Friday, May 30, 2008

Sao Schlumberger: Fashion’s Other Patron Saint

Clockwise Bottom Left: A portrait of Sao Schlumberger by Andy Warhol; Linda Evangelista in a look from Galliano’s Fall 1994 collection; Two Geisha inspired looks from the collection; Model Nadja Auerrman dressed as a 20’s flapper from the Fall 1994 collection; Dodie Rosenkrans seated front row at Dior Fall 2001; Sao Schlumberger and her signature jewels; John Galliano.

Sao Schlumberger past away last August without much fan fare (at least not as much as Nan Kempner). She wasn’t known for having a subtle personality, but those who knew her appreciated her frankness, as well as her largesse.

The Portuguese wife of French-American oil tycoon Pierre Schlumberger, she commanded a certain amount of influence on the Paris social scene, not to mention the attention of the fashion houses that fed its appetite for couture. Not surprisingly her two greatest passions in life were fashion and art.

The later could be seen on display in abundance though out her grand homes. Instead of simply buying pieces from artists, she would frequently commission them to create something new. She had a particular fondness for Rothko, Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein. But despite this she was not always an easy subject to please, as Salvador Dalí realized while painting her portrait in 1987. “I don’t really like it,” she said of the surrealist’s rendering in an interview. “I was expecting a fantasy…but he did a classic.”

Similar to Rosekrans, she was also a patron of fashion; never hesitating to champion the work of a designer that she admired or in whom she saw a bright future. Also like Rosekrans she was known for having an equally daring sense of style, such as the time in 1996 when she drew gasps at the Palais Garnier opera house by entering on the arm of the Japanese billionaire Yoichi Yogi Nishikawa; the two dressed in “matching sequined tiger-print” getups, hers by Christian Lacroix. Most of her looks were always toped by some extraordinary pieces of jewelry, for according to Schlumberger, “There is nothing more annoying than seeing a woman with the means to buy anything she wants who always wears the same piece of jewelry.”

Both Schlumberger and Rosekrans shared a passion for the work of one particular young designer by the name of John Galliano, and were instrumental in getting his career off the ground.

When Galliano launched his own label in 1984, he quickly realized that critical acclaim and countless design awards did not necessarily bring money to the bank. So in 1991 he decamped to Paris where he immediately drew attention with his romantic and history inflected designs, and amongst those who took notice where several established couture customers (most notably Schlumberger and Rosekrans) who saw something beyond ready-to-wear in his work. Although Rosenkrans helped fund his next collection, by 1994 Galliano was still struggling financially with no money to buy fabric for a new collection or the means to pay for a venue in which to present it.

Fearing that Galliano could simply not afford to sit out another season, Anna Wintour instructed André Leon Talley (then European editor-at-large for American Vogue, and a Paris resident) to find a way to make Galliano’s collection “happen.” The solution came in the form of Schlumberger. Talley was not oblivious to the Paris socialite’s admiration for Galliano’s work, and he was equally aware of the fact that she owned several prime properties around the City; in particular a stunning 18th century hôtel particulier that was shuttered up for most of the year. So he organized a lunch meeting with her, Galliano and himself, at which Schlumberger (in her typical no-nonsense style) asked him to get straight to the point of the meeting. Upon hearing his request she immediately agreed to letting them use her house for Galliano’s show.

They also managed to scrounge donations from other clients such as Anne Bass and Rosekrans in order to pay for a few roles of black crepe, from which Galliano created the entire collection. In all he could only afford to put together 17 outfits at the last minute, but each one was beautifully cut and draped. Everyone else in the industry, including hairdressers and make-up artists, banded together to do his show for free. Models such as Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss and Christy Turlington also donated their time for free; showing up at his studio at 3 or 4 in the morning, the day of the show, to be fitted.

The invitation to Galliano’s collection, entitled “Back from the Brink,” was a rusty key, whose connection became clear to guests as they entered the Schlumberger mansion. Inside they took to their seats in an atmospheric setting of gilded salons dripping with crystal chandeliers, antique mirrors and a mismatch of 18th century settees and brocaded stools. The large French doors overlooking the garden were flung open to allow daylight to filter through gauzy curtains and cast a glow on the parquet floors. Carrie Donovan, the late fashion editor of the New York Times described the atmosphere just before the show as electric.

As the models emerged, made up to look like silent movie stars, 1920’s flappers and Japanese Geisha’s, they wound their way through the sea of seated guests in a presentation that recalled the glory days of French couture. It was a triumphant moment for John Galliano and sealed his fate within the fashion world.
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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