Elsa Schiaparelli Made Fashion For Air Raids

A Fashion Memoir series book report

Nothing suggested Elsa Schiaparelli would ever have a career in fashion. She was born in Rome to strict aristocratic parents who never failed to be displeased with their daughter’s rebellion. Let me count the ways: by twenty-two, Schiaparelli, or “Schiap”, had run away from her Catholic school to bohemian London, married a rich Polish count and was abandoned in Greenwich Village, New York with a daughter and little support. It was hard work and necessity that propelled the young mother. She supported herself by working at a boutique specializing in French fashions owned by Gaby Picabia. Through Picabia, Schiaparelli met Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. When they decided to move to Paris, Schiaparelli joined them. It was during this time that her protégé Yves Saint Laurent said she “bewitched” the city. And her subtle blend of classicism and outrageousness evolved with women as their haircuts and hemlines got shorter.

Fashion Memoir: Elsa Schiaparelli examines the Italian designer’s contribution to fashion during the ’30s. Author Baudot is a writer and critic at French Elle, and has written his share of designer profiles for the Fashion Memoir series, including Chanel and Yohji Yamamoto. This biography and photo anthology is worth reviewing for a better understanding of Schiaparelli’s place in history and her lasting impact after retiring in 1954, and is full of images of the designer, her store windows, snapshots of celebrity fans like Marlene Dietrich, and illustrations of her designs.

Baudot weaves Schiaparelli’s designs into the fabric of social history, demonstrating her ability to connect with women between the two World Wars, notably Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, and Lauren Bacall. Schiaparelli opened her boutique 1927 and soon became the voice for emboldened new women who appreciated avant-garde design. She was known for using unusual materials and bold colour choices that reflected the period’s modern taste. Baudot believes her strength lied in designing multi-functional clothing that was both simple and shocking. Think of a dress that could be lengthened by simply pulling a ribbon or a woolen broiler suit produced for a potential air raid.

Schiaparelli drew inspiration from the many avant-garde artists in her social circle, and collaborated with Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. Her designs were a reaction against tradition, exploiting the artistic world of Surrealism and Dada. In particular, she had a deep appreciation of the artist and designer Paul Poiret, who gave her dresses when she first moved to Paris and encouraged her to start her own business. Unfortunately, not all her relationships with designers were so positive. She had a deep disdain for Chanel, and the press often drew comparisons of the two designers. They became fierce rivals and Chanel once described her competitor as “that Italian artist who makes clothes.”

After the Second World War, the fashion industry began to shift toward accessible, mass-produced sportswear. When she tried to reestablish herself in this clime, Schiap was summarily dismissed by new-era designer Christian Dior: “Remember the Surrealist trimming with which Mme. Schiaparelli loved to decorate her clothes … to push the frontiers of elegance until it bordered on the bizarre.” Still, she left a legacy of radically new fashions like backless swimsuits, built-in bras, and shoulder pads that would become staples in contemporary fashion design, inspiring generations of fashion heirs, like Galliano and Kenzo. While the book goes into great detail about her strengths as a designer and her inspirations, it doesn’t reveal much about her personal life. If you want a better understanding of Schiap the lady, consider reading her autobiography, Shocking Life. Baudot excerpts passages from here, which make up the best parts of his Fashion Memoir.

further reading // Fashion Memoir: Elsa Schiaparelli by Francois Baudot // Thames and Hudson // 1997

book report // Brittany Mahaney
photography // Brianne Burnell

Crushing on Anja Wakeham

Anja Wakeham is a designer, tailor, and all around sewing machine. She is also my mother’s cousin. On a family trip to Germany in June, I saw (for the first time since I was 14) just how hard Anja works. Though she and her husband, Dave, took some time out of their busy work days to make us breakfast and show us around Hamburg, where they live, Anja was constantly working. From restaurant uniforms to wedding gowns to her own line of organic clothing, Anja sews it all. Luckily, I had time to hang out in Anja’s home studio and hear a little about what she does.

How did you dress as a teenager, and how has your style changed since then?

As a teenager I was a punk. When I was 15 I went to London to learn more English. When I came back after three weeks I wore my new black and white checked trousers that I bought on Carnaby Street and my hair was red. My mother’s first question was: “Does that wash out?” My style is still a bit rock ‘n’ roll, but more stylish. When I started to study fashion design, the biker style was very trendy and I made a lot of stuff out of black leather and studs for myself. That was in 1989.

How old were you when you first started sewing? Why did you start?

I was 18 when I first started sewing. I still went to school and I made trousers without a zipper, because I couldn’t do difficult things like that. I just sewed loops on them for a belt and the belt would hold them up. Some people even asked me where I got the trousers from. I always knew exacty what I wanted and so I thought it was better to be able to make it myself. It happens to me all the time with other things, like shoes, that I want something that I can’t find in a shop. Sometimes it’s in the shops a year later!
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Don’t Be Racist (or, Haley Wornette’s Thoughts on John Galliano)

Very little about the whole John Galliano mess surprised me – the allegations seemed plausible, and the video was just the proverbial nail in the coffin. Even though I know it’s supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, I also know that where there is smoke there is usually a racist. (That’s the expression, right?)

What did surprise me, and I mean this in the best possible way, was LVMH’s swift and decisive action: immediate suspension, followed by termination. It surprised me because it seemed like such a reasonable response to a terrible situation. Lets be real, the fashion industry is not known for handling these situations reasonably.

In any other profession, just the allegations of offenses like anti-Semitism, racism, sexual assault, or child labour law violations would be enough to get someone fired. Yet when it comes to people in fashion – be they designers like Galliano, editors, stylists, photographers – there seems to be a never-ending stream of people who rush to the guilty party’s defense. It’s all a conspiracy. He’s a sweetheart. He was provoked. She apologized. You’re being too hasty. By far the worst defense I saw was that Galliano could not possibly be racist because “[his] multi-ethnic shows, celebrating the beauty of nomadic worlds, and looking into visual languages of forgotten minorities (from everywhere on this planet), has brilliantly proved it to everyone from collection to collection since years.” Being “inspired” by a culture’s fashion doesn’t mean you can’t hate the people wearing it.

The fashion industry does not get a free pass on bad behaviour just because they happen to create great clothes. It goes without saying that John Galliano is an incredibly talented designer, but he’s an employee of LVMH first. An employee who professes to love Hitler simply cannot remain on the payroll of a responsible corporation. Well played, LVMH – I hope that more businesses follow in your example. Most importantly I hope one day I won’t feel like applauding those who stand up for basic ethics like “don’t be racist.”

- Haley Mlotek

Crushing on Yokoo

interview by Anna Fitz
photography provided by Yokoo

Atlanta-based designer Yokoo has been picking up steam on the internet, gaining recognition not only for the oversized chunky knitwear that she makes and sells but also because of her eclectic sense of style, minimalist self portraits, and that trademark haircut.

Where did your name come from? Was it inspired at all by Japanese designer Tadanori Yokoo?
Years ago, I had fallen in love with my college freshman English professor, and he had decided to give me a Y for my birthday. It was wonderful. The next day I broke up with him.

The three “O”s were not always so cute. They actually started out as zeroes. When I found them they were rather humble little things. They used to tell me how they were all going to be big, big movie stars one day. I told them if they wanted to be movie stars then they had better change their names, because no one would ever give an Oscar to someone named Zero.

Finally, they agreed and decided to call themselves Oscars. I told them that was just plain stupid, and then they settled on just “O.” Oh, and I fell in love with K because she can cook. But don’t tell her that because she’s really sensitive.

How did you dress when you were in high school?
One has to understand that high school used to be nothing like it is today. Dressing up was not a part-time job the way it is today. You had maybe like three or four kids that put a lot of time, if any, into chiseling a look out for themselves. Because it contrasted so drastically with my environment, I was fascinated with the whole preppy lifestyle. I had a certain fondness for United Colors of Benetton. Then I would incorporate a lot of the underground hip hop hippie movement into my style as well. People like De La Soul had a huge impact not only on my way of dress, but also on how I started to perceive the world. I wore the hippie hip hop haircuts, the big medallions, and a lot of Nikes.

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