c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
PARIS — “I would come in and she would be in her bed, with all these heart-shaped, shocking pink pillows,” the actress Marisa Berenson said about her grandmother Elsa Schiaparelli, the great couturier of the 1930s. “She had beautiful skin and beautiful shoulders and sexy nighties that were all embroidered.
“She would change every night to come down to sit in the living room, even if it was just in front of her TV,” Berenson continued. “She’d sit on her leopard skin on this couch with these tapestries, in these beautiful robes and covered in necklaces, with a braid on her head — whether she was alone or whether she was entertaining.”
A trove of clothes and furniture once owned by Schiap, as the designer was known, are to go on sale at Christie’s in Paris on Jan. 23, during the haute couture season. Many pieces will be displayed from Dec. 6-20 in the auction house’s New York headquarters at Rockefeller Center.
As Berenson examined the embroidered horses prancing on a tiny bolero inspired by her grandmother’s trip to Texas, the exotic Chinese robes, a screen painted by the artist Marcel Vertès and the Louis XVI Aubusson tapestries, she relived her childhood in Schiaparelli’s grand house on the Rue de Berri, off the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
She also remembered the more forbidding side of her grandmother — who often disapproved of her “shockingly short” skirts in the 1960s. Ironically, Schiap’s autobiography was named “Shocking Life,” playing on her popularization of “shocking pink,” the color of the Schiap bolero that Berenson slipped on as she talked.
Schiaparelli died at 83 in 1973, leaving to her daughter, Maria-Luisa, who was always known as Gogo, and to the family a mass of imaginative collectibles.
Pat Frost, director of Christie’s fashion department, sifting through Schiaparelli’s fur hats and her exotic turbans, summed up the designer’s originality: “She brought a unique view of ordinary things, twisting them into something that was really unusual. She had a fantastic sense of color, an absolute passion for craftsmanship — and a bit of genius.”
Frost described the collection as “a peek at the home life of a design icon,” citing the Chinese robes, Ottoman gowns and a Persian jacket that hung in the designer’s wardrobe.
“These are the sort of things that Elsa wore and used and was inspired by. She wore them at home and she wore them to go out,” the curator said, pulling the colorful and exotic pieces out of a storage container that she called “a lovely box of Eastern promise.”
The auction collection is from one of the 20th century’s great fashion artists, who interpreted in her famous “shoe” hat and trompe l’oeil sweaters the surrealist movement of her friend Salvador Dali. She was beloved of Yves Saint Laurent and loathed by Coco Chanel, who dismissed her as “that Italian.”
Berenson said that Schiaparelli never lost her strong Italian accent — which the Australian actress Judy Davis did not use when playing the designer in conversations with Miuccia Prada filmed for the Metropolitan Museum’s 2012 exhibition in New York.
This is certainly a Schiap moment, with her brand being rebuilt by the Italian fashion entrepreneur Diego Della Valle. He plans to offer a couture show and a full ready-to-wear collection from Marco Zanini, the brand’s new designer, in the coming season.
The auction collection suggests a person of strong character and independence, yet not as ditzy and kooky as fashion legend suggests when describing the shoe hat or the sexually charged “lobster dress,” with its image of a crustacean crawling between the legs. That dress was created for Wallis Simpson just before she married the former Edward VIII of England and became the Duchess of Windsor.
Christie’s collection shows the designer was a magpie in her choices, but drawn to quality — like the costumes inspired by the home she built in the 1930s in Hammamet, Tunisia. Richly colored, patterned and embroidered, the costumes may have inspired the handwork she created on apparently hypermodern pieces, like a zodiac pattern of constellations, embroidered by François Lesage in 1939. That was when Europe was on the brink of World War II, which swept away her fashion-is-fun business and forced it into bankruptcy.
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That zodiac silk blouse has an estimated starting price of $34,000, while a pink matador bolero and a matching blue version are estimated to start at $21,000. Those two items were made in “shocking pink” and “sleeping blue” to match two Schiaparelli fragrances, “Shocking” in 1936-37 and “Sleeping” in 1940.
There also is a bronze floor lamp decorated with a young woman’s head, created in 1936 by the brothers Alberto and Diego Giacometti. Such purchases were inspired by her rapport with the interior designer Jean-Michel Frank, who helped create her boutique and apartment.
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Berenson, holding a heart-patterned box of “Shocking” talcum powder that is in the auction, said: “The fact that there are hearts everywhere shows that my grandmother had a tender heart, behind that shyness and that intimidating quality she had sometimes.”
She has dramatic memories of her grandmother’s beauty routine.
“She had this huge bathroom, which was more like a living room,” Berenson said, “and she had a table with about a hundred pairs of different-shaped glasses, all these closets and a bathtub and a sofa and butterflies. I would sit and watch her. She did something that really fascinated me: She would burn the bottom of a pot of cream, and she would smudge the black on her eyes and that’s how she put her makeup on.”
Although Schiaparelli might have seemed a Plain Jane beside the more classically beautiful Chanel, Berenson spoke up for her grandmother.
“She had beautiful skin and beautiful legs and a beautiful breast,” she said. “She was very voluptuous, my grandmother. She had a very sensual quality about her, too, actually, so she could be soft and she could be quite intimidating.”
How does Berenson feel about the sale? Is it as if she were saying goodbye to part of her life?
“You know, Schiap lives inside of me, so I don’t need a lot of the furniture, objects and clothes to remember her by,” she said. “I think letting go of life and lightening up and moving on in the present sometimes is important.”