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ARTICLE MARISA BERENSON

PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY THE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART

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HEROES: ELSA SCHIAPARELLI

PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art
TEXT MARISA BERENSON

ACTRESS, MODEL, AND AUTHOR MARISA BERENSON PENS AN EXCLUSIVE TRIBUTE TO HER GRANDMOTHER—THE ARTIST AND FASHION INNOVATOR ELSA SCHIAPARELLI—IN HONOR OF THE UPCOMING “ELSA SCHIAPARELLI AND MIUCCIA PRADA: ON FASHION” EXHIBITION AT THE MET'S COSTUME INSTITUTE

To really understand my grandmother, you have to know her background. She was brought up in a very strict Catholic family. Education was very important—her father was in politics and extremely intellectual. King Umberto appointed him to be the head of the Royal Library. Her mother, the Marchesa de Dominici, came from an aristocratic family, wore all black, and lived to be 103. She was not very close to her sister, who was very religious and painted frescos in churches. On her father’s side she had an uncle named Giovanni Schiaparelli, an astronomer who discovered canals on Mars. Her other uncle, Ernesto, was the Egyptologist who found Queen Nefertiti’s tomb. He was a director of museums in Florence and Turin.

From a young age, my grandmother was very much a rebel and had the spirit of a bird who wanted to be set free. When she was 13, a man asked for her hand in marriage. She would have gone through with it, but the family didn’t want her to leave home when she was so young. She found her life to be stifling. In college she would write erotic and romantic poetry that scandalized the family. She was full of imagination.

She never spoke to me about her work or her life, and she hated to be called grandmother. She never wanted anybody to call her Elsa, because she didn’t like her name, so her friends called her Schiap, and my sister and I did too.

I’m not sure how old Schiap was when she finally left home, but eventually she went to London and fell in love with a French count named William de Wendt de Kerlor. He was a theosophist and would speak about Buddhism, Hinduism, life after death—all the subjects that she found interesting. She was quite mystical and attracted to the esoteric. She loved this man, who was very good-looking and charming, and married him shortly thereafter.

Schiap was not supported by her family, so she went to New York to make it on her own—and that’s where things took off. She found a hand who could knit and started making trompe l’oeil sweaters and then sportswear for women. She did a whole collection of linen dresses, skiwear, and bathing suits. She became quite a success. Her marriage, however, did not last. She left her husband when my mother was two and went to Paris.

It was a very difficult time, but she always said that Paris saved her life. It was her home for 40 years. She became friends with wonderful artists like Jean-Michel Frank, Alberto Giacometti, Matta, Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso. They all worked together and inspired each other. My grandmother was much more an artist than a designer.

Coco Chanel was a dressmaker and was jealous of her. They were both very strong and independent, but didn’t like each other. Chanel always called my grandmother “the Italian” and did not say very nice things. They each had their own personalities, their own styles. They were daring. Naturally they were very competitive with each other, which is human nature, of course.

Eventually, when she started making money, Schiap opened up a boutique called Schiap Shop in the Place Vendôme, which then became the couture house. She also bought this wonderful house on the Rue de Berri that Napoléon had bought for Princess Mathilde as a present. It had a garden and a courtyard. Schiap lived there for 40 years, and became a French citizen. Her whole career and life developed more in Paris, although she loved America too and often went to the States. She licensed a lot of things in America, such as furs, umbrellas, and stockings.

During the war the American ambassador told my grandmother to get my mother out of Paris, because the Germans were invading. My grandmother wanted to stay for as long as possible, but eventually moved back to New York for part of the war. German diplomats moved into the house. She closed down the Place Vendôme boutique because no one could really work in Paris anymore. She started traveling and giving lectures all over America. She was very inspirational to women. She also created all kinds of fabrics for a new era. It sort of came out of an era of glamour, which was the 1930s. The films were very glamorous, and she dressed a lot of stars from Hollywood, like Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

But then came the whole period of the war, so she started inventing incredibly innovative sportswear for practical women, with zippers and big pockets. She was the first one to do all of those exteriorized practices utilizing parachute fabrics, so that women could drive ambulances or be in a practical mode of life. She created a whole style for women who couldn’t live the glamorous life anymore.

Eventually she went back to Paris, but it wasn’t easy. The Germans had taken over, a lot of things were shut down, and there was no money. Life had changed a lot, and she was not able to get back on her feet as amaison de couture, which was quite sad for her. Fashionwise, things started to change, too. Mr. Dior had come in and revolutionized a certain style that was completely different. The New Look had taken over.

Schiap was (and still is) relevant in that she influenced a whole new era of designers. Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy—they all worked for her, and they all adored her. Cardin worked for her before anyone else, and he was totally in awe of her. She liked Saint Laurent a lot, and he felt the same way. He would always say that she was a magician. She liked Balenciaga, who is one of the greatest designers of all time. Funnily enough, she liked André Courrèges, who was very innovative and futuristic and different. François Lesage, who recently passed away, did all the embroidery for the couture shows; he told me that he had a box of patterns and designs and everyone was always trying to steal them. Everyone always learned so much from her, she was such a talent.

That said, Schiap was not easy on herself or on others. People either absolutely adored her or were a bit afraid of her. I think those strong personalities are fascinating. At least you learn something and you’re inspired. Extraordinary people have an extra dimension that some people can’t possibly understand.

She was very motivated to get ahead, and I think that was in part because she had a complex about her physical appearance. As a child she was told that her sister was the beautiful one and she was the ugly duckling of the family. There’s a very famous story about her attempting to plant seeds in her nose and ears because she wanted to have flowers growing out of them. She practically choked to death and was rushed off to the hospital. To imagine that you could grow flowers in your nose and ears and become beautiful is quite extraordinary.

She was a pioneer in terms of her clothes and sense of style. She went to Russia and dressed the army. The women were Communists there. My grandmother always said what she thought, and it was not always tender. She told Stalin what she thought of Communism and the repression of women, and he was not happy.

Schiap was a very baroque person, bigger than life. She always wore big jewelry, and her house was very eclectic. She would sit at home on her big sofa that was covered in leopard skin and would go up to change every night for dinner. She always got dressed, whether she was alone or with people. I used to find her on that couch in her living room, always reading. She had the most extraordinary library of books and an old television set that sat atop these very old 18th-century encyclopedias.

She actually loved to entertain and gave fantastic parties. There was one where she had a huge hot-air balloon in the garden and people were flying around in it. You can imagine, everybody who was anybody in those days was at that party, and everybody who wasn’t wanted to be!

I do remember, when I was a tiny little girl, going downstairs in my pajamas to say hello to the guests. The Duke of Windsor insisted that my sister and I come down. So we would go and curtsy to all of my parents’ guests, and then he’d take us back up and tuck us into bed. It was very cute.

The first dress that Schiap ever made for herself was for one of her parties. She didn’t know how to sew or draw, so she wrapped herself in this extraordinary long gown and put huge bobby pins everywhere to keep it together. At some point, when she was dancing with someone, everything came apart!

I’d never seen my grandmother dance, but I think she liked to have a very good time. She loved parties and having fun—more in those days than when we were little, because then she was not so young anymore.

Salvador Dalí used to come to the house a lot. She had a very close relationship with Dalí. We used to go and visit him in Cadaqués, Spain, where he had a house. I was 13 when I went there one summer and he wanted to paint me in the nude. Of course my mother was horrified. It was absolutely out of the question. She thought he was a dirty old man. He said, “But she has hip bones like cherrystones!” I wish he had painted me in the nude. I would’ve loved it. But my mother thought that it was not at all appropriate.

My grandmother was extremely protective of me. She was very harsh about my career and didn’t like the way I lived my life or how I dressed. It was the ’60s and the ’70s and we were all in miniskirts with big hair, looking like hippies. She thought it was ridiculous and vulgar, but people told me that she used to look at all my photographs in Vogue and she was very proud. To me, she only criticized and said how awful everything was. She would tell me, “I don’t understand why you cry in all your movies.”

Since she lived the life she did, I think she probably wanted the opposite for me. To have a safe, different kind of life. I was very rebellious, just as she had been. I guess it was in the genes.

I wish she had spoken to me about her life, her work. She was very shy and secretive. I knew nothing of her private life. She never spoke about her husband, my mother’s father. He was persona non grata in the house. There was a very handsome Scotsman in my grandmother’s life after her husband. In fact, my mother grew up with him in her life, not her own father. He died at some point, and Schiap never spoke to me about any of this.

Nor do I know firsthand what her work was like, because I only know what I’ve seen and read in her personal book or what’s been written about her. I experienced a completely different person than the icon that people know. She died in 1973, just before I worked on Barry Lyndon.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute will open the “Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada: On Fashion” exhibition in May. It’s an incredible idea—a conversation between Prada and my grandmother. These are two extraordinary, strong, independent, innovative, creative women. It’s going to be very interesting.

So many people are inspired by her to this day. She was a true original and an artist. Chanel has been wonderfully kept alive and brought back to life by Karl Lagerfeld, who is a genius, with a big company behind him. But now they’re going to bring back my grandmother’s name.

Her designs have come full circle. I would want to wear them now. You can’t even believe that they were made in that period of time, they are still so incredibly modern. To know that someone like Diego Della Valle has always appreciated her genius, to the point of buying her name [in 2007], that makes me very happy. I know he is waiting for the right person to bring my grandmother’s company back to life.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have talked to her differently. I would have asked a million questions. I don’t know if she would have answered or not, but at least I would have asked. Now, by doing research and going through her personal things, I am getting to discover the other aspects of her inner self, the profound and soulful woman that she really was. It is very moving, actually.

“Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada: On Fashion” is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute from May 10 to August 19, 2012

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