PARIS Fresh from the successful re-launch of sleepy French shoemaker Roger Vivier, Italy's king of luxury Tod's Chairman Diego Della Valle is resuscitating Schiaparelli, a fashion brand inspired by Surrealists that has lain dormant since 1954.
Della Valle aims to bring back the name to its haute couture past and kick-start the business with custom-made suits and dresses, its ambassador, actress and model Farida Khelfa, told Reuters in an interview on Monday.
Once the label gains sufficient traction in terms of sales and credibility among fashion critics, it will branch out into accessories, perfume and jewellery, Khelfa said.
Khelfa, whose wedding to French businessman Henri Seydoux last month was attended by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and wife Carla Bruni, said Schiaparelli's relaunch could be ready in time for the couture shows in Paris either in January or July.
"Della Valle is not in a hurry," Khelfa said. "He is taking his time."
The brand said in the spring it planned to announce its new designer in September. Now, it hopes to do so "in the next few weeks," Khelfa said, dismissing rumors that disgraced ex-Dior designer John Galliano was a front-runner.
"We will make the name public when we are ready," she said.
Choosing the right designer is key to the success of Schiaparelli's revival, critics say. Examples of successful fashion re-launches include Lanvin under designer Alber Elbaz and Balenciaga, part of PPR under Nicolas Ghesquiere.
"Schiaparelli is a beautiful, magic name but I am not sure the man in the street knows what it stands for," French Vogue Editor Emmanuelle Alt told Reuters at the Christian Dior show on Friday.
Della Valle bought the Schiaparelli archives and name in 2006 and patiently waited for six years for the lease at the prestigious address Elsa Schiaparelli in central Paris to be free again.
The 21 Place Vendome address, where Schiaparelli's atelier and boutique were originally located, is close to the Ritz Hotel and Louis Vuitton's new jewellery store.
Della Valle invested heavily in the refurbishing of each level even before selling a single piece. Schiaparelli rents out four storeys, or 800 square meters, for the design, presentation, fit, manufacture and sales of its couture suits and dresses.
The brand's plush salons, where meetings with clients and the press are held, are decorated with photos of Schiaparelli, Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau drawings and Alberto Giacometti sculptures.
Schiaparelli, a rival of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, started with knitwear and later became known for her sharply cut suits, ornamented with drawings from her artist friends.
Memorable pieces include the lobster dress, one of Schiaparelli's most famous collaborations with Dali, worn by American socialite Wallis Simpson and photographed by Cecil Beaton just before her marriage to Edward VIII in 1937.
Other pieces included her shoe hats, gloves with golden nails, lip-shaped buttons as well as knitted sweaters with trompe-l'oeil bows and neckties.
"The designer who will be hired for the brand will be free to do what he wants but it is true that the spirit of Schiaparelli is non-conventional and eccentric," Khelfa said.
To lead the brand on the business side, Della Valle has hired Camilla Schiavone who used to head L'Oreal's luxury perfume division in Italy.
Fashion critics said they had full faith in Della Valle's ability to bring Schiaparelli back to life, having done so successfully with Roger Vivier, for which he also took his time.
The Italian entrepreneur acquired the dormant shoe brand in the mid-1990s and waited until 2003 to relaunch it with Bruno Frisoni as designer and Ines de la Fressange - Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld's former muse - as brand ambassador.
Roger Vivier is the fastest-rising brand within the Tod's stable which includes Hogan and Fay. Its sales jumped 110.3 percent in the first half to 32.7 million euros ($42.07 million), nearly as much as its full-year revenue of 36.5 million euros, up 68 percent in 2011 against the previous year.
"Revivals are risky bets but Monsieur Della Valle knows how to measure risks," Maria Luisa Poumaillou, fashion director at Paris Department store Printemps, told Reuters at Fashion Week.
To get people to start thinking again about Schiaparelli, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art held earlier this year a joint exhibition dedicated to Elsa Schiaparelli and contemporary fashion designer Muccia Prada called "Impossible Conversations". ($1 = 0.7773 euros)
(Reporting by Astrid Wendlandt, editing by Paul Casciato)