, such as the tweed suit she invented for cycling to parties around Paris while petrol was rationed: “So in the lining there was a sequined skirt – you just unzipped one button and the skirt came out. And she called this collection Cash and Carry!” The detailing told its own tale: there were “big, big pockets” for women who suddenly had to do their own grocery shopping, “because, no more maid!” Christian describes a Bouché illustration “of this very glamorous girl in the marketplace, with vegetables in her big pockets. If you wanted to escape with your jewels and money and papers, you had your Schiaparelli.”
Yet the clothes he has made for this collection don’t refer in that explicit way to our own moment. Christian didn’t want “to link anything with nowadays”. “At first,” he explains, “I thought, well, we have to show the most modern thing: OK, shocking pink, OK, shoe hat. She invented fluorescents in silk, she did plastic things.” In the end, he decided not to focus on obvious futuristic flourishes now, “when plastic is everywhere, technology is everywhere”. “I much prefer,” he tells me, “to be faithful to the most extravagant and exuberant side, but just using more black than she did.” It was very visibly the right decision, and no surprise there – Lacroix’s judgment is as unerring as his eye.
There is something heart-wrenchingly beautiful about this collection, about an artistry we could once hope to wear now on display so fleetingly at the museum. Ensconced at the original atelier on the Place Vendȏme, Schiaparelli’s spokeswoman Farida Khelfa has so far revealed nothing about the label’s plans for the future. But Lacroix! How to be satisfied with just one brief, exquisite glimpse of what we’ve been missing these four long years? §