Designer Bertrand Guyon brought a light-hearted spirit and fine hand work to the historic site of Elsa Schiaparelli's collections
The Schiaparelli show came back home – to Elsa's original site looking down on the historic Place Vendôme. This is where the founding designer held her ‘Circus’ collection in 1938, with models swinging out of the windows like acrobats, a surrealist Salvador Dalí spirit to the clothes and a general feeling that such a riotous and swaggering fashion show had never been seen before.
But that was then. And for current designer Bertrand Guyon the way the show was positioned became a rite of passage – a fusion of Schiaparelli today with its past. To some degree he succeeded.
Kylie Minogue, wearing a Schiap sunburst embroidered at her chest, smiled as models came out with appliqués of stars, flowers and disembodied hands – all of them magnificently embroidered or maybe subtly stitched or printed.
Another front row guest, British actress Thandie Newton, in a scarlet jacket, looked enthusiastically at the tailoring. And although fans of Schiap's historic daring might have judged today’s outfits in Elsa’s signature ‘Shocking pink’ as pretty rather than dramatic, the dresses made a stand for red carpet glamour, at which Bertrand is rather successful.
Significantly, the Chambre Syndicale, French fashion's organising body for couture, gave Schiaparelli, owned by Italian tycoon Diego Della Valle, an accord to come back into the Paris couture fold. But for his first collection as an official member, rather than a guest, Bertrand said he wanted to keep things (relatively) simple.
“This time, I didn't want to use too much embellishment – I wanted to do a simple collection for every woman,” said the designer as he showed me the delicate details of a lobster pattern. The original had shocked London in the 1930s, when worn by Wallis Simpson, mistress of England's future king. Society saw the lobster, designed in collaboration with Dalí, positioned as crawling between the wearer’s thighs.
It would take a lot more in the days of President Trump and Kim Kardashian to shock anyone. Bertrand has instead adopted a policy of making clothes that are witty and pretty, with frequent, subtle references to the original designer, who died in 1973.
What was missing was any kind of abstraction that might have distilled the faithful historical research – at which Bertrand excels – into something more contemporary. Even the witty twists that Schiap used cannot be re-developed easily today – although the current designer worked to modernise the original designs by Jean Cocteau.
“It was a game between graphics and shine – and in my mind it is more graphic,” Bertrand said.
He must know that in a world where Pokémon is far better known that Cocteau, these references are mainly for himself and that the collection will be reduced by most onlookers to either sporty or dressy. That is how the show divided: some smart jackets contrasting with floaty dresses.
The Schiaparelli conundrum is the same facing all established fashion houses: too much of the legacy and the clothes look passé. Too little – and they could be any brand.
Bertrand is making a good job of finding the balance in between. But the real test is going to be whether he can evolve his ready-to-wear collection into a business and make the name ‘Schiap’ resonate like those trapeze artists swinging through a wide fashion world.