Schiaparelli: A Shocking Return

After years of speculation, one of fashion’s most iconic brands is making its comeback with Marco Zanini at the helm.

Marco Zanini in the Schiaparelli headquarters in Paris.

In the dazzling whitewashed main salon at 21 Place Vendôme rises the long figure of Marco Zanini, a wide grin between his muttonchop whiskers. A butler offers us a silver tray bearing glasses of water, tumblers of fruit juice, and elaborate-Venetian-glass goblets of champagne. Zanini takes the champagne. The salon is at the center of the new Schiaparelli headquarters, where Elsa Schiaparelli had a boutique on the ground floor and some offices in the mezzanine; like much to do with the revival of the house of Schiaparelli, the new, magnificent salons are more of an idea about her spirit and the lost ethos of the ’30s. But Zanini is very real. He is six feet two and is wearing a Comme des Garçons shirt of variegated stripes, gray pants, gray glasses from Tokyo, and white socks with a pair of Vans. Tattoos wander across his skin: a galleon in full sail; a narrow triangle; a swallow; and, spelled out on the base of each finger of his left hand, L O S T. The tattoos are as random as the Marcel Vertès collage of Schiaparelli’s greatest moments that hangs above the fireplace. Over the past five years, Zanini has transformed Rochas into a label beloved by insiders for its sophisticated understatement. And now, the 42-year-old designer has been appointed creative director of Schiaparelli, which has been dormant in all but the imaginations of aesthetes and fashion lovers for almost 60 years.

The house of Schiaparelli is the most potent phantom of haute couture. On December 13, 1954, Schiaparelli closed her maison and ceased to exist as a designer. She lived on at her residence on Paris’s Rue de Berri until 1973, an irascible old lady surrounded by statues and art, rugs and books, and sometimes her grandchildren, Marisa and Berry Berenson. Her perfume Shocking was still around, along with a host of licensed products, among them disappointingly plain stockings. The little Schiaparelli shop-front window remained on the Place Vendôme, just next door to the Ritz, but there was nothing to buy and no way, it seemed, to get inside. There was never enough Schiaparelli in museums. The only way to find her work was to seek out photos in old fashion magazines.

When Zanini was in London for the summer as a 16-year-old student, he blew his entire food budget on a first edition of Schiaparelli’s autobiography, Shocking Life, he found at a Charing Cross Road bookstore. It cost 50 pounds, but he was fascinated by her personality, her life, her strange mixture of stark simplicity, unique opulence, and unbridled playfulness. He already knew he wanted to be a fashion designer. The son of a Milanese furrier and a Swedish housewife, he’d been so struck by seeing Christian Lacroix’s first couture show on television that he’d written to the designer and received an encouraging reply. He attended the Accademia di Belle Arti in Milan, worked with Lawrence Steele, then spent nine years doing couture and ready-to-wear (including Jennifer Lopez’s navel-baring jungle dress) with Donatella Versace, did a brief flyby at Halston in New York, and, by the time he got a mysterious phone call last spring from an intermediary of the Italian accessories tycoon ­Diego Della Valle, he was the much admired creative director of Rochas.

Della Valle, who had made Tod’s slip-ons into the primary footwear of European yacht owners (and all who aspired to be them), then successfully revived Roger Vivier, with Inès de la Fressange as ambassadrice, bought Schiaparelli in 2006. The years following the purchase were full of speculation about who would be chosen to become Schiaparelli, the way Karl Lagerfeld had become Chanel in 1983, John Galliano had become Dior in 1996, and Alber Elbaz had become Lanvin in 2001.

A year ago, Della Valle had not yet chosen a designer, but he told me how he saw the future of Schiaparelli: “It’s a dream that’s not for everyone. It will be precious things, made in the best materials; it will be the most exclusive brand in the world. It will be, justifiably, very expensive. Whoever wants Schiaparelli will have to come to the Paris atelier. A certain category of people, who have not only money but also culture, will understand. Our world will be closer to culture than to crude business.” Della Valle and the ravishing Farida Khelfa—long a mainstay on the Parisian fashion scene, whom he’d hired to be the sinuous, elegant figurehead of the house—talked about Schiaparelli as a kind of arts center that would commission pieces and create events in the spirit of Elsa. Last spring, Christian Lacroix was brought in to design a one-time-only couture collection, a tribute that would not be for sale.

When Zanini was offered the job, he was ready to try something big. “Everybody had been talking about Schiaparelli,” he says. “I was hoping for this call.” Secret talks and meetings with Della Valle ensued. Zanini discussed it with his sister, Miki, his closest confidant and coconspirator in work and life. They realized Schiaparelli was “fashion’s most appealing sleeping beauty.” He said yes to Della Valle. No one said a word about it. Zanini was committed to another season at Rochas, and Christian Lacroix was committed to the Schiaparelli couture tribute.

While Lacroix was working on the tribute, Zanini went to the Place Vendôme to meet him. Lacroix knew. “He congratulated me warmly; he remembered the big drawings I used to send him when I was a teenager, but he was so busy—everyone was around him with fabric and questions. He was in the middle of enormous work, of making the collection. I started to feel inappropriate. I just wanted to be invisible, so I stood aside and enjoyed the moment of being there, with the man I considered to be my maestro.”

As Zanini points out, Schiaparelli was a creator rather than a couturière: “When she started, she didn’t have any sartorial knowledge, whereas Coco Chanel and Cristóbal Balenciaga had complete formazione—training. Schiaparelli’s approach was brave because of her lack of knowledge. She was free because she didn’t have any specific skill.” Schiaparelli was an Italian aristocrat born into a family of scholars. She published a book of erotic poetry and fled the confines of Palazzo Corsini, her childhood home in Rome, for a fuller life in London, New York, and Paris. Her playful, erudite, excessive, willfully original spirit began pervading fashion in 1927, when she hired an Armenian knitter to make a trompe l’oeil sweater. “Schiaparelli didn’t know how to knit,” Zanini says. “But she had this idea of a bow on a sweater.”

Her heyday was during the ’20s and ’30s, the time of surrealism, when fashion and art merged. She created witty, fearlessly seductive couture and devised insanely provocative ball gowns and the most perfect little jackets that ever existed, decorated by her own embroiderer, Albert Lesage. In an endless explosion of creative glee, she invented ready-to-wear, the concept of “boutique,” mix-and-match separates, shirtwaist dresses, overalls, culottes, wedge heels, designer sunglasses, and the color shocking pink. She put on the first spectacular fashion shows—one was a circus, with models in clown hats—and once had a fête with a hot-air balloon in her courtyard on the Rue de Berri. She inspired the artists Vertès, Jean Cocteau, and Christian Bérard—and hired them to decorate her clothes and her salons. Pablo Picasso painted Nusch, the wife of the poet Paul Eluard, in her Schiaparelli suit. Schiap, as she liked to be called, enlisted her surrealist friends Salvador Dalí and Meret Oppenheim to make crazy accessories—a telephone compact, a fur bracelet. Dalí provided a giant, almost pornographic print of a lobster for a dress worn by, among others, the Duchess of Windsor. Schiaparelli made a hat that looked like a shoe, and another that was a leopard’s head, so that when she wore it, she seemed to be peering out from the animal’s maw.

“Schiaparelli was almost like a Pop artist,” Zanini tells me in the Place Vendôme dining room. “Even the first sweater had a naive visual impact. You immediately get it, and you love it or you hate it. There’s nothing in between. But she had a proper upbringing, so she also understood about quality and luxury.” He adds: “The slippery, tricky thing is not to fall into caricature. To me, her bold gestures are not for the sake of irony or being funny but to really mark the individuality of the woman—her smart way of thinking, her flair to stand out in an exquisite kind of way. Most people think about the lobster dress or the shoe hat. Those elements are part of the heritage of the house, but they don’t speak about her overall work or taste.”

The copy of Shocking Life that Zanini bought as a teenager was his introduction to Schiaparelli’s genius, but he has since found other books about her more inspiring. There’s Patricia Volk’s recent Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me, a moving personal essay about the female relationship to luxury and beauty. There’s the weird, angry, crazy The Show That Smells, by Derek McCormack, in which Schiaparelli is portrayed as a vampire, locked in combat with Chanel in a hall of mirrors. As the Volk book implies, they were enemies: Schiaparelli left Paris for New York at the beginning of the war, while Chanel stayed and fraternized with the Nazis. In 1954, the year Schiaparelli shuttered her business, Chanel staged her return to couture.

We’re sitting in a hall of mirrors—the walls of the Schiaparelli dining room reflect into infinity. Two immense gold ceramic urns flank a view of the construction sheds that have overtaken the square since the renovation of the Ritz hotel began. For a year, this room and the various salons around it, decorated by Vincent Darré under the direction of Inès de la Fressange, adorned with archival Vertès prints and new drawings by Pierre Le-Tan, original compacts and bags, and shelves of Schiaparelli perfume bottles, were all that there was to show of the new brand.

Della Valle, whose motto is “Dignity, Duty, Entertainment,” started with a virtual ­enterprise—Schiaparelli slowly coming into focus as a stage set, a decor waiting for action. A grand cocktail party was given in the summer of 2012, followed by an even grander one a year ago. Khelfa received press and friends in the second salon, clad in a perfect Vuitton trouser suit, a flea market blouse, and an engagement ring of variously cut diamonds that gave off astounding sparkle, her short hair swept back. She had just married the inventor Henri Seydoux, the father of her two sons, with the Sarkozys in attendance; Carla Bruni-Sarkozy is her best friend. An Algerian teenage runaway from Lyon, Khelfa landed at Le Palace, Paris’s better version of Studio 54, on her third day in the city, in 1978. She bonded with a very young Christian Louboutin and was discovered by the photographer and artist Jean-Paul Goude. She became a model for Azzedine Alaïa, then his directrice de studio, and then Jean Paul Gaultier’s. After a few years at Gaultier and some acting, Khelfa knew she wanted to make documentaries. And just when she was wrapping a film about the youth of Tunisia during the Arab Spring, she was asked to represent the house of Schiaparelli.

Zanini’s first show will be the couture, next January. He takes me to look at the work space that will be all his—the top floor of the building. “I wanted to stay upstairs, where the seamstresses are,” he says. In the Place Vendôme, the shops are on the street and the showrooms and offices on the floors above, but the real action is under the roofs. That’s where the artisans for the great jewelry houses work; that’s where the ateliers are. He leads me to the fourth floor, which one enters through the original birdcage Jean-Michel Frank designed in 1937 for Schiaparelli’s perfume counter. Lacroix’s couture is displayed between lush dressing rooms where clients will try on Zanini’s designs. Some vintage Schiaparelli dresses and coats hang on a rack; there are no archives. The ateliers are under construction, but the space is pristine. Air-conditioning has been installed. Zanini is bringing his sister and Matteo Tamburini, his assistant from Rochas, onboard. He opens his arms to embrace the space. “I feel great,” he says. “It feels very consistent and very intimate. The proportions are just right.” His office, as yet unfurnished, already has books on the shelves.

Zanini is a big reader—in his new apartment, the first things he unpacked and put away were his 3,000 books. On the way to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs to see a show about trompe l’oeil, he explains that the idea for his final Rochas show came while reading the memoirs of Tennessee Williams. He came across The Glass Menagerie and was inspired by the title. “I was immediately intrigued by the idea of glass and the idea of the frosting on a cake, the idea of anything that you see through, but with a shine,” he says. “And the whole collection was there in front of me. All of a sudden, I couldn’t sleep because I was so into the collection, and so I sent images of little glass animals to Thierry Dreyfus, who produces the show. For the first time, I’m going to use a lot of crystal beads. I really wanted to do something that could evoke childhood fascinations with everything that sparkles.”

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs show about trompe l’oeil is poor, but there is another one about underwear and corsets. It’s thorough, historic, good. Zanini stares carefully at the way the stripes on the back of a 1760 robe de cour meet just at the waist; points out the faux-culs, the padding used to make tournures in the 1880s—and later by Schiaparelli, who liked the twist and bump of padded rears. Articulated hooped structures that give volume to skirts are made of strips of webbing; in one room there are reproductions that you can try on—I do. ­Zanini watches the movement of the hoops as I walk. “What happens when you sit down?” he asks. I sit on a stool. The hoops collapse onto themselves. It’s sort of a miracle.

Later that day, we’re at Eyesight, Dreyfus’s office, to discuss the Rochas show. Dreyfus and his team went in the direction of childhood rather than sparkle—they’ve assembled lollipops and pale-green taffy. Zanini gentles them toward scrims with layers of sheer iridescent fabric instead, and then he takes out pictures of his fittings to show what the Rochas clothes will look like. They’re sparkling, muted, pale, precise. In one photo, there is a hooped petticoat almost identical to the one Zanini watched me walk in. He never said he was using hoops for his Rochas show. The man is talented, incisive, funny—and he can keep a secret.

Photos: Schiaparelli: A Shocking Return

Marco Zanini in the Schiaparelli headquarters in Paris.

The new Schiaparelli headquarters, with the original 1937 birdcage by Jean-Michel Frank.

Elsa Schiaparelli, 1932

The designer as seen by Cecil Beaton, 1934

Original paintings by Marcel Vertès, used as ads for Schiaparelli’s Shocking and Sleeping perfumes.

A telephone powder compact designed by Dalí for Schiaparelli.

A Schiaparelli illustration from 1935

The dining room in Place Vendôme.

A Vertès ad for Sleeping.

An original perfume bottle.

Farida Khelfa and Zanini. Khelfa wears a Schiaparelli dress, from the tribute collection Hommage à Elsa by Christian Lacroix.

An ad for Snuff perfume.

Schiaparelli dress printed with small turtles near the neckline, 1937.

A 1953 collage by Vertès.