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Video: Schiaparelli Spring 2023 Couture Collection

Schiaparelli kicked off Paris Fashion Week with a spectacular display of its Surrealist aesthetic that had the internet in a meltdown — and not just because Doja Cat showed up covered in 30,000 scarlet Swarovski crystals.

At the center of the firestorm were three outfits incorporating eerily realistic replicas of animal heads: a snow leopard, a lion and a wolf. Kylie Jenner sent photographers into a frenzy by arriving in a customized version of the lion head gown, which had other front-row guests doing a double take.

On the runway, Shalom Harlow wore the snow leopard bustier dress, based on an archival design from 1938, while Irina Shayk sported the lion gown and Naomi Campbell the wolf coat. While some online commenters praised the artistry of the reproductions, others accused the house of glamorizing trophy hunting.

Speaking ahead of the show, creative director Daniel Roseberry noted that while the house’s founder, Elsa Schiaparelli, worked with Surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí, trompe-l’oeil is more literal in the age of social media.

“In 2023, the Surrealism is actually in the photorealistic quality,” he said. “We’ve worked with an artist based in Israel who has sculpted these creatures by hand out of foam and resin and then covered them with embroidered faux fur, basically, and then it’s all hand painted.”

The creatures were a reference to Dante’s “Inferno,” which provided the broad inspiration for the spring collection.

“I didn’t want it to be literal at all: we’re not going into the nine circles of hell and meeting Satan at the end. That’s not the point. But the point was really Dante himself and this story about trial, tribulation, doubt, and that you have to experience all of that in order to get to paradise,” the designer explained, likening it to his creative process.

That Roseberry should feel blank page anxiety is understandable, after a banner year that saw his creations displayed at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs as part of a Schiaparelli retrospective. His streak of red carpet successes continues unabated, with recent appearances including Julia Roberts at the Critics’ Choice Awards and Rihanna at the Golden Globes.

Churning out a full collection is another matter. His solution? To plunge into the challenge with creations that pushed the technical capacity of his atelier to the brink. A strap dress shimmied with sequins made of tin covered in leather, while a bustier with a dramatically horned neckline quivered with ecru glass bugle beads.

Most impressive of all were the breast plates, as elaborate as screens, made of rigid materials like mother-of-pearl or lemontree wood. The latter was inspired by the marquetry on a sideboard designed by Jean-Michel Frank for the original Schiaparelli salon on Place Vendôme and required the help of another expert.

“Part of the joy of couture is working with artisans who are of a certain age, who are the masters, and then giving them a challenge,” Roseberry noted. “This man who can make this has never made a garment.”

The outlandish looks reflected his conception of couture as a space for experimentation and awe. “Above all, I want people to feel that there are risks being taken, that we take the biggest swings possible and that they don’t know what they’re gonna see,” he said, although it’s safe to assume he didn’t anticipate the magnitude of public reaction to the show.

Behind the headline-grabbing runway looks, Schiaparelli has a real — and thriving — couture business that caters to women with practical needs. Roseberry addressed these with a plethora of black evening gowns, and hourglass jackets that were laced down the back, corset-style.

Pre-empting those who have wrongly accused the designer before of copying Jean Paul Gaultier, the house said in its collection notes that the curvy silhouette is actually inspired by its signature fragrance Shocking, which launched in 1937 with a bottle shaped like a dressmaker’s mannequin that was designed by the Argentine artist Leonor Fini.

Roseberry said that after evoking an archetypal Paris couture client with his ‘80s-inspired creations last season, he wanted to offer something more relatable. “It’s not costume. It’s not wearable art, even,” he said. “This is not like a couturier dressing women up like dolls. It’s more speaking about that feminine energy.”

After Monday’s brouhaha, it’s safe to say the animal heads won’t be making a repeat appearance on the red carpet. The controversy overshadowed what was otherwise a superlative collection. Hopefully, it won’t dampen Roseberry’s drive to innovate.