Credit: Shutterstock/Elsa Schiaparelli

In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous

Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli became famous for her avante garde and pioneering couture in the 1930s, collaborating with surrealist artists including Salvador Dali to create some of the most coveted and lauded fashion of the 20th century.

Born into an aristocratic and scholarly Italian family, Elsa included artists, intellectuals and political activists among her social set.

Abandoned by her husband, a stage ‘psychic’ called Willem Wendt, Elsa began designing clothes after moving to Paris with her baby daughter and establishing herself in high society. She was encouraged by her mentor and friend Paul Poiret, a couturier who was well-known at the time for his modern and cutting-edge designs for women.

Elsa launched a collection of knitwear influenced by surrealist artists and featuring abstract motifs such as skeletons, sailor tattoos and tortoises. The designs became a hit, with films stars including Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn embracing her style.

By 1935, her fashion empire included jewellery, perfumes, lingerie and swimsuits. Her perfumes came in remarkable packaging – the best-known was Shocking! with a bottle designed by Salvador Dali inspired by film star Mae West’s hourglass curves.

The Second World War led to change and austerity, which led Schiaparelli to close her fashion house in 1954. In recent years, the brand name has been revived, while the couturier herself is remembered as a creative genius who made fashion an art – and reimagined art as fashion.