As Meryle Secrest notes in the introduction to her new book, Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography (Knopf, 2014),”The most extraordinary fashion designer of the twentieth...

As Meryle Secrest notes in the introduction to her new book, Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography (Knopf, 2014),”The most extraordinary fashion designer of the twentieth century is now just a name on a perfume bottle.” Were it not a book about Schiaparelli, it’s a sentence many people might assume was being applied to Coco Chanel, for Chanel looms large as the fashion designer of the last century. But Schiaparelli was, as Secrest reveals, more than a fashion designer: she was an artist. And, through her collaborations with SalvadoreDali, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray and others, she was in the vanguard of surrealism and transformed women’s fashions into an art form.

Who was Schiap? It’s hard to know. But then we can never know everything about another person, which iswhat makes reading biography so beguiling: the illusion that we could. It’s a circumstance Secret openly acknowledges. “A great many aspects of Elsa Schiaparelli’s life will probably never be known,” Secrestwrites. “She was not much of a letter writer… If she had a diary, it has not survived. Her memoir is an example of an evasiveness that was almost automatic.” And yet, there are things we can know: Schiaparelli’s “gambler’s instinct” and “conjurer’s sleight of hand”; that she was famously difficult, a perfectionist, voracious reader, and excellent skier; that smoking was her one indulgence.

She was, also, an extraordinarily gifted artist who worked very, very hard. In 1922, she had “no money, no career, no future, and a very sick daughter.” Five years later, Vogue was callingher V-neck sweater with 3/4-sleeves and a trump l’oeil bow “an artistic masterpiece.” Secrest’s biography is, ultimately, a compelling story of a complicated, determinedworking woman, and we need all the stories like that we can get.

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