Daniel Roseberry’s 8th Schiaparelli couture show at the Petit Palais in January was immediately followed by waves of online admiration and condemnation for its hyperrealistic animal heads of hand-sculpted foam, silk faux fur, resin and wool attached to garments. Whilst many applauded the display of intricate craftsmanship and thoughtful artistic expression (the leopard, lion, and she-wolf represent lust, pride and avarice respectively in an illusionistic and surrealistic reflection on themes of human powerlessness in Dante’s Inferno), others accused Roseberry of glorifying poaching and the objectification of animals. For me, the question as to whether it is ethical to incorporate animal motifs or faux furs and skins in fashion is not one I am particularly interested in humouring.
Debates like these overshadow the artistry and craftsmanship of couture, and are, frankly, a misdirection of criticism towards the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry. Whilst we tut at Kylie’s lion shoulder companion, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Prada continue to use exotic skins. Meanwhile, fast fashion companies exploit human and natural resources and exacerbate issues of global poverty, pollution, and excessive water use. With this in mind, I refuse to force a projection of environmental discourse onto my discussion of the Schiaparelli show. Instead, we should celebrate it for what it is: an extraordinary display of artistic ingenuity and legacy, a key moment in the long history of the Schiaparelli house and Haute Couture as a tradition.
The shock inspired in audiences upon viewing the surreal, illusionistic pieces isn’t a new age marketing gimmick, but rather reflects the Schiaparelli legacy. Founded in 1927 by Elsa Schiaparelli with a line of Trompe-L’œil knitwear, the house was deeply integrated within the surrealist movement, frequently collaborating with artists like Dalí, Man Ray, and Cocteau. Furs, animal motifs, oversized jewellery, liberative and masculine silhouettes were central tenets of Schiaparelli’s designs – these features, along with an interest in philosophical and intellectual artistic expression have been continued by Roseberry. Such a faithful homage to brand identity, as we saw in this most recent show, is rare in the rapidly commercialising world of couture. At the end of 2019, Schiaparelli was one of just 16 members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, and one of the only ones to be embracing its roots. It’s crucial that we take this into account when we critique the show – as elitist as it sounds, couture should not be held to the same standards as Ready-to-Wear, as it operates under an entirely different context of production, aiming to push boundaries of fashion in the name of artistic exploration rather than profit gains. Indeed, Roseberry’s show notes mirror this idea, expressing a concern for “the twinned, sometimes contradictory impulses to please one’s audience and to impress oneself; the ambivalence that is every artist’s constant companion.”
In this way, criticisms that proclaim “we have to stop showing animals as luxury ‘products’” or “we’re past the point of putting animals on clothes in this way.”, whilst valid, erase the true status of couture pieces. Roseberry’s animal heads are not ‘luxury products’ like a handbag or pair of sunglasses, made to boost a house’s profits to fund more ambitious projects, nor are they merely ‘clothes’ – as unpretentiously as possible, I sustain that they are a form of fine art. Damien Hirst’s use of preserved animal bodies in his conceptual sculptures, though criticised by some within the art community, is largely accepted and applauded in mainstream media – indeed, he’s the richest artist alive today. Why then, are Roseberry’s ethically-produced, made-to-order pieces not regarded with the same level of artistic appreciation? A reevaluation of how we talk about haute couture in the media may be necessary to restore its status as wearable fine art.