Meet Marco Zanini, who is helping revive the house of Schiaparelli

Marco Zanini talks to Jing Zhang about resurrecting the house of Schiaparelli after 59 years - a task the famous couturière was unable to do after the second world war

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 8:52am

Marco Zanini sits back in the Place Vendome atelier in Paris, making himself comfortable in his new position. Becoming creative director for the long- dormant fashion house, Schiaparelli, he says, is a mixed bag.

"I have this feeling of great joy, great pride and great responsibility, as well," he says. "This house has a legacy that is really unique and incredible."

Couture is tradition that must be preserved and pampered
Marco Zanini

Zanini took the position after several months of negotiations with Tod's owner Diego della Valle, who acquired the label in 2006. The 42-year-old Swedish-Italian designer had just completed the spring-summer runway for Rochas, and is taking on Schiaparelli's couture and prêt-à-couture (its version of ready-to-wear) immediately for Haute Couture Fashion Week in January.

Much has been said and written about Elsa Schiaparelli, Coco Chanel's arch-rival, since della Valle's acquisition. Her fashions were popular from the mid-1920s until the second world war. When the Nazis took over Paris in 1940, she fled to New York, then returned after the war only to find that fashions had changed. Unable to adapt, she closed the business in 1954 - but had left her mark.

"Schiaparelli's approach to fashion really represents a unique way to combine fashion, art and culture," Zanini says. "She represented a very central cultural figure of the 20th century, not just in fashion but beyond."

In July, the brand had a one-off couture collaboration with Christian Lacroix (non-commercial and no dresses available for sale), and now Zanini's mission is to turn the house, which inspired the likes of Miuccia Prada and Jean Paul Gaultier, into something fresh and relevant for today. "I want to make it meaningful," he says, earnestly.

Having started out with Lawrence Steele, Zanini spent many years at Italian powerhouses such as Dolce & Gabbana and Versace (where he got to try his hand at couture). He has been at the helm for the US label Halston and Rochas, and is considered a well-rounded designer. His farewell collection at Rochas was one of his best in recent seasons; fashion editors lavished praise on him.

"It was meant to be a playful, fun and positive collection, and on a personal level, it was meant to be a love letter to Rochas," he says.

He also subscribes to the old proverb that there is no substitute for experience.

"In this job you need lots and lots of training," he says. "These days some think that it's enough to be young, creative and passionate ... Those, I think, are essential elements required at first, but I am very grateful that I have the opportunity of 18 years of training in fashion houses. If you don't learn the discipline, it's really easy to get lost ... We are all human and mistakes are just around the corner, but experience lets you try to avoid them."

Fashion was a fascination for Zanini as far back as he can remember, and he focused on clothes early on.

"When I was 10 or 11, I started to sketch, and my drawings happened to be like fashion drawings ... I'm lucky to have had this dream to chase since I was very young."

He ended up enrolling at the Fine Arts Academy of Brera in Milan, and can identify with Elsa Schiaparelli's interests in visual arts, which included close friendships and collaborations with the likes of Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau, who went on to influence her designs.

"She is one my favourite personalities in fashion history because of her personal life," Zanini says. "She was adventurous, brave and super-intelligent, and used her intelligence to succeed in life. What makes her so relevant and inspiring to people even today, is that she was so free-minded. She was able to do things her own way.

"I can identify with her irreverence and non-conformist thinking - that's for sure - and I admire the clever way in which she was irreverent but also able to execute the ultimate elegance, which, if you think about it, is a bit of a paradox. To provoke, but with supreme elegance."

Zanini knows a thing or two about contrasts, too, having a Swedish mother and an Italian father. He grew up influenced by both traditional and open-minded thinking. He is articulate and decisive, yet softly spoken. He wears horn-rimmed glasses, a plain black sweater, casual jeans and white plimsoles. He has tattoos - one of which is an old ship with billowing sails, etched on his hand - but is otherwise low key. The gilded extravagance of the Schiaparelli atelier seems out of place.

"Schiaparelli is always about the contrasts," Zanini explains. "The magic of that unique cocktail - stark simplicity but a natural instinct for opulence. They collide and create that unique allure that is her style."

And while Zanini refuses to give details of his first couture collection, he does say that he wants to stay true to the DNA of the house without doing replicas of her designs.

"Fashion means never to look too much backwards. It always needs to go forwards," he says.

Although the couture world is shrinking, "its position is still untouched", Zanini says. "It's still the peak of the pyramid in this business. It's a tradition that must be preserved and pampered, in a way. It represents utter excellence in creativity as well as quality."

But commercially, he will also head Schiaparelli's "ready-to-wear of the highest end" called prêt-à-couture, which will sell pre-made fashion but will bring the collection to you, whether you're in Beijing or Sao Paolo.

This new way has a reason. "A product that wants to stand out needs different treatment. We would like this house to be very dynamic," Zanini says.

The world of haute couture has also changed a lot, with focus rising on the Middle East and Asia. It used to be women of a certain age, usually Western, who didn't work and spent months in fittings to build up a wardrobe each season. "No one has the time to do that any more," says Zanini. "The clientele has shifted towards a younger customer and more global. It's a wider clientele, which makes it more exciting."

How exciting? All will be revealed come January.