The Texan 'outsider' turning Parisian fashion on its head

Daniel Roseberry is reigniting Elsa Schiaparelli's formidable legacy and shaking up the world of haute couture

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It is rare that a couture house is better known for what it does today than what it did a century ago. Dior, Chanel and Balenciaga are among the famous Parisian fashion labels to tap into their significant couture heritage to validate what they do now. However, Elsa Schiaparelli, who founded her maison in 1927 and shuttered it in 1954 after accruing large debts, is far less well-known.

Having lain dormant for 60 years, Schiaparelli was relaunched amid much excitement in 2012 by Italian fashion tycoon Diego Della Valle, chairman of Tod’s Group. Fabled guest designer Christian Lacroix was enlisted to create the initial collection, which was presented in Schiaparelli’s lovingly restored headquarters at 21, Place Vendome.

However, it wasn’t until American singer Lady Gaga appeared in a spectacular custom-designed outfit to sing at President Biden’s inauguration that the Schiaparelli name truly registered on the radar of anyone outside the fashion world. The designer of that dress was Texan Daniel Roseberry, the thoughtful, quietly spoken son of an Anglican minister who was appointed creative director of the house of Schiaparelli in April 2019.

Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali in 1949. Photo: Archives Snark

Schiaparelli was a competitor of Gabrielle Chanel and one of the most revered fashion names in the first half of the 20th century. Her pioneering collaborations included tie-ups with surrealist artists such as Jean Cocteau, Man Ray and Salvador Dali. Her use of “shocking” pink and witty details including the shoe hat, lobster dress, trompe d’oeil tear dress and chest of drawer pocket details on tailoring are examples of her irreverent design vocabulary. These relationships are explored in Shocking! The Surreal World of Elsa Schiaparelli, an exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris that opened this summer and will run until January 22.

In only 25 years, Schiaparelli turned fashion into a natural expression of the avant garde. She embodied the vision of a bright and vibrant Paris, curious about everything and enjoying each novelty that came her way. In November 1934, Harper’s Bazaar pronounced her to be “the most daring and original talent in the French dressmaking world … with volcanic energy and a fantastically fecund sense of modern invention”.

When she died in 1973, Cristobal Balenciaga proclaimed her “the only real artist in couture”. Yves Saint Laurent similarly observed: “When she died, chic closed her eyes.”

Schiaparelli was not just a dressmaker, she was “a brand maker”, explains Roseberry, sitting in the almost bare white studio overlooking the bustling Place Vendome where he spent the weekends during the pandemic sketching alone, in what at the time felt like an abandoned city. He realises, in hindsight, that it was a privilege and an incredibly inspiring time to think about her heritage, almost as if the ghost of Schiaparelli was looking over his shoulder.

“Her legacy is incredibly modern — the house is complicated because her work is specific and singular, but is still very relevant today,” Roseberry says, pointing out that relaunches of storied houses don’t always work. Like Vionnet, he suggests, who created a methodology about how to cut a garment rather than a lasting vision.

Roseberry believes the exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs lays bare “Elsa’s contribution to fashion — she was the first person to cross fashion with pop culture, but with artists that were the pop culture of that time”.

Beyonce wore a Roseberry design to the 63rd annual Grammy Awards. AP Photo

In a contemporary world, the creative dialogue between fashion and art has become almost commonplace, but Schiaparelli was the first to start that conversation. Perhaps because of her background, she was drawn into the bohemian world of artists.

An aristocrat, she grew up in a Baroque palace in Italy surrounded by Italian renaissance and classical antiquity and, intellectually, that went on to be reflected in her collections. Her father was an academic who specialised in the Islamic world and Middle Ages, while her uncle was a renowned astronomer. Schiaparelli, therefore, felt far more comfortable in the company of artists than in the Parisian “society” of her time.

She was an outsider, something that Roseberry can relate to coming to Paris as a little-known designer from Texas, who had spent 11 years working in New York at Thom Browne, a designer who himself likes to play with surrealist concepts. “I can see that there is a freedom to being an outsider that gives you permission to play by the rules or not,” Roseberry says. “I think there is something about this outsider’s perspective, where mastering something that you were not raised with gives you a different perspective.”

A look from Daniel Roseberry's autumn/winter 2022 collection for Schiaparelli. Photo: Schiaparelli

The house has given him the freedom to be himself, and while constantly linking back to Schiaparelli, “there are also things that are uniquely and personally mine”, Roseberry says.

He initially launched into her madcap world with moulded tailoring and an evaluation of how he would approach the figure, something that has been part of his creative process since enrolling for life drawing classes at the age of 16. This focus on silhouette also relates to the famous hourglass body of Schiaparelli’s signature perfume bottle for Shocking, with a tape measure creating a trompe l’oeil detail that Roseberry has since reproduced on jackets.

However, it is the eye-catching jewellery featuring parts of the anatomy that has made people sit up and notice. His gold body castings, he admits, caused a visceral reaction in the fashion world. Referencing the oversized gilded jewellery of the 1930s, 1970s and 1980s, they include cast ears, eyes, teeth and nose jewellery, gold toes on black shoes and lung necklaces, which Bella Hadid famously wore with a scooped neckline dress to the Cannes Film Festival last year. They were the first surrealist tropes that could live in a modern environment — however, he is conscious that the joke can wear thin, so expect something fresh and different in seasons to come.

Lady Gaga wore Schiaparelli to sing at Joe Biden's inauguration. AP

Overall, Roseberry has taken a very restrained approach to the extraordinary legacy that Elsa Schiaparelli left behind.

“It’s about wearing the heritage in the archives very lightly because they can become a great burden, I think. Visually they are so striking and so specific and it’s not even silhouette driven, it’s even more specific than that,” explains Roseberry.

He wants to rouse the same thrill at seeing something new that Schiaparelli did in her day, without endlessly mimicking her work. “I don’t think that is what she would have wanted today.” The exhibition features not only Schiaparelli’s archives, but also the work of designers such as Azzedine Alaia and John Galliano, who were inspired by the couturier, and of course pieces from Roseberry’s collections, including autumn/winter 2022, which featured the black velvet corset and pants with hand-painted flowers that Cate Blanchett wore to the Venice Film Festival last month, and Lady Gaga’s famous inauguration outfit.

Roseberry has only been at Schiaparelli three years, but beyond Lady Gaga, he has chalked up several memorable red carpet moments with stars such as Adele, Cardi B, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan. His personal favourite looks were Lady Gaga and Bella Hadid’s, along with the leather body-conscious dress Beyonce wore the night she set the record for the most Grammys won by a singer.

“I am so honoured to be part of that,” Roseberry muses, but also describes the exhibition opening, sharing a platform with the great Elsa Schiaparelli, as a “mind-blowing moment that will go down in memory”. It has been a remarkable trajectory for the man from Texas.

Updated: October 13, 2022, 6:15 AM