Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) was an Italian fashion designer. Along with Coco Chanel, her greatest rival, she is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in fashion between the two World Wars.
Starting with knitwear, Schiaparelli's designs were heavily influenced by Surrealists like her collaborators Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau. Her clients included the heiress Daisy Fellowes and actress Mae West. Schiaparelli did not adapt to the changes in fashion following World War II and her couture house closed in 1954.
Elsa Schiaparelli’s design career was early on influenced by couturier Paul Poiret, who was renowned for jettisoning corseted, over-long dresses and promoting styles that enabled freedom of movement for the modern, elegant and sophisticated woman. In later life, Schiaparelli referred to Poiret as "a generous mentor, dear friend."
Schiaparelli had no training in the technical skills of pattern making and clothing construction. Her method of approach relied on both impulse of the moment and the serendipitous inspiration as the work progressed. She draped fabric directly on the body, sometimes using herself as the model. This technique followed the lead of Poiret who too had created garments by manipulating and draping. The results appeared uncontrived and wearable.
Whilst in Paris, Schiaparelli -- "Schiap" to her friends -- began making her own clothes. With encouragement from Poiret, she started her own business but it closed in 1926 despite favorable reviews. She launched a new collection of knitwear in early 1927 using a special double layered stitch created by Armenian refugees and featuring sweaters with surrealist trompe l'oeil images.
Although her first designs appeared in "Vogue," the business really took off with a pattern that gave the impression of a scarf wrapped around the wearer's neck. The "pour le Sport" collection expanded the following year to include bathing suits, ski-wear, and linen dresses. Schiaparelli added evening wear to her collections in 1931, using the luxury silks of Robert Perrier, and the business went from strength to strength, culminating in a move from Rue de la Paix to acquiring the renowned salon of Louise Chéruit at 21 Place Vendôme, which was rechristened the Schiap Shop.
"Or give me a new Muse with stockings and suspenders
And a smile like a cat
With false eyelashes and finger-nails of carmine
And dressed by Schiaparelli, with a pill-box hat."
-- Louis MacNeice, "Autumn Journal," stanza XV, 1939.
Colin McDowell noted that by 1939, Schiaparelli was well-known enough in intellectual circles to be mentioned as the epitome of modernity by the Irish poet Louis MacNeice. Although McDowell cites MacNeice's reference as from "Bagpipe Music," it is actually from stanza XV of "Autumn Journal."