Farida Khelfa, new muse for an icon

Elsa Schiaparelli left a legacy of avant-garde designs. Now her house eyes a revival, but which designer will lead the charge, asks Jing Zhang

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 March, 2013, 10:35am

It's easy to see why French-Algerian style icon Farida Khelfa was chosen as the new muse and spokeswoman for the revived fashion house of Schiaparelli. With short, glossy, swept-back hair and glistening multicoloured gems adorning her ears, her look is refined and striking.

The statuesque Khelfa, whose career among the Paris fashion elite spans decades, is often cited as the perfect example of French elegance. Dressed in a three-button white and blue checked Prada skirt suit, she still commands a room.

"You have to remember that Elsa Schiaparelli was the first to do many things in fashion, and so many people in fashion were inspired by her," says Khelfa, 50, whose personal style is classic, with a love for beautiful, precise tailoring.

We are sitting in a third-floor salon of the late couturiere's Paris atelier. The pale walls are hung with Dali sketches, and afternoon sunlight streams in from windows overlooking the Place Vendome.

Schiaparelli (1890-1973), nicknamed "Schiap", was born in Rome. She became famous for her playful, avant-garde designs and surrealist patterns, influenced by artists such as Jean Cocteau, Alberto Giacomettiher and her friend, Salvador Dali.

Her skeleton dress, padded to create the effect of bones; shoe hat and lobster dress, an elegant, flowing white gown with a large red lobster painted on the skirt - which shocked couturiers in the 1930s - are some of Khelfa's favourites.

Pop star Lady Gaga's fashion antics may be lauded as groundbreaking, but Schiaparelli was there first, more than 70 years ago. "Today it seems special when big [fashion] houses work with an artist for a window display," says Khelfa. "But you have to remember that, in 1927, Dali was doing the Schiaparelli window in this Place Vendome venue."

The fashion house struggled after the second world war and closed in 1954. But in 2007, Italian fashion mogul Diego Della Valle acquired the name and embarked on a mission to revive the legend of Schiaparelli, buying up her original atelier building floor by floor and reclaiming designer items that used to be there (some from the Pierre Bergé collection). He enlisted former '80s supermodel Khelfa as the face of the maison even before he identified a designer.

We have to find someone who represents the fashion of tomorrow, not today
Farida Khelfa

It's hard to believe that Khelfa grew up in Minguettes, a rough immigrant area in Lyons, France, and once worked as a bouncer for an infamous Paris nightclub. Perhaps those contradictions are what make her a fitting muse for such an unconventional house.

Khelfa concedes the concept of a muse is a little old-fashioned. But every house needs a spirit - someone to explain what it represents, she says.

"I've been in fashion for a while now, so it was easy for me to fit into these shoes. I also have a history of working with designers who have been heavily influenced by Schiap. Jean Paul Gaultier, Azzedine Alaia and Yves Saint Laurent loved Schiap."

Although the house of Schiaparelli faded from public consciousness after the '50s, its influence on modern designers from Miuccia Prada to Gaultier hasn't waned.

Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exhibition, "Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations", exploring an imaginary dialogue between the two Italian fashion luminaries, a generation apart.

She was one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century, Khelfa reminds us. And as much as Schiaparelli's arch-rival Coco Chanel championed a reserved, austere chic, Schiap was famous for her wild and unconventional designs. It is said that Schiaparelli even designed the first women's shorts.

Her playful costume jewellery, gleaming in radical shapes and settings, was dug out from the archives and displayed on the shelves next door.

"There is a wonderful, rich archive, but we hope that the new designer will bring something of his own personality to put some fresh air in the house," says Khelfa.

Insiders say an announcement by Della Valle may come within a month, and whoever gets the job will have big boots to fill.

For Khelfa, that person has to "rebuild the spirit of Schiap. Because she was always so far in advance, we have to find someone who represents the fashion of tomorrow, not today."

New technologies and ideas will be fundamental to the label, which will launch a full couture service as well as a concept Della Valle calls pret-a-couture - a mixture of couture and prêt-à-porter. Designs will be produced in various sizes, but each client can have alterations made, and fittings will be done in the Place Vendome atelier.

One tradition of Elsa Schiaparelli's that will continue is working with artists - a concept increasingly popular in the fashion world.

"It works because it always works. We need art to be a resource, to dream," Khelfa says,

But collaborators won't be limited to conventional artists. It could be a photographer, filmmaker or architect.

Khelfa herself has worked as a film director, actress and couture director for Gaultier. Her first documentary was a portrait of him. He essentially discovered her when she visited him at his studio.

"I was dancing in a nightclub, as I used to do all the time back then, and somebody from Gaultier saw me and asked me if I could go and see Jean Paul," she recalls. "Finally, I went - and it worked right away."

Khelfa soon found fame with her statuesque beauty, working with Thierry Mugler, Azzedine Alaia and photographer/image maker Jean-Paul Goude.

Khelfa would often branch out from fashion. Last year she made a documentary about the Tunisian youth who helped bring down a government and ignite the Arab spring.

Khelfa remains tight-lipped about her fourth film, but, like Schiaparelli, she looks to the larger picture.

"I don't know if you'd say that we're both avant- gardists," says Khelfa, "but we share interests that lie not just in fashion … I prefer it like that. Life is more interesting that way."