After season after season of “naked dresses” made from sheer fabric or peekaboo lace, there's finally a new way to grab attention on the red carpet. Welcome to the age of eccentric luxury.
Why train for weeks to wear next to nothing this awards season when you can grab just as many headlines with a jacket made of 7,000 real rose petals (J-Lo), alien horns (Katy Perry), or a stegosaurus spine (Rita Ora ) instead?
It may sound like Halloween has come too soon, but it's a movement inspired by haute couture—particularly Schiaparelli, the Italian-born, France-based fashion house known for four-figure, gold luxury submerged private jet area. (The bag, which looks like a Modigliani-esque human face and which J-Lo carried to Schiaparelli's haute couture show in Paris this week, costs around £4,700.)
Coats made from real rose petals may seem like the last days of Rome to many, but for this label it's nothing new.
A hundred years ago, Elsa Schiaparelli made a name for herself as an interwar couturier by transforming fashion into often surreal art.
Jennifer Lopez attends the Schiaparelli Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2024 show during Paris Fashion Week on January 22, 2024
Strange but wonderful: From the left, a winged dress by Schiaparelli, Irina Shayk in the label's lion dress and an eye-catching lace design
Instead of beads, she threaded aspirin tablets into a necklace. She placed a telephone dial on a compact powder case. She called these her “little jokes,” but in reality she changed the fashion world forever.
We gasped when John Galliano sent a model down the Dior runway in a newspaper print dress in 2000. But Schiaparelli had done the same thing in 1935, compiling a collection of press clippings about himself—a self-referential move that today's influencers would applaud. She made clothing from safety pins decades before Liz Hurley appeared in Versace's safety pin dress in 1994.
In 2021, actress Zendaya wore a backless Roberto Cavalli dress with gold skeleton “bones” to Cannes, but Elsa got there first – with a skeleton dress designed for her 1938 circus collection.
In fact, this dress was made in collaboration with her long-time friend, surrealist Salvador Dali. The padded ribs resemble protruding bones and are an eerie allusion to the emaciated bodies of starving civilians during the Spanish Civil War.
Last week, Naomi Campbell closed the Balmain men's fashion show in Paris with a gold belt that looked like hands holding a bouquet of flowers. Decorating women with petals and leaves – sometimes so dramatic that they appear to transform into flowering plants – is a long-standing Schiaparelli trademark. In fact, the designer admitted in her autobiography that as a child she planted seeds in her throat, ears and mouth in the hope that it would cause flowers to sprout and become less “ugly.”
Rita Ora attends the Pandora Fashion Awards 2023 at the Royal Albert Hall on December 4, 2023 in London
Naomi Campbell walks the runway during the Balmain Homme Menswear Fall/Winter 2024-2025 show during Paris Fashion Week on January 20, 2024
Schiaparelli was the first designer to truly understand the shocking power of fashion – she even invented the term “shocking pink” to describe a particular shade that was her trademark. And it is the continued production of clothing that both repulses and enchants that makes the label so influential today.
In fact, many would argue that harnessing the power of a shocking outfit is even more important today than it was during the heyday of surrealism in the 1930s.
In today's competitive, fast-paced world of celebrity and fashion, what better way to make ourselves look good for more than a few seconds than by dressing ourselves in something that's not only pretty, but also incredibly beautiful?
Maybe you've never heard of rapper Doja Cat, for example, but when she wore custom Schiaparelli at the label's couture show last January – 30,000 red crystals covered her head to her feet, including her face, as if she were covered in blood – , she became the biggest topic of conversation in the front row, with reactions ranging from disgust and confusion to awe. Other designers and celebrities quickly learned the lesson: Model and podcaster Abbey Clancy wore a Moschino bodysuit with grossly surreal body parts this month (straight from the label's spring/summer 2024 runway). Katy Perry wore alien prosthetic horns this weekend to celebrate Jeff Bezos' 60th birthday (what better way to stand out in a sea of fashion-clad billionaires?). While the crazy chrome dinosaur spine Rita Ora wore, which actually appeared to be bursting out of her back, added a luxe touch to her dress at the British Fashion Awards in December – which was from a range she's promoting at Primark, just £50 cost.
In 2021, actress Zendaya wore a backless Roberto Cavalli dress with gold skeleton “bones” to Cannes.
But it is Schiaparelli, now under the creative direction of Texan Daniel Roseberry, who remains the master of the art. Take the gold embellishments on the custom Schiaparelli dress worn by pop star Dua Lipa at this month's Golden Globe Awards – a macabre replica of ribs, hip bones and spine on an otherwise traditional velvet column dress. Or the dresses with incredibly large and realistic lion heads that Kylie Jenner and model Irina Shayk wore at Schiaparelli's couture show last year. They are outfits that are specifically designed to attract everyone's attention.
At this week's show, Euphoria star Hunter Schafer wore the brand's iconic 'toe shoes' (£2,825): a seemingly standard black pump with quasi-monstrous gold toes. It is the everyday that is made playful and grotesque. The same goes for J-Lo's white turtleneck, which she wore under her rose petal jacket. Totally normal, even a little maternal—until you see the octopus tentacles crawling up the torso, a nod to the eerie sea life motif on some of Schiaparelli's most iconic designs. Elsa Schiaparelli closed her debt-ridden home in 1954, the same year her great rival Coco Chanel returned to business after a 15-year hiatus due to World War II.
Elsa realized that there was no place for the haute luxury of fantastic fashion in the post-war climate of austerity and had no desire to skimp or pare down her designs. She died in 1973 and while the male artists she worked with (Dali, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Vertes) are now household names, her contribution to Surrealism is almost completely forgotten and her influence on fashion is also downplayed. Until now.
Because the Schiaparelli shock factor is coming into force this awards season. As stars fight for their place on the red carpet – and the need to grab attention for the right reasons on social media – Elsa's grotesque yet beautiful aesthetic has become the fastest celebrity shortcut to unmatched visibility. Le freak, c'est chic.