Shortly after announcing the rebirth of the storied house of Schiaparelli, the Italian fashion mogul Diego della Valle showed up at the MET’s Costume Gala on the arm of the statuesque Farida Khelfa. News of the revival coincided with the opening of the Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Handpicked by Della Valle as the face of Schiaparelli, Khelfa’s new role would include “setting the tone and spirit of the house.” “I chose Farida Khelfa for her modern and provocative elegance,” explained della Valle to Suzy Menkes. “She reminds me of Elsa in her charm and her distinct taste and style.”
Yet in an age of celebrity endorsement, the choice of the French/Algerian Khelfa marked a distinct shift from brand revivals of past. Although frequently described as a former model and filmmaker, her other job descriptions have included that of ‘muse’ to both Azzedine Alaïa and Jean Paul Gaultier. She would later become the Directrice of Gaultier’s couture salon, a powerful position that gave her access to both clients and the ateliers.
Similar to her counterpart Ines de la Fressange, who fronts Roger Vivier, part of Khelfa’s mythical allure amongst fashion insiders lies in her innate ability to embody a certain notion of French elegance. Dubbed the “chicest woman” by the late Lou Lou de la Falaise, Khelfa had plenty of time to absorb the finer points of luxe dressing over 30 plus years working within Paris’ tight-knit fashion circles. As a fit model (and later right hand) to both Alaïa and Gaultier, she spent hours being pinned and fitted for their exquisite creations, learning the secrets of fit and fabric along the way. It is a savoir-faire della Valle was keen to tap into when he hired her for the job.
Not known for making hasty decisions, in 2006 he purchased Schiaparelli's entire archives and trademarks in the hope of reviving the couture house which had closed its doors in 1954. He then spent the next 6 years acquiring each floor of the stately mansion that once housed Schiaparelli’s ‘maison,’ known affectionately as the “Schiap Shop.” Located at 21 Place Vendôme, it was once home to the legendary salon of Madeleine Chéruit.
Come Paris couture week this summer, the mansion’s doors will reopen after extensive renovations, recreating the atmosphere of Schiaparelli’s intimate and whimsical fashion presentations attended by regular clients such as Millicent Rogers, Wallis Simpson and the Maharani of Kapurthala.
At first glance, Khelfa’s modern take on classic French dressing may seem at odds with Schiaparelli’s flamboyant aesthetic. Yet the clothes and accessories that she created from the mid-1930s to 1940, in collaboration with Surrealist artists Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Leonor Fini, and Man Ray, represent but one facet of Schiaparelli’s storied career.
Beyond the glittering Lesage embroideries and madcap gowns, Schiaparelli also had an inquisitive mind and her clothes often emphasized brains over beauty. Although she could not sew (and was derided by Chanel for her lack of skills), Schiaparelli presided over one of Paris’ greatest tailoring ateliers, responsible for producing her innovative suits sporting sharp padded shoulders and nipped-in waists. Joan Crawford became a fan of the look after buying a few Schiaparelli suits in the early 1930s.
Clean lines and precise tailoring have also long been a signature of Khelfa, who frequently appears at events in sleek Gaultier pantsuits and pencil skirts; paired with quirky accessories such as glittering Louboutin heels.
Schiaparelli designed for the modern woman, creating clothes that hid flaws and enhanced a client’s best features. Her high concepts and use of ornamentation were often supported by a foundation of solid tailoring that employed longer sleeve lengths and high necklines, (a technique favored by Khelfa who frequently flips up her lapels for a dramatic look).
The Italian designer also took a similar approach to her eveningwear. Presenting floor length gowns for the first time in 1930, pairing them with sleek evening jackets; a variation of which Farida sported at the MET’s Costume Gala. Khelfa’s own penchant for evening gowns slants towards sensuously draped columns by Alaïa, a designer known for taking apart Schiaparelli’s most iconic pieces to decipher the secrets of their construction.
It is yet another reminder of Schiaparelli’s enduring influence on the fashion world. Her signatures (from the graphically patterned sweaters to decorative dinner jackets) have been so deeply absorbed into fashion's vocabulary that it is almost impossible to identify their source today.