On the occasion of the release in 2014 of "Frocking Life", the biography by BillyBoy* on the work of Elsa Schiaparelli, the Foundation Tanagra presents in exclusivity the foreword of the author with the opportunity to discover his unequaled passion for this amazing haute couture master of the 20th-century.
Following the (shocking pink?) thread that led BillyBoy*, from the discovery of a Schiaparelli hat when he was 12-years-old, to probably the largest privately-owned haute couture collection in the world (and without any doubt of Elsa Schiaparelli), we can have a glimpse of the many expressions of this passion (page 1) an overview of the press on this topic (page 2), the fashion photographs made BillyBoy* & Lala on women of today dressed in Schiaparelli (page 3) and finally, a word by Paige Powell, personal assistant to Andy Warhol, who talks about her encounter with BillyBoy* and his passion for collecting (page 4).
Fondation Tanagra, April 1, 2013
The Work of Elsa Schiaparelli
When I was 12 years old, I found a strange hat at a Paris fleamarket for a few centimes. My goodness, it was a very strange hat indeed! The label said “Schiaparelli” and the hat, which looked like a crushed clown’s hat with an insect sewn to it, utterly entranced me. I brought it back home to my aunt in New York who explained that it had been made by “that nice old lady” I’d met years ago when I was a child.
I can’t explain why this hat intrigued me so. I wore it to my Montessori school, much to the amusement of the class. Teased and tormented at school, I hadn’t realized that it was supposed to be a lady’s hat. I felt at the time, I suppose, the way a little boy would feel wearing his team’s baseball cap: totally normal. I could not really understand what all the fuss was about. However, like the surrealist artwork it was, this hat was not “just a hat”. It was an “object of desire”, a symbolic artifact which was nothing -- and everything -- at the same time. A bit like my peculiarly unexplainable and strong attraction for my Crayola “Shocking Pink” crayon which was hidden in my box of secret things which were of superb sacredness to me as a child.
Without question, as a kid, I did not know that at the time what this simple hat signified and I certainly had no idea that the hat would be the start of a lifelong adventure. Why would such a banal object produce such revery? Why would it raise so many metaphysical questions in a small boy’s mind? For whatever the reason, it had motivated me, in an obsessive way, to study and document every single dress collection this person would create, to seek out and meet those with whom she worked and put down on paper, every possible detail I could find on her work. In the book on the extraordinary collection of doll’s houses assembled by my friend Vivien Greene, Margaret Towner so aptly said, ”The passionate collector has, however, made a contributuion to the understanding of art and history which is not always fully appreciated. The world of scholars, museums, and dealers is too often bounded by the understood areas of pleasant exploration, as was the classical world by the limits of civilization, beyond which were only barbarians and the boundless ocean.
The collector more often begins by seeing and acquiring something strange, usually of little or unknown value, out of curiousity, or because the unusual has a charm of its own. From examining the object, and trying to find out more about its origins, the interest deepens, and more of a similiar kind are sought in shops, markets, auctions, and even the dustbins of the neighbours. The collector soon discovers, first, that there are no useful books on the subject of his or her interest, and then that it is difficult to obtain items because, as the shopkeeper traditionally says, ‘There is no demand’. People remark, when the subject is mentioned, ‘Oh, we found some of those in the old house when Aunt Jane died, but they were very dirty so we put them on the bonfire’. Sometimes this sort of response makes the collector ashamed of the interest, so the collection becomes a secret hoard, hidden even from friends and family. Sooner or later, however, like-minded people emerge and a correspondence begins, meetings are held and perhaps the collector publishes an article in a magazine. Once a small exhibition has taken place, dealers, auctioneers and eventually museum curators and popular writers on art or antiques discover a new and rewarding field.
“Many neglected, unknown or unfashionable subjects have been brought back to life in this manner, from Victorian furniture to treen”. This seemed to so completely summarize my life as a collector as in reading this study one can so clearly see. Vivien herself concluded, and I have always whole-heartedly agreed, the reason for this peculiar obsession of collecting very specific things, the odd way in which one seems to have things gravitate towards one or vice versa may be something spiritual, “In the strange way in which certain objects - here speaks the collector - gravitate towards anyone who will love them...”. This is even moreso true in my own experience. Who seeked out what?... or more specifically - who seeked out whom?
I still don’t have the answer why that first find had this effect on me. It’s been over forty years since I discovered it and I am still fascinated and astounded by Elsa Schiaparelli’s work. How can one’s life be consumed by tiny, tiny details? How can one woman’s work be so enthralling and provocative? Goethe said that, “You must be hammer or anvil” and in Schiaparelli’s case, she was always the hammer, the one who imposed the chic of her eye on fashion and that is what I wished to capture on pages, in collecting and in a study. From that hat on, I dreamed to write about her story and her work, it was my goal to write a definitive book on her career and the precise details of every possible collection and creation I could see.
With my own hard work and some financial independance, I had the means and inclination to look for the things I liked. When I was in New York, I spent whole days, wandering from Upper West Side junk shops to Lower East Side thriftshops, searching for (and finding) amazing vintage clothes...notably Schiaparellis. In a florist’s window, of all places, I found a miraculous cache of “Sleeping de Schiaparelli” perfume bottles... shipping cartons and all. They were using the flacons for bud vases and hideous sand art! In my feverish enthusiasm I even tracked down unclaimed Schiaparelli garments in a dry-cleaning shop on Madison Avenue. I’d buy literally hundreds of old fashion magazines and photos. In Paris, it seemed to my naive eyes, that haute couture clothes were just about everywhere, the fleamarkets, the sellers of “fripes” and just about any woman you may meet had some in the back of a closet or an attic, happy to get rid of them. Old high fashion dresses, prior to collecting them, were casually given to maids, family members of lesser means and to schools to use in productions of amateur plays. Or, they were just simply thrown away or worse, ripped up to use as rags to polish silver!
Collecting French high fashion and moreso Schiaparelli was a very lonely and but enthralling and captivating pursuit. I then met vintage clothing dealer and collector Beverley Birks, who became a friend. She was one of the first persons I knew in New York to collect vintage fashion, notably pre-war (she claims that I was the one who made her see the light about post-war fashion, as I was equally as passionate for both). She owned a dazzling Schiaparelli “Leaf Cape” that I’d have coveted if I’d been the jealous type. We often discussed the draping genius of Schiap and her technical innovations which I discuss in this work. She also felt it was freaky that I looked like Schiap.
Christie's auction house had just started selling 20th-century textiles, and I'd literally buy every single piece of haute couture that would come up. They'd have descriptions such as "Dress, black silk with embroidery: label ‘Schiaparelli, 21 place Vendôme, Paris’ ; estimate $40-$50." I was in heaven, it was so darn easy, and so darn inexpensive. Nevertheless, I found myself in a tricky position. I was gleefully amassing custom-made high fashion clothes and all the innumerable related documents at an alarming rate....what's a boy to do? I already had a trail of Schiaparelli garments in apartments scattered from Saint Mark’s Place to Hell’s Kitchen to Park Avenue, from a brownstone in Park Slope to a loft in Flushing Meadows, Queens, with a panaramic view of the rundown Unisphere of the 1964/65 World’s Fair, which I always loved, the reason in the first place I’d taken the rundown place in such a scary neighborhood. I soon had apartments in Paris and London as well, crammed packed with stuff, gorgeous stuff, but stuff nonetheless. I’d plunge into these things with a relish which is indescribable, all in the earnest desire to record and document each and every one of her fashion collections.
These were the days, in New York, when I’d occasionally wear Schiaparelli suits to the Mudd Club, and converse to all hours with artists and musicians, such as Klaus Nomi, Joey Arias, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nico, Mimi Gross, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, Arthur Tress and many others. Back on Park Avenue I would also frequent the fashion elite of New York at the time, including Koos van den Akker, Halston, Perry Ellis and later Stephen Sprouse.
By the time I was twenty, somehow and despite my living on what seemed like Cloud 9, I was already recognized in several domaines and acknowledged as a designer, artist and collector. I was contacted by Dorothée Lalanne, daughter of the sculptor François-Xavier Lalanne, (who soon after became an intimate friend) and newly-made editor-in-chief of the short lived Condé Nast Vogue Beauté magazine, to do the first feature article in many years on Schiaparelli. I was regularly contacted as a consultant for museums. It was flattering for the young man that I was to receive letters such as this one by Christian Derouet, curator of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, who was interested in my Schiaparelli and Jean-Michel Frank related holdings: “It is perfectly natural that we turn towards you who has reunited a magnificent collection of the creations of Elsa Schiaparelli and being an enlightened connoisseur”.
Simultaneously, I had my life in London where I mostly stayed at the Savoy and Ritz Hotels (I needed the luxury of hotels as I can hardly cook or do anything practical, so hotels seemed a better place to live than my overcrowded flat) but yet, in such pictoresque surroundings of grand old hotels, I still ended up filling my rooms with Portebello finds including Schiaparellis from her London house of the 1930s. I met a broad range of artists from Francis Bacon to Duggie Fields, Gilbert and George, poet David Robilliard; fashion designers Zandra Rhodes, Judy Blame and Barbara Hulanicki (Biba), Scott Crolla and the BodyMap team (Stevie Stewart, a charming girl, would model for the British press the highest paid Schiaparelli at auction which I had bought at Christie’s, London), Manolo Blahnik and the extraordinary John Moore, both highly talented shoemakers, and many others. My dear, dear friend Carol Lister, who gave Lala and I our first exhibition of Mdvanii so successfully at Liberty of London would accompany me frequently throughout Portobello Road and every junk shop from the East End to the West End of London and all the outskirts of pretty much every town in England, from Brighton to Sussex on the never ending search for Schiaparelli clothing. We laugh about it to this day, all the crazy exploits we got up to, all of us, Lala, her and I, stampeding through fleamarkets and bootsales with a drive to find things with an unequalled passion.
Some of the people I met were almost as fascinated by Schiaparelli as I was, such as ex-punk designer Vivienne Westwood, who would self-proclaim to be the continuation of sorts of Schiaparelli, who’s pretention rather startled me, perhaps the effect she wished to achieve, although as much as I loved wearing her clothes and admired her nerve, I flatly did not think so myself. When I was named “Man of the Year” in England, it was not only due to my artistic and fashion works but notably thanks to my Schiaparelli mania which seemed to captivate the British press. I must point out though that amongst all the latest haute couture designers clothes I had in my wardrobe at the time, I did chose to wear Vivienne Westwood’s latest creations in the photos for the various articles concerning this so-called title.
Definitely attracted by the city of fashion, I decided to move permanently to Paris in 1980. When I got off the Concorde, I had the surprise to be greeted by newspaper and TV crews. The newspaper Libération did a full-page article on my obsession with Schiaparelli, and the branché magazine Actuel did a major feature story about me and Erté, presenting me as the inventor of the “new baroque”, calling the feature “At Last A Normal Young Man”. Considering the title, I suppose one could say I had come far since the days of being ridiculed at school for wearing a woman’s hat. I felt at the time that my own creations were paying homage to her work and at the same time, spreading the Schiaparelli “word”, which enabled me to find out yet more things about her. Naturally, the press I received was a great conversation starter at parties and just about anywhere and my favourite conversation, obviously, was that about the work of Schiaparelli. Mondaine parties took on new meaning as I’d meet, under the most unexpected circumstances, someone who’d say something pertinent about something they knew about Schiaparelli.
Shortly thereafter I met Jean-Pierre “Lala” Lestrade, himself artist and performer, who became my life-long companion and partner. We opened an atelier called “Surreal Bijoux” deliberately on the rue de la Paix, literally next door to where Schiap had started her own career (She started at number four and we were at number six). The costume jewelery we produced was, although called by the New York Times as “Cartoon Chanel” partially paid tribute to the artistic ideas of Schiaparelli. It was copied worldwide, collected by museums, touted by all the media and included in definitive books on fashion, always recognizing, and myself acknowledging, the influence of Schiaparelli on my own work. This work we did contributed to the overall “surreal” trend of 1980s accessories, from Karl Lagerfeld’s “chair” hat to Pierre Cardin’s Magritte-inspired “foot” shoes (for which I own and have worn the first pair). Seemingly, I’d put Schiaparelli’s artistic sensibility, re-interpreted, back on the fashion map. But I knew there was method to my madness. Working as an artist, I felt that my passion for Schiaparelli was ever the stronger. In creating art and fashion myself, I’d come to understand to a certain degree what may have motivated her to create her startling work.
In 1984, the Musée Galliéra in conjunction with the City of Paris presented a “Hommage à Schiaparelli” exhibition ... largely based on my initiative and my collection. This show attracted considerable press attention and had almost immediate impact on world fashion. Suddenly, Shocking Pink was the colour ... not only in Paris ... but on Seventh Avenue in New York and on the High Street of London. The Paris exhibition was the impetus for my friend Stephen de Pietri’s, (then Yves Saint Laurent’s curator), 1987 show called “Fashion and Surrealism” at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York which also displayed items from my Schiaparelli collection as well as my own work. Pieces from my Schiaparelli collection – today permanently under legal guardianship in Switzerland at the non-profit Fondation Tanagra that I founded with Lala in 1997 - have traveled to museums throughout the world including London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Canada’s Cours Montreal, and Japan’s Kyoto Museum. It was around this time people like Françoise Sagan and my neighbor Marguerite Duras would give me what seemed poetic insights into Schiaparelli, giving me a literary perception of her work.
Although I was hard at work on the Barbie: Her Life and Times project (called The BillyBoy* New Theater of Fashion) and book which was published in 1987, Schiaparelli would be still the great inspiration of my life. On many auspicious occasions, I’d get (what seemed like!) a spooky sign from her. It seemed I’d always seem to find a particularly fine Schiaparelli ensemble on my birthday. On the day before I moved to Paris, I found a signed Schiaparelli compact on the street. (No, not the telephone dial one... it was the one with a pixie juggling perfume bottles). Even until recently, on a sunny Easter Sunday when I was contemplating something of dear importance to me, unexpectedly my charming friend, artist Sylvie Fleury, offered me a gorgeous Schiaparelli piece. As we drove in her speedy Porsche to a brocante in the hills of Payerne in Switzerland sparkling in her delicate ringed hand she handed me a pre-war Schiaparelli mirror used for Schiap’s perfume displays she’d had for more than 16 years on her vanity table. I took this, as usual, as a meaningful sign. Most naturally as a sign of friendship from Sylvie which has great importance to me but also a sign that somehow my reflections were of a positive light - wouldn’t it be nice to think Schiap was somehow giving me a guiding hand in regards to my thoughts and spiritual questions?
The then-inactive House of Schiaparelli on the place Vendôme contacted me repeatedly to negotiate the possible designing of new collections for them. Much to the surprise of Gogo Schiaparelli, the designer’s daughter, I declined the offer. While I loved Schiaparelli – and even looked something like her, according to many people -- I never wanted to be Schiap. However, I accepted, with pleasure, the challenge of putting the Schiaparelli documents in order. The work I did, happily browsing through the dusty archives for months on end, supplied foundations for this book. I had only to thank my lucky stars for that incredible opportunity!
My dear and utterly enchanting friend Bettina Bergery provided the inside stories from Schiap’s early days. As Schiap’s muse, high society model, window dresser and public relations genius, she knew everything that happened behind the scenes. The diaries she entrusted to me before her death are filled with priceless anecdotes. It was Bettina who brought artists like Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau into the world of Schiaparelli. Was it not the ever-eccentric Bettina who had the cunning idea to dress her pet wistiti monkeys, named Pouchka, Riki and Big Mama, in miniature versions of her Schiaparelli haute couture? This absurd foolery was considered at the time particularly surrealistic and chicly amusing. So much so that Hollywood fashion designer Adrian and filmmaker George Cukor, both whom personally knew Bettina well, esteemed her drolery the nec plus ultra of surreal chic to the point that they included wistitis dressed in Adrian’s clothes in the 1939 film The Women. Based on Clare Luce Booth’s play, in the colour film sequence fashion show, the Adrian clothes on the women themselves a parody of Schiaparelli fashions.
Yvonne Deslandres, who founded the Louvre’s Union Française des Arts du Costume, claimed me as her “spiritual son” when I met her in the late-1970s. In a letter she wrote to me in 1986. “When you walked in, wearing a Schiaparelli hat, suit, and jewelry, as peculiar and ambiguous as it was, I knew from the moment you presented yourself that you were, beneath the artistic personage, a true scholar”. She gave me precious access to the Louvre’s collection of Schiaparelli’s own design albums containing sketches by Drian, fabric swatches, and trimming samples and of course, the clothes themselves. I never forgot Yvonne Deslandres’ comment about the evolution of Schiaparelli design:" Each year is a masterpiece, you can see the history of Europe in them".
I’d early on took the habit of taping formal interviews with my friends and acquaintances, and I’ve always recorded, in writing, conversations in my personal journals nearly word for word, often scribbled on blocknote paper I kept with me at all times. Thus, I’ve been able to draw on a vast inventory of Schiap stories from contemporaries like André Courrèges, Madame Grès, (at lunch in her salon or at our local café) Philippe Venet, the 1950s model and my very close friend Bettina Graziani, the kings of Paris fashion, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, the great gentleman and iconic couturier Hubert de Givenchy, (it usually was around Bettina’s kitchen table at her informal dinners that he’d say pertinent things), illustrator supreme Réné Gruau, shoemaker supreme Roger Vivier, Perrine de Wilde and Colin Poiret, (Paul Poiret’s daughter and son) and even seamstresses and knitters in Schiap’s Paris workshops. Eliane Bonabel and André Beaurepaire, two of the participants of the Petit Théatre de la Mode of 1945, helped me immensely concerning the war years and Schiaparelli. I’d befriend, in various degrees, Salvador and Gala Dali, Diego Giacometti, Cecil Beaton, Comte Henri de Beaumont, Sonia Delaunay, Jean Schlumberger and Leonor Fini, all who spoke about working with Schiap. Arletty, Marlène Dietrich, Bette Davis, the Duchess of Windsor, Lauren Bacall, chatted about wearing Schiap. There was also Alexandre de Paris, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant and the exquisite Gene Kelly – also offered fascinating opinions about this designer. Even as a guest of the British Embassy of Moscow in 1987, I lectured about Schiaparelli to an audience of Ambassadors and their wives, and also met Zeitzev, Russia’s then only high fashion designer - to whom I offered a bottle of “Shocking” perfume as a token of international comradeship. I felt sometimes a bit like Schiaparelli’s own personal Ambassador! But no, I don’t think that’s entirely correct because perhaps, at times, I was her dedicated secretary, her humbled servant, her private scribe or exhausted mujic. Mephistopheles, in Faust, said, “You supra sensual suitor, A woman leads you by the nose”, and in my case, it surely can be said true.
All my life, I’ve followed the invisible thread from one Schiaparelli dress to another, from a Schlumberger button shaped like a snake to a Schiap hat garnished with carrots, and from one serendipitous and surprising meeting to another amazing story. Everything, every tiny element seemed to spell out an incredible story about this woman’s personal vision of beauty which I, earnestly tried to write down for future reference. Thanks to an introduction from the eccentric and beautiful ex-model Denise Sarrault, Robert Doisneau did a portrait of me at La Coupole, wearing Issey Miyake clothes and eating an ice cream sundae. His first colour fashion shoot came out of this meeting... and the subject was my collection of Schiaparelli clothes in the glamourous setting of the Paris Musée d’Art Moderne! The more press coverage I received, the more doors opened for me and for my Schiap research. Everything seemed to have meaning...all those artists, photographers, atelier workers, stars and socialites gave the subject incredible meaning.
Those meanings -- and hidden meanings -- in Schiaparelli’s designs still fire my imagination. I can see, and for which I hope to illustrate and explain here -- in her work between 1927 and 1954, and even in her perfumes and boutique creations made until her death in the early 1970s -- her perfect sense of timing with each epoch. In spite of her avant-garde affiliations, she had an acute awareness of her fellow man and gosh, did she know how to make women gorgeous and visions of pure glamour! She changed the way women were perceived, and the way that the act of seduction was perceived. Down to the tiniest detail, clothes can speak endlessly about so many other things. Would the course of history be different if the shoe hat had not been made? I’ve tried to write it all down, in some sort of order including as many of the anecdotes of pertinence as possible.
I can only put a fraction of what I have learned over these thirty years in this work. I hope that I have put all these friendships and acquaintances, experiences and documents to good use, and have used this accumulated information in a creative way to document Schiaparelli’s extraordinary career and do honour to all those who have helped me, which have been many. Whereas Schiaparelli, one of the very first designers to bring fine art to fashion and to bring outright sexiness to fashion called her autobiography “Shocking Life”, how could I resist calling this elaborate long-term study and also glimpse into her wacky, surrealistic, madly chic world by only one title, for that is what she did perfectly - “Frocking Life”.
BillyBoy* - January 2005
“The eternal feminine draws us onward” – Goethe
"In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different". – Coco Chanel