Paris: Art + Fragrance = A Shocking Good Time
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!