D aniel Roseberry, the artistic director of Schiaparelli, has long been fascinated by Elsa Schiaparelli’s collaborations with the leading lights of Surrealism. After establishing her venerable fashion house in the 1930s, Schiaparelli became one of the first couturiers to collaborate with artists, working with Salvador Dalí and Man Ray, among others.
“I’m always so nostalgic for that period,” Roseberry says. “I think of those collaborations as ones that were happening between people who were creating culture around them, and who found themselves in real relationships. I often wonder if they had any idea that their work would be romanticised and fetishised for generations after. Even if it was transactional in some way, those creative partnerships feel so deeply natural compared to most of what we observe today.”
Texas-born Roseberry has been reinterpreting Schiaparelli’s historic vision through his dramatic collections since taking the reins of the house in 2019. This March, the Surrealism and Its Legacy sale at Sotheby’s Paris brings together works by artists associated with the movement, including René Magritte, Francis Picabia, Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, with work influenced by it – such as Lucio Fontana and Alexander Calder. The sale reflects a period of renewed interest in Surrealism, with recent auctions and international exhibitions, including last year’s Venice Biennale, adopting it as a central theme. For Roseberry, the enduring appeal of the Surrealists is obvious. “Generations and times shift and change but the urges of the subconscious feel timeless and truly inescapable. They were able to tap into this and exploit it,” he says.
Elsa Schiaparelli was born into a family of intellectuals and aristocrats in 1890 in Rome, and her encounter with the Surrealists was utterly fortuitous. Sailing on an ocean liner in 1916 to North America with her husband, she met Gabriële Buffet-Picabia, first wife of the Dada artist Francis Picabia. Buffet-Picabia introduced her to New York’s avant-garde art scene via Société Anonyme, an arts organisation founded in the city by the painter and collector Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.
Returning to Paris in 1922, Schiaparelli made her foray into fashion, encouraged by a new acquaintance: preeminent designer Paul Poiret. Her first success was the now-renowned trompe-l’oeil bow jumper, a design hand-knitted by Armenian women in Paris. Schiaparelli then went on to set up business in a garret on Rue de la Paix and, in 1935, moved to a boutique in the prestigious Place Vendôme. Her connections with artists became central to the brand’s success.
It is her work with Dalí that stands out most. “From my point of view, it is the most striking and influential [collaboration] in the history of the house of Schiaparelli,” says Marie-Sophie Carron de La Carrière, head curator of the fashion and textile collections after 1800 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, which hosted the exhibition Shocking! Les mondes surréalistes d’Elsa Schiaparelli ( July 2022–January 2023). Among other pieces, Schiaparelli and Dalí worked together on the Shoe Hat, 1937–38, absurdly fashioned from an upside-down black shoe, and the Lobster dress, 1937, for which Dalí designed a crustacean to appear on a white organdy dress, which was intepreted into a fabric print by silk designer Sache. After returning to Paris from the US after the Second World War, Schiaparelli commissioned the Catalan artist to design the crystal bottle for her new fragrance, Le Roy Soleil, in homage to the “Sun King”, Louis XIV. The resulting bottle comprised a golden sun painted with swallows above a gold and blue sea.
In The Studio: Daniel Roseberry on the Heritage of Surrealism at Schiaparelli
Other memorable creations include two pairs of spiral spectacles that Man Ray made for Schiaparelli in 1936. Jean Cocteau, the Surrealism polymath, brought his passion for optical illusion and metamorphosis to Schiaparelli’s collections in 1937 and 1938. Designs include a linen evening jacket featuring a woman in profile, her hair rendered in gold thread, shimmering down the right arm with two hands encircling the waist. On a silk jersey coat, Cocteau designed two facing profiles to form the shape of a vase, filled with a bouquet of pink taffeta flowers. Surrealist artist Leonor Fini designed the bottle for Schiaparelli’s fragrance Shocking, inspired by the hourglass torso of Hollywood film star Mae West, one of Schiaparelli’s clients. Artist Meret Oppenheim traded Schiaparelli a design for a piece of jewelry: a brass bracelet covered in animal fur that Schiaparelli included in her Autumn/Winter 1936 collection.
Schiaparelli held these collaborations close to her heart. “Working with artists like Bébe Bérard, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Vertès, Van Dongen; and with photographers like Hoyningen-Huene, Horst, Cecil Beaton and Man Ray gave one a sense of exhilaration,” she wrote in her autobiography, Shocking Life. “One felt supported and understood beyond the crude and boring reality of merely making a dress to sell.” They helped her to become one of the most important designers of the 20th century, rivalling contemporaries such as Coco Chanel.
Today, the Surrealists’ influence is carried forward by Roseberry through his own designs for the house, which closed in 1954 and was relaunched in 2006 by Diego Della Valle, the founder of Italian luxury group Tod’s. Roseberry had not worked in a couture atelier before, joining from upmarket fashion brand Thom Browne, but his eye for tailoring and experimentation has made him a perfect fit, and he has resurrected iconic Schiaparelli motifs in bold new ways. Pink silk roses, a nod to Cocteau’s evening dress, cover the billowing arms of a black mini dress from his Autumn 2021 Couture collection. For Spring 2022 Couture, he presented a “cage” dress exquisitely crafted from gold leaf and vintage gemstones, which resembles more of a giant brooch than a garment.
To keep the founder’s intentions alive in a new century, Roseberry has “learned to stay loose”. “When you look at Elsa’s process, it feels free and unburdened, and spontaneous,” he says. “It’s like the shower principle: that the best ideas come to you when you’re not thinking about them, or when you’re in the shower. I think her work has this free-wheeling intelligence that feels so ahead of its time. It wasn’t just about beauty, or of the ‘line’ of a dress. It was about a concept, an idea, a notion of reality. She would take this notion and bend it to her will.”
Roseberry’s love of Surrealism extends to his own art collection, too. He has “just bought a small painting by the Belgian surrealist Marcel Delmotte”, who drew from a range of sources, including the Italian Mannerists to contemporaries such as Giorgio de Chirico for his dreamlike works. “French Surrealism in the 1950s has something I love. I am repeatedly drawn to French and Italian art from the 1920s and the 1930s, such as Gaston Lachaise [known for his exaggerated bronze nudes], and I’d love to one day own an important piece of American art from the 1950s or 1960s, like a giant Helen Frankenthaler.”
Like Schiaparelli, Roseberry is eager to collaborate with artists of his time: “I love Katie Stout” – the artist and furniture designer who pushes the boundaries of functionality, and often references organic matter and female figures. “The photographer Nadia Lee Cohen, and my friends – the sculptor F Taylor Colantonio, and the writer and playwright Jeremy O Harris [his Slave Play made waves on Broadway in 2021],” he adds. “I would love to make a short film with Janicza Bravo [her work includes the movies Lemon and Zola]. Tilda Swinton would make an amazing Elsa Schiaparelli one day in a film, and I’d love to be involved in that.” In the meantime, Roseberry’s eyes are firmly focused on his work with Schiaparelli and, just like the house’s imaginative founder, “creating things that people might remember, and that might last more than a moment”.