Paris: Art + Fragrance = A Shocking Good Time

Shocking by Schiaparelli, Vogue, 1951 (All images: T. Brack's Archives)

Shocking by Schiaparelli, Vogue, 1951 Illustration by Marcel Vertès (Images: T. Brack’s Archives)

Shocking by Schiaparelli, Harper's Bazaar 1944 (Place Vendôme)(T. Brack's Archives)

Harper’s Bazaar 1944, Illustration by Marcel Vertès (Place Vendôme)

By Theadora Brack

Embracing the New Year, I’ve created an inspirational post, cherry-picking my favorite quotes penned by designer Elsa Schiaparelli in her 1954 autobiography “A Shocking Life.” Whenever I need a little pick-me-up, I reach for this book. True grit, spit and wit reign here. Soon “Brack” is back on track.

Here’s the zip: On January 1, 1935, “Schiap” moved her salon from the fourth floor at 4 rue de la Paix to 21 Place Vendôme (located next to Napoleon’s column and the Hôtel Ritz), and opened one of the first prêt-à-porter boutiques in Paris.

History in the shaking, one could easily swing by the shop and score “ready to be taken away immediately” dresses, sweaters, bathing suits, shorts, lingerie, lounge wear, dressing gowns, hats, jewelry, stockings, and pocket books. Where’s time travel when you need it, I pray?

Making the scene

Schiap’s fragrances were also available in the shop, displayed in a giant birdcage made of gold-painted bamboo. Created by décor guru Jean-Michel Frank, the impeccable design was inspired by Schiap’s favorite Picasso painting, “Bird Cage and Playing Cards.”

From the get-go, fashionistas from all over the world made a bee-line to see it with their own peeps.

Shocking by Schiaparelli, Harper's Bazaar, 1937

“Shocking” bottle design by Léonor Fini, Harper’s Bazaar, 1937


Step to it: Following French historic preservation guidelines, Frank also revamped Schiap’s other rooms at 21 Place Vendôme (there were 98 in all!). It was the 1930s, so stark was making its mark. The walls and molding were painted white, while flattering lighting was made possible by concealing lights in abstract plaster columns. Voilà! You look marvelous.

British Vogue gushed: “Light was the point of the decoration. Light flooding the stairs, light flooding from the fixtures holding perfumes and accessories, light shining in windows so that the whole place seemed bathed in light.”

Tip: Jean-Michel Frank also worked his magic for Coco Chanel, Lucien Lelong and Nina Ricci, along with the Institut Guerlain at 68 Champs-Elysées, where his trompe-l’oeil panels (in collaboration with illustrator Christian “Bébé” Bérard) still shine brightly today. While hotfooting to the Arc de Triomphe, do take a peak.

Going up?

On the second floor is where Schiaparelli (donning a white lab coat) coolly improvised with prints, color, and texture, overlaying fabrics, and adorning them with opulent handcrafted motifs, zippers, beads, and buttons shaped like insects, animals, chains, and lollipops—never missing one refined beat. Elsa’s eclectic repertoire was free-wheeling and whimsical but always elegant, too.

Reflecting on Place Vendôme (View from the "Schiap Shop")

Reflecting on Place Vendôme (View from the “Schiap Shop”)

Star Power

This Lady Dada (and fellow flea market huntress) also played hard with artists like Dali, Jean Cocteau, and Man Ray, along with Picasso, Méret Oppenheim, and the aforementioned “Bébé” Bérard. Reading much like a Hollywood A-list, her client base beamed with the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, and Wallis Simpson–just to name a few!

Ahead of the curve, our publicity maven often launched her thematic collections with witty vitrines and performances of Napoleonic proportions, complete with elephants and tightrope walkers out on the street in front of her salon! Word quickly spread. Her campaigns had real legs, see.

Even Mae West came to Paris.

Well, almost. “She was stretched out on the operating-table of my work-room, and measured and probed with care and curiosity,” Schiap quipped. “She had sent me all the most intimate details of her famous figure and, for greater accuracy, a plaster statue of herself quite naked in the pose of Venus de Milo.

Here’s the scoop: In 1937, Schiap was commissioned to create Mae West’s wardrobe for the movie “Every Day’s a Holiday.” In addition to mailing the plaster figure, the sassy full-figured actress also promised to visit the salon. The entire shop was ecstatic, including Schiap, who planned an “extraordinary” evening at Chez Maxim.

Elsa Schiaparelli, portrait by Man Ray, 1933 (Wig by Antoine)

Elsa Schiaparelli, portrait by Man Ray, 1933 (Wig by Antoine)

Sadly, because of her busy schedule, Mae West didn’t come up and see them sometime. “I’d like to see Paris before I die. Philadelphia will do.” she growled.

On the sunny side

After shipping the wardrobe to Hollywood, “All that remained was the plaster-cast statue,” Elsa said. However, it was this very statue and its bombshell hourglass silhouette that inspired Schiap’s signature perfume bottle for her scent, “Shocking.” Living well is the best revenge, eh? I’ll say.

Come hither, dream team. Surrealist painter (and cat lady!) Léonor Fini created the iconic “Shocking” bottle, while artist Marcel Vertès illustrated the titillating and cheeky advertising campaign. Oh, la la.

More poop

Recently Diego Della Valle (of Tods) bought the “Schiaparelli” name and now plans to revive the Place Vendôme salon. In 2012, designer Vincent Darré dressed Schiap’s former digs with sofas in her signature “Shocking Pink” and rugs by Fernand Léger, along with art by Man Ray, Dali, Cocteau and Picasso. Heck, the gang’s all here! Well, not quite. They’re still on the hunt for a designer. I’ll keep you in the loop.

As Schiap would say, “If the wind catches your hat and tantalizingly blows it farther and farther away, you must run quicker than the wind if you want to retrieve it!” Happy New Year! Bonne Année!

BRACK Santa Baby 999

Surrealist Painter Léonor Fini, Portrait by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1933

BRACK Santa Baby 28

Vogue, 1947, Illustration by Marcel Vertès

Elsa Schiaparelli's "Schiap Shop" Place Vendôme, Paris, 1950

Window-Shopping at Elsa Schiaparelli’s “Schiap Shop” Place Vendôme, Paris, 1950

Mae West in Schiaparelli, Every Day's a Holiday, 1937

Mae West in Schiaparelli, Every Day’s a Holiday, 1937

BRACK Santa Baby 41

50 thoughts on “Paris: Art + Fragrance = A Shocking Good Time

  1. Another thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining article. Thank you, Theadora. You bring Paris to life for me. Wishing you abundant blessings for 2013.


  2. A fantastic post as always. What a great way to start the new year! 🙂 All the best to you in 2013!


  3. Your fab post had me singing … “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. now everything goes… If bare limbs you like, if Mae West you like, or me undressed you like anything goes.” And dancing in my red soled Louboutin’s. One simply wants to be shocking Theadora. V.


    • Brilliant, Virginia!! You are the top! MERCI. Slipping on my black leather Louboutin shoes with the kitten heels, now. Get Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, and Frankie Sinatra on the horn. Anything Goes! 1934. Cole Porter. Happy New Year!! T. (Yo-Yo Ma’s cover is also very lovely.)

      Times have changed
      And we’ve often rewound the clock
      Since the Puritans got a shock
      When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
      If today
      Any shock they should try to stem
      ‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
      Plymouth Rock would land on them.

      In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
      Was looked on as something shocking.
      But now, God knows,
      Anything goes.
      Good authors too who once knew better words
      Now only use four-letter words
      Writing prose.
      Anything goes.


    • Merci!! Say, I’m still on the hunt for stockings by “Schiap.” I found a gorgeous old advertisement. At one point, she made a deal with Bonwit Teller & Co. in New York City. Yes, I’m working on a post. Again, thanks for the lead! I’m on the lookout for the “High Steppers.” Great name, eh? B. (Have you photographed the Purple Hotel? Someone recently rescued it, yes? It’s a beauty.)


      • Not certain about that, but I’ll check it out!

        I bought my ‘Schiaps’ at the Boston Store in Milwaukee, which was quite a la-la chi-chi place back then…these days, not so much! I feel we import too much from China, and the goods are not really durable…and that goes for just about everything!


  4. I have to read this tomorrow, but you have to catch my post for tomorrow. You’ll love it and your name and blog link appear as well. Come take a trip to Paris in the suburbs of Chicago!


  5. I *would* say that that piece in Schiaparelli was “shockingly good” but in fact I’ve come to expect nothing less of any of your posts. They’re *all* shockers. Bravo!


    • Oh, my. Again, thanks for sharing. Naperville + Paris = BLISS. What a beautiful shop. Dangerous to the hips, I say. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about their “gussied up” hot chocolate and cheesecake. For gosh sakes, what did they add to hot chocolate? I loved their color scheme, too. The place flaunts a “Ladurée” vibe. The chandelier fixtures also caught my eye. I’d love to add one to my powder room. (An idea I clipped from Virginia of belocchio!) T.


  6. Wow! I especially love the Place Vendôme reflection!

    Thanks again for showing us another view of taste and elegance…meaning your blog!

    May 2013 be at least half as classy and fun.


  7. Such a lovely post my dear friend… already planning my next visit… Paris for ever… Paris pour toujours! x


  8. Fantastic, sumptuous post, T! What a fine way to start the year! Imagine sending a plaster cast of yourself as a stand-in. I wonder if work would go for it. Have a great 2013!


    • Thanks, Richard !! Perhaps we all should try sending a plaster cast to work as a stand-in? Funny thought ! (I’m sure they were also inspired by Eugène Atget’s photographs of storefronts and mannequins. They’re so very strange and fantastical. By the way, Happy New Year to you !)


    • YES. I’m also a “Schiap” fan. And yes, I highly recommend “Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli” (1954), along with “Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli by Dilys E. Blum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004). Back in 2007, the Victoria and Albert Museum reprinted Schiap’s autobiography in paperback form. I scored in a New York Barnes and Noble a few years ago. I’d start with eBay. Happy New Year!! T.


    • Thanks, Deanne! Elsa Schiaparelli is one of my favorite designers. Perhaps my favorite! Schiap had a knack for hiring very talented people. I also love the illustrations. In fact, I’ve started collection the works by Marcel Vertès. I’d love to see his murals in the Café Carlyle in the Carlyle Hotel in New York, New York! One day soon! T. (Happy New Year!!)


    • Ah, thanks, Tammy! I also love the Mae West story. Schiaparelli was still disappointed about the 1936 “collaboration” when she penned her autobiography in 1954! T.


  9. Dearest Theodora
    More Divas than a May Day parade.
    What a wonderful story. The incomparable Mae, may have been the only woman not only to have inspired two of the flacons of the biggest selling perfumes of her time, but also had her own line in scent…
    She was every inch the lady and then a few feet more the businesswoman!
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy


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