"It was a dream, really," said Christian Lacroix of his invitation to honor Elsa Schiaparelli. "Tomorrow it's over." But today was the opportunity to celebrate Lacroix's eighteen-outfit tribute to the woman who helped shape his fashion sensibility. And, for some of us, it was a fleeting moment to impress on the designer how much he is missed. This being a one-off, he will return to his work in the theater.
Still, the setup in the Pavillon de Flore of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs was satisfyingly elaborate, a mark of respect not just to Schiap but to the man who helped sustain her legacy decades later. Visitors entered through a re-creation of the bamboo cage that Jean-Michel Frank designed for the entrance of Elsa's atelier. A tree laden with cherry blossoms added a fragile beauty. In its branches were small monitors, each featuring a songbird. The combination of nature and technology felt infinitely sympathetic to Schiap's relationship to the modernist worlds in which she moved. There was also something droll enough to suggest Lacroix's own wit.
Schiap's signatures veered from the surreal (the Dali lobster) to the barbaric (she loved a monkey fur) to the relatively straightforward (here, a coatdress in navy wool crepe with big, pannierlike pockets in faille). That range was one reason Lacroix always loved her. He can date his fascination back to his discovery of a trove of wartime Vogues in his great aunt's attic. "I was fascinated by a time of terror and violence where Paris could still be elegant," he said. The Schiap jumpsuit, for instance, a functional piece intended for extreme situations like bomb shelters. True, there was something obviously functional in the huge pockets attached peplumlike to the wool crepe jumpsuit here (wartime women needed big pockets), but bomb shelters weren't the first context that sprang to mind. It was more the comingling of fashion-not-function design sensibilities that sparked the exhibition: Schiap's sari dress in acid-green chiffon; a huge skirt in charcoal faille zapped with a bright green bow; a braided cape in midnight satin; or a coatdress in fuchsia cashmere caped and belted in black passementerie. Best in show was a pink-and-black striped dress in duchesse satin that bunched in back into a surreally enormous bow. Schiap's love of art and circuses, the legendary Bébé Bérard's sketches that illuminated her designs. Lacroix's worship of them both: That single outfit contained their whole universe.