Schiaparelli at Kerry Taylor Auctions

By Felicia Scicluna

During the past few months, I have been lucky enough to intern at Kerry Taylor Auctions, through whom some of the most important pieces of fashion history have passed- from Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy gowns to rare McQueen runway pieces.  The next auction-“Passion for Fashion”- is set to include items from none other than the formidable Elsa Schiaparelli; one of Taylor’s favourite designers. Bearing this in mind, we settled down for a chat about amidst the hustle and bustle of preparations to discuss some of the pieces that are up next month.

“I think she was an creative genius,” says Taylor, “she collaborated with some of the leading artists of her day, and she didn’t just produce a collection of pretty elegant dresses like her contemporary Chanel would, she produced collections with imaginative themes behind them.”

Containing veritable works of art, the auction features two Schiaparelli coats; estimated at £10,000 and £20,000 respectively. The first coat is from one of Schiaparelli’s most famous collections- ‘The Zodiac Collection’ A/W 1938-9. Schiaparelli’s work often revolved around themes and the Zodiac was no exception; in this case the themes were ‘The Stars in the Sky’ and ‘Marie Antoinette’s Versailles’. For Taylor, these themes can make a collection even more interesting and valuable.  “Schiaparelli’s  uncle Giuseppi was a  famous astronomer who taught her about the night sky when she was just a child  and told her that the  moles on her were in the formation of the great bear.” She later used these as a design motif in her embroideries and as a fabric to line the walls of her fashion Paris fashion house. The Great Bear was her lucky star.

The black tweed coat in the auction from the same collection is influenced by Marie Antoinette’s love of Sevres porcelain. Schiaparelli contrasted the heavy wool fabric (not usually seen for evening wear) with delicate porcelain blossoms outlined in gilt lustre. Taylor describes the coat as having , “rose pink velvet pockets which are encrusted with flowers made from Sevres porcelain with pink beaded stamens  to hold them in place. In the centre of each are wonderful cameo silhouettes formed from lilac sequins.” The design of the coat had originally six pockets (which can be seen in a number of Schiaparelli books), but the one coming up for auction has only two. According to Taylor, “you could go into Schiaparelli and say, ‘Well, I love that but actually that’s far too over the top for me!’ or perhaps the woman concerned couldn’t afford six pockets. We are pleased that our lady, whoever she was, could afford at least two!”

The second Schiaparelli evening coat of 1945 is quite different. Of “rose-pink damask silk, woven with gothic style creatures, with their claws raised and Elizabethan style roses. It is  ruched, gathered and smocked all along the bust and  has wonderful gold embroidered tassels, with lilac silk and gold rope edging. It has something of the boudoir about it.  An identical model was worn by Marlene Dietrich in 1945 advertise the re-opening of the Paris fashion house and for a morale boosting trip to the Allied troops. Marlene Dietrich was known for having the best legs in the world and a very sweet photo of her inspecting the troop’s legs in the coat survives. The actual coat worn by Dietrich is now in the SMB Kunstbibliothek Staatliche Museen in Berlin.

What makes Schiaparelli such an influential and important designer is the fact that she was one of the first to use new and unusual materials such as cellophane and glass as a woven material. Taylor summed up the Schiaparelli woman perfectly: “You had to be quite a strong woman to wear her clothes. You had to be quite self-confident; otherwise the clothes would wear you!”

“Passion for Fashion” will be held on 9th December 2014. You can find out more about the auction, and Kerry Taylor Auctions here.

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