Book Review: Well-Behaved? Let's Assume Not.
Fashion takes a backseat in this biography of the storied designer, but it's an illuminating ride anyway
Reviewed by Brandon Watson, Fri., Nov. 28, 2014
Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biographyby Meryle Secrest; Knopf. 400pp., $35
Meryle Secrest would never get mistaken for a novelist. There are sections of Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography that shift abruptly from trot to gallop, then suddenly stumble on an odd bit of description. There are sections that befuddle after several re-readings and more that inspire audible groans. It's an infuriating way to read a book, sure. We still bet you'll ride until the end.
What Secrest lacks in style is more than made up for her seemingly infallible instinct in choosing worthwhile subjects. Hers is certainly not the first biography of Schiaparelli, but its painstaking research does a good job of sussing out truth. "Schiap" was a self-invention, and previous accounts relied a little too much on that fiction. Although obviously quite taken with the legend, Secrest nonetheless cuts through the miasma.
Two accounts particularly stand out. What little was known about William de Wendt de Kerlor, Schiaparelli's husband, was mostly from the daughter who never really knew him (de Kerlor abandoned the family when Gogo was one) and Schiap herself. Secrest cuts him down to size (literally in the case of his height) as a sometime incompetent grifter. It's truly shocking to read an account of a woman culture regards as a trailblazer standing by that man.
More shocking is Secrest's telling of Schiaparelli's movements during the war years. Although the biographer never points a definitive finger, she's accumulated quite a bit of evidence to suggest that Schiaparelli was a collaborator. For those who position Schiap as a sort of anti-Chanel, both in design and in spirit, it's an awakening.
Despite all this, one can see more of Schiaparelli's personality in the threads of her Lesage embroideries than in Secrest's text. The photos spread throughout tell a different story, one Secrest barely touches on. Schiaparelli was a fashion designer, but Secrest barely mentions the actual designs. And that is why the name still endures.
For those obsessed with Schiaparelli's designs, seeing how experience worked its way into an exquisite cape would have been a bonus. Neophytes won't mind at all the montage version.