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Schiaparelli Reborn

©ourtesy of ARTINFO

Fashion Designer on Her Way to a Posthumous Comeback?

Elsa Schiaparelli

Elsa Schiaparelli’s Shoe Hat (collaboration with Salvador Dalí), winter 1937-38 / Courtesy Tumblr
Elsa Schiaparelli and Dalí’s lobster dress / Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

Eight years after a career retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Elsa Schiaparelli is back in the spotlight with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute and an announcement from Italian businessman Diego Della Valle that he is relaunching the brand that bears her name. With all the buzz surrounding the show and the revival, is the late fashion designer on her way to a posthumous comeback?

Elsa Schiaparelli revolutionized fashion in the 1930s with her surrealist tromp l’oeil sweaters, lobster dress, and whimsical prints. In 1934 Time hailed her as “the one to whom the word ‘genius’ is applied most often,” and said that Elsa Schiaparelli was a more dominant influence in fashion at the time than her biggest rival, Coco Chanel. But in the end, it was Chanel who triumphed after Schiaparelli shuttered her business in 1954, due to the post-war economic downturn.Why revive a label that failed at its first shot at longevity? The prospect of profitability, some argue, is linked to two main factors: brand recognition, and a desire on the part of consumers to relive an idealized time in fashion.

“There is a mystique regarding fashion’s past — the nostalgic glow of a particular style of dressing, a particular series of events defining an era, eccentric personalities, incredible workmanship,” said Michael Fink, dean at Savannah College of Art and Design School of Fashion and former Saks Fifth Avenuefashion director, in an email to ARTINFO. “Certain labels allow us to reminisce about perceived better times or a better life. Labels that have this built-in heritage lure us into a fantasy.”

The move seems to be the trend du jour, with dormant brands like couture house Mainbocher and footwear label Herbert Levine announcing plans for returns in recent weeks. French entrepreneur Arnaud de Lummen, who has made a business out of buying defunct luxury brands like Mainbocher, Herbert Levine, and Vionnet and revamping them, told WWD, “It’s reassuring to consumers that you’re not a newcomer.”

Based on relaunches of the past decade, it’s difficult to predict the fate of the new Schiaparelli brand. Halston was revived by Harvey Weinstein in 2007 after a series of failed attempts to bring the company back to its glory days, only to dissolve last summer when Weinstein pulled out his investment. Balmain, which closed in 2003 due to bankruptcy only to be brought back to life by investors in 2005, is now hailed by such actresses as Gwyneth Paltrow and Audrey Tautou, and fashion editors like Paris Vogue’s Emmanuelle Alt, for its tough-chic glamour.

“I think it could work,” Jayne Mountford, trend forecaster, founder, and managing editor of Hall Five Trend Forum told ARTINFO via email. “We are in a time of hyperbolic fashion, which Schiaparelli was known for. But really, doesn’t it all depend on the right designer plus bag plus shoe equals success. With that winning formula, it could be the next Balenciaga. Unfortunately, without it, Halston, or worse still, Ungaro.”

For Fink, success depends on identifying the consumer base and developing a product in line with clients’ needs. In Schiaparelli’s case, Della Valle is targeting the extremely wealthy, calling his business model “prêt-a-couture,” a level that, according to the Financial Times, “lands somewhere between very high-end ready-to-wear and the made-for-you couture extravaganzas that cost from €20,000 ($25,460).” The label won’t use advertising and will only sell the garments out of one space — 21 Place Vendôme in Paris — the location of Schiaparelli’s original atelier.

“Your product has to offer something that is perceived as unique, a reason to purchase,” said Fink. “That could be the actual clothing, a lifestyle, an association with celebrity, workmanship. At the luxury level, quality is paramount.”

Then there is the selection of the right designer, and fashion industry insiders and onlookers have been gossiping about that subject for the past few months.

In March, WWD reported that Della Valle denied rumors that he plans to name the embattled designer John Galliano — who was ousted from Dior last year after several drunken anti-Semitic confrontations — as the new Schiaparelli designer. But some believe that he may be up for the position.

W magazine editor Stefano Tonchi reluctantly gave Galliano his endorsement to head Schiaparelli at last week’s Costume Institute Gala, according to the Cut. Galliano has already proven himself to be more than capable of handling the job – he succeeded in breathing new life into Dior when he became creative director of the brand in 1996, and continuously produced exquisitely detailed designs for the label.

Regardless of who is plucked for the position, Della Valle has all the essential plans in place for the Schiaparelli relaunch. The atelier renovations will be completed in July, the designer will be announced in September, and the first runway presentation will take place during Paris Fashion Week in March. But ultimately, whether or not Schiaparelli’s brand name will thrive in its second life is up to the well-heeled ladies who make up its target market.

“It’s how you deliver the product and message that will affect your success,” said Fink. “Fashion is terribly fleeting in its recognition of things new.”

Click on the slide show to see images of Elsa Schiaparelli’s designs.

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