Vertes & Schiaparelli: Whimsical avant-garde

By Rachel Cohen –

Elsa Schiaparelli remains one of the most enigmatic and boundary-pushing fashion designers of the early 20th century. Her designs made fashion into a form of art, and even her cosmetic and perfume bottles were inspired by avant-garde artists at the time. While she collaborated with many artists, her work with Marcel Vertes transcended both design and art, and the vintage ads the two worked on continue to be highly sought after objects.

Vertes was born in Hungary in 1895, and studied engineering before moving to Paris’s Latin Quarter in the 1920s. There he worked at various magazines before beginning to devote himself to his artistic career full time. He drew, painted, and did printmaking, blurring the lines between fine art and commercial design.

The scene in Paris in the 1920s was one where artistic boundaries were pushed, and the locale that Vertes would have been part of included some of the world’s best known artists. There, his artwork focused on representing the Parisian lifestyle at the time, with an emphasis on images of women and cabaret. In fact, he was most influenced by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and reportedly even made some of his money at the time forging Toulouse-Lautrec’s work. At this time Vertes also began working on films as both a consultant and designer.

Unfortunately, with the outbreak of World War II, Vertes and many of his contemporaries were forced to flee Paris. Vertes went to the United States, where he stayed in New York, working on his art and as an illustrator for many top magazines, including Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. He worked on campaigns for a number of vintage print ads.

At this point Vertes began to become well-known for his whimsical style that reflected his avant-garde exposure and experience, using a scarcity of line with splashes of color to illustrate everything from magazines to books.

After several years in New York, Vertes spent some time in London, which is where his collaborations with Schiaparelli began. His illustrations were considered to be a perfect match for her style, and he spent several years designing illustrations for Schiaparelli’s cosmetic and perfume lines. Both designers shared an affinity for the whimsical and non-traditional, and would go on to collaborate on other ventures together.

Returning to New York, Vertes worked on large commissions such as creating the murals that fill the glamourous Upper East Side Hotel, The Carlyle. He worked on illustrations for advertisements for other fashion and luxury brands, and worked as a costume designer on several films, including The Thief of Baghdad (1940).

For 1952’s John Huston film Moulin Rouge – about none other than Toulouse-Lautrec – once again Vertes and Schiaparelli worked together, this time on the costume design. Vertes won Academy Awards for his art direction and costume work, but somewhat scandalously, this award was not also presented to his collaborator, Schiaparelli. However, they both received that year’s BAFTA award for best costume design.

Around this time Vertes returned to Paris and continued to create his popular illustrations and lithographs until his death in 1961. His legacy continues to live on, and his collaborations with Schiaparelli were most recently celebrated in the fashion house’s Fall 2015 Couture line, while forever preserved as some of the best examples of vintage advertising art.

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