Elsa Schiaparelli: Coco Chanel’s Great, Forgotten Fashion Rival

Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli in her study -- filled with treasures, paintings and books -- in Paris, 1947.
Hans Wild—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli in her study -- filled with treasures, paintings and books -- in Paris, 1947.

Most everyone recognizes the name Chanel, whether as a fashion brand or from films and documentaries about the company’s namesake and founder, Coco. Far fewer of us, however, are familiar with the name Schiaparelli — a mid-20th-century Italian designer, hugely celebrated in her time, whose creations are largely seen today in museums, rather than on runways or magazine covers.

In the 1920s and ’30s, Elsa Schiaparelli (above, in her Paris home) was considered Coco Chanel’s chief rival, and in its heyday the Schiaparelli brand was widely seen as bolder and more innovative than Chanel and, indeed, most other houses of the age. But Schiaparelli was not as successful as Chanel in the post-war years, and the house went bankrupt and closed its doors forever in 1954.

Though she often collaborated with Surrealist masters like Dali, Duchamp, Cocteau and Man Ray, Elsa Schiaparelli also experienced deep solitude — especially after her husband, William de Wendt de Kerlor, abandoned her before the birth of their daughter, Maria Luisa “Gogo” Schiaparelli. As a successful artist, designer, poet and perfumer, Elsa knew the pleasures, and the pressures, of being a woman in a position of power. In her autobiography, Shocking Life, she wrote: “Many men admire strong women but they don’t love them. Some women succeed at being strong and also tender, but most of those who have intended to walk alone, making their own way, have lost their happiness.”

Rebellious in her youth and in her couture, Schiaparelli was frequently on her own, professionally and personally. But then, the most genuine art often arises from the most misunderstood among us — those lost in meditation and frequently surrounded not by other people, but by the ideas, landscapes and objects that inspire them.

Ife Olujobi is an undergraduate student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts studying Dramatic Writing with a minor in Film Production.  She is also an editor at the campus newspaper, Washington Square News, and writes frequently about television, film and music.


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