The avant garde creations of influential fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli are set to be reinvented as the house of Schiaparelli is revived by Diego Della Valle. Brand ambassador Farida Khelfa explains its importance.
So integral to the work of legendary Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli was her Paris atelier, showroom and boutique that when Italian entrepreneur Diego Della Valle set about reviving the iconic house he started at 21 Place Vendome. There, on the third floor (since acquiring the brand in 2006 Della Valle has bought three floors of the original Schiaparelli apartments), the interior designer Vincent Darré has installed a whimsical decor that recalls the Surrealist art-inspired fashion of Schiaparelli (1890-1973) such as her famous shoe hat and lobster dress that was worn by Wallis Simpson.
Three years in the making, the new by-appointment-only Schiaparelli showroom opened to a select few during Paris couture week in July. The model, muse, actress and director Farida Khelfa – who has been appointed ambassador of the house even before a designer has been named – hosted an intimate cocktail party in the four grand reception rooms that are filled with 1940s furniture, gilded mirrors that once belonged to Yves Saint Laurent, a sphinx sculpture from Schiaparelli’s original atelier, and Gio Ponti chairs. An unusually shaped sofa is upholstered in Schiaparelli’s signature hue of “shocking” pink (she coined the phrase).
Elsewhere, a drawing by the artist Pierre Le-Tan of that shoe-shaped hat, a geometric rug by Fernand Léger, a Salvador Dali painting and gilded columns by Alberto Giacometti nod to Schiap’s (as she was affectionately known) collaborations with artists during the 1930s (Jean Cocteau made clothes for her and a pair of eyeglasses designed by Man Ray for Schiaparelli are among the artefacts on display in the Place Vendome apartment). Throughout, the original Schiaparelli advertising campaigns are hung as art.
“I am not a reincarnation of Elsa Schiaparelli, but I am very proud to be an ambassador of this house,” said Khelfa at the opening party. Della Valle announced Khelfa’s role in May at the fortuitously timed opening of Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations at The Met, New York. “I chose Farida Khelfa for her strong passion for the Schiaparelli brand and for her modern and provocative elegance,” he said at the time. “She reminds me of Elsa in her charm and her distinct taste and style.”
It is testament to the influence of Schiaparelli that despite the fact not a single product has yet been seen that there is such a buzz about the house’s relaunch. “Schiaparelli has this magic sound. It’s untouched,” explains Khelfa of the label’s allure. “It’s really the DNA of fashion. Every designer has referenced her at some point. Ignoring her would be like a painter ignoring Picasso.”
Uniquely positioning itself between ready to wear and couture, the first collection from the revived Schiaparelli is slated to be presented in July 2013 during Paris couture week. The house will offer perfume, accessories, new versions of Schiaparelli’s cult status jewelry and made-to-order clothing that is sure to include the designer’s signature sharp tailoring and witty eveningwear. “We need a house like this today,” says Khelfa of the unusual set up. “Couture is changing. We need a touch of luxury and really interesting work.” Della Valle terms it “prêt-a-couture”, a witty title for an innovative concept that one imagines Elsa Schiaparelli herself might have pioneered.
What is your definition of luxury?
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
In a big European city.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
Early morning when the city is still asleep.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
A gorgeous ring.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
An intellectual like Noam Chomsky because le savoir est un luxe!
You are often described as a muse. How do you react to that and how would you define the role of a muse?
It always surprises me that people call me a muse because I don’t see myself as that. A muse for me is someone who inspires artists and who is really involved in the artistic process and I don’t see myself like that. It’s the way people see me because I’m very lucky to be surrounded by talented people such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Jean Paul Goude and Azzedine Alaia, who are my dear friends. I’m very faithful so they are all old friends. I cannot explain what exactly is the role of a muse – for me it is something very mysterious.
From model to muse and now ambassador, which is your title at Schiaparelli – what does that entail?
Schiaparelli is the relaunch of a very famous brand but there are a lot of young people who don’t know who she is because she was working at the beginning of the last century. My role is to explain what was Schiaparelli, who she was and how important she was. She started with the trompe l’oeil sweaters with the fake tie on sweaters in 1927. Now when we do that we think it looks very modern but it’s not, it’s nearly a century old. She did the printed paper. She imagined the lips of the Rolling Stone before they even existed. It all came from Surrealism. My role is to explain how much she is part of the DNA of fashion.
Diego Della Valle has said he chose you as a spokeswoman for Schiaparelli because of your “modern and provocative elegance”. What do you think he was referring to?
Franchement, I don’t know because I don’t see myself as provocative. And modern is such a large term. From him it’s a compliment so I take it very graciously. I’m happy because it sounds great.
What qualities do you identify with when thinking of the spirit of the house of Schiaparelli?
I share the idea of working hand to hand with artists. Today a lot of houses are working with artists and it seems so modern and new but it’s not. Schiaparelli did that a century ago. She was the very first woman in fashion to do that. Can you imagine that Salvador Dali did the windows of the boutique on Place Vendome in the 1930s? It was so modern, so provocative, so new and so incroyable. A shoe as a hat, the lip print dress, the zip on show…. I like the way she mixed art and fashion.
Art was integral to the work of Elsa Schiaparelli. How does art inform your own life?
My husband is a great collector of modern African art, which is very interesting. He has great taste and so I am surrounded by art. But personally I love an empty white wall. I love the hospital look but I cannot impose my vision on other people! I understand the meaning of art and its importance. What remains from ancient civilizations is art, not politics or anything else. The Egyptian pyramids, the paintings at the Louvre… from art you can see how people were living during their time, which is the essence of life. It’s very important to give a big space to art.
What is your real passion – fashion, film, music or a fusion of the three?
My real passion is literature. I love to read. I was raised under very strict Muslim law so I wasn’t allowed to go out. The only way to go out and have a free spirit was through reading. Reading was a form of rebellion.
It seems your life can be categorized into periods such as the Alaia years, the Gaultier years and now the next chapter, Schiaparelli. Do you agree with that?
I think you have to grab the opportunities that you have in your life. I spent so many years saying no to people because I was afraid or because I wasn’t sure of myself. I lost so much time! I think it’s very exciting to relaunch a brand as important Schiaparelli so I could not say no to that.
Do you have any particular favourite Schiaparelli images or pieces?
There are so many things but I think the perfume bottles are really amazing. The way they were designed by Dali and her. The clothes were very simple but she nearly invented the print with butterflies, lips and things like that. It was about including art in everything and beauty being everywhere. Beauty is not where people think it is. Beauty is everywhere and most of the time we don’t see it because we’re too busy with our personal or professional things. You have to open your mind.
Why do we need Schiaparaelli now?
In fashion you need to reinvent all the time otherwise you get bored. We had to do something small and in a different way. To be more private, more discreet, more exclusive, less pictures. Something with more poetry that gives you the curiosity to see it. We cannot do the same things that Elsa did because there are so many people who did the same and we can’t repeat that. We’re trying a new way of fashion. Even the way we’re going to show is going to be very different – very small shows, a lot of internet sales. It won’t be the normal fashion formula.
You have previously talked of your childhood with no privileges. Do you believe that the courage and fearlessness need to escape that has continued to drive you to new opportunities?
It’s not that. It’s the love of liberty because I didn’t have freedom. I couldn’t even walk in the street. One day you decide to leave and the fear is gone. I did a documentary on Tunisian youth and I understood right at the start of the revolution it was over for Ben Ali. Because when the process of liberty is on the way nothing can stop it.
Did Paris adopt you?
Yes. I feel the freedom in Paris. The real Parisians are not from Paris. Loulou de la Falaise was a real Parisian but she was half British half French. Ines de la Fressange was not born in Paris but in St Tropez. But we love Paris and we embrace it. If you’re born here you don’t see Paris in the same way as the people who came to Paris.
Who, what and where excites you most in the modern fashion world?
Most of the time it’s the people on the street who are most stylish. When I go to London I see people that look really great. On the street you can see people that make effort and it’s got nothing to do with money. It’s not about how much you spend but about the way you impose yourself with style. In England they’re the best at that!
Who are your personal style icons?
In terms of style I don’t see women, I only see men. I see more stylish and elegant men. Cary Grant and Fred Astaire are real style icons – very elegant, very chic, even in the way they move and dance. Style is not only fashion. People who are free spirits are my style icons rather than a look. A great writer, dancer, director or actor is much more stylish than anyone else.
So which directors or writers are your icons?
David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar, the Iranian Asghar Farhadi who has done three beautiful movies. Talent is really the thing that inspires me. People who can do things that I cannot do. A great designer like Azzedine Alaia or Jean Paul Gaultier. Jean Paul Goude is such a great artist. When you see beautiful things they give you hope.