May 22, 2012 11:14AM

Oyster #99: Marisa Berenson on Elsa Schiaparelli

"She was more than just a designer."
Marisa Berenson shot by Gianni Penati in January 1968

Impossible Conversations, The Costume Institute's Spring 2012 exhibition, celebrates the work of two influential women in fashion: Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada. Although they are from different eras, each woman established a unique voice in an industry full of followers. Schiaparelli built her brand before and during the Second World War. She worked with the likes of Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau and was first and foremost an artist; one who had the talent to build a fashion empire, but not necessarily the desire. Miuccia Prada, on the other hand, has both, and continues to enjoy almost unparalleled artistic and commercial success. 

Seventies supermodel and actress Marisa Berenson is Schiaparelli's granddaughter. She was also very close to the extraordinary, eccentric former Editor of US Vogue, Diana Vreeland, whose work at The Costume Institute made it what it is today. Berenson has been guided by strong, independent women all her life. We spoke about finding spirituality, her grandmother's secrets and about the luminaries that inspired her.

Alice Cavanagh: Marisa, how are you?
Marisa Berenson: I'm well, thank you. How are you?

I'm well. So, you're in Marrakech?
Yes.

Do you live there?
Yes, partly. Not all the time, but part of the time, yes. I moved down here about six months ago and I've been in and out, but I'm trying to spend as much time as possible here.

It's an escape for many people, and often it's a spiritual escape. Is that what it is for you?
Yes, but it's [also] a combination of things. 

You are a very spiritual person, though. Have you always been?
Yes, I have. I mean, I think I took consciousness of all of that when I was about seven. I was a very existential girl, asking a lot of questions about my reasons for being and why I was here and what I was doing on this planet, and if anything was my mission here. My spiritual strength is probably what's gotten me through everything in my life, so it's very important to me. 

In the seventies you were in an ashram with some of The Beatles. So many people went on a spiritual journey then. Was it a particular reaction to the lifestyle and the culture of the time? 
I think so, but I think there have always been people searching in life, in any lifestyle, in any century. But our generation had very much, I think, a sense of wanting peace. It was all about love and peace at the time. It was all [about] being against war and trying to define one's identity, and freeing oneself from the generation of our parents who had gone through the war. It was very free at the time; women were becoming emancipated and people were searching. I think for our generation there was spiritual, but there was also a lot of drugs — which is still going on the world — and rock 'n' roll and sex. 

What about your parents' generation? Were they spiritual at all, or were they quite removed in that sense?
No. I mean my mother was, my grandfather was… they didn't speak about it very much. I was brought up a Catholic … but my grandmother was quite mystical. Although she never spoke about it, there are definitely things that I know about her or discovered about her that [made me] realise how mystical she was.

What are some of your earliest memories of your grandmother? 
Oh, she was with me since day one, because she was very much the backbone of our family. She was always very present and in my life. I've had many memories of her since I was baptised in her house in Paris, rue de Berri … I even lived with her at a certain point.

When did you live with her?
Well, at the end, actually. I lived with her in the seventies when I came back from New York and I was living in Paris. I moved in with her because she had a big hôtel particulier in Paris, and I had the last floor of the house. And I lived there until she died. She died in her home; I was there when she died. I knew her really well.

What kind of grandmother was she? 
She was a combination of very strong and very protective, but a strong character. She had a mystery around her, because she was a very private person, although she was very public and very social. She also had a secret side to her, a private, personal side to her, which nobody really knows. In fact, I'm about to do a book on that side of her because there's a very private, secret woman there. All you see is the fabulous artist that she was, but the personal side of my grandmother is a mystery, and I'm the only person who can really talk about that.

I noticed that in her autobiography [Shocking Life] she really didn't mention your grandfather at all.
No, she doesn't. She didn't divulge her private life at all … She only showed people the side that she wanted to show, and she didn't talk about her private life, ever — not with the press, not with her family. I discovered things later on, through letters and various things that I'm putting together. I think great artists are quite introverted with a lot going on inside, which they don't always quite express in words, but they express in their art. And she was very creative and had a lot of humour, and she was a surrealistic artist in fashion, really. She was more than just a designer — she was a surrealist, which is why she's in the museums next to Dalí and Cocteau and all her friends.

Were you aware of her work when you were young? 
She did design the last things for us — for my sister and I. When she closed the couture house, the last dresses that she made, really, were our party dresses that were on the cover of Elle magazine. And then a little coat that I had, a shocking-pink tweed coat. She continued to do her thing in America, so she used to go to New York once or twice a year for that. But she wasn't active in designing anymore, so she never really spoke about it that much. So I think it was quite painful for her, too.

She went through so much — she was such an adventurer. Is there anything that you've discovered about her that you can mention now?
No, I'm keeping it all for my little book. I want to do a little private book about her with all the things I haven't told.

What is your mother like? Is she interested in fashion? Is she similar to your grandmother? 
No, they were completely different. My mother's not interested in fashion at all. I think, as a reaction to having a mother like that, she always wanted to dress her up in things that she didn't feel were her style. My mother has her own style, though, and she's very elegant, and she's very much an original person as well. She's still alive, she's 92. She doesn't look like my grandmother, and she has a different personality. I mean, my mother has a lot of humour and is amusing — not that my grandmother wasn't, but she was very Italian. She had a very Italian personality — a bigger-than-life kind of personality! My mother has kind of a more… I don't even know how to describe it. She married my father, lived in America, and then sort of moved around the world because daddy was a diplomat. So she's very international and a cultured woman and very amusing, you know?

Diana Vreeland discovered you. She was amazing woman.
Yes, really amazing. She took on the role of being a godmother to me. I had a great relationship with her, and we adored each other. She really protected me and understood, and sort of answered questions that I needed answered — even about my grandmother. She knew her well. She taught me a lot, and was very open to me about life. I kind of went to her when I needed advice. She was very much there for me in that way, and she protected me. She discovered me and I was her baby, kind of. She knew my family really well, and she'd seen me grow, but she knew me when I was a child, and adored my father and knew my grandmother, and she sort of rediscovered me when I became a young woman. And that's when she decided that I was going to be in Vogue.

And your grandmother didn't want you to be in fashion, did she?
No, she wasn't happy with the fact that Diana took that position. My grandmother was quite protective. She had gone through a lot of difficult things in her life, I'm sure, being a single working woman and having a career, especially in her day and age. Then she saw me taking the same route … She wanted me to be protected in life and she wanted me to settle down and marry a man from a very good family. I was not into that at all. I just wanted freedom — I was quite like her! In fact, I inherited a lot of her free spirit and strength and her want of independence and her want of a career, but in a totally different vein. I think she saw all of that in me, and she said, "Oh my God. I've gone through all of this in my life, and I don't want my granddaughter to suffer the same things." 

Is it true that she and Diana had a little bit of a falling out over it?
Yeah, they did, because she didn't approve and she didn't want me in that world, in that life, and she thought that Diana wasn't a great influence on me, obviously.

Was that awkward for you, being in the middle of that?
No. I didn't really get into that whole thing.

You've spent quite a bit of time working for Vogue. Was Diana a fierce editor?
Yes, she was. Well, she was severe in the sense that she imposed things and knew what she wanted and had very strong ideas and a strong personality. But she was also extremely open to people and to creativity. She loved young people. She loved attractive people of all sorts. She literally created all of that. So many people can thank Diana for discovering them or making them who they were. Diana was just such an extravagant, extraordinary person. I mean she could make the most banal thing sound like the most fascinating thing in your life. She had that gift: a certain way of looking at life, a positive attitude about life — everything was just extraordinary in her eyes. 

She obviously had that sense of independence that your grandmother had as well, but she also had the family, although I know she wasn't the most present mother. But she had her husband, Reed, with her the whole time. What was your sense of their relationship?
She adored him. He was so adoring of her! I always remember having lunch with my parents in New York on a Saturday with her and Reed. He would be there before her (obviously) and she would be at the office and [then] join us. And he would order her the little lamb chop, well done, with the spinach by the side and her little glass of vodka that she always drank, and then he would put a red rose by her plate. He was so loving and caring, and she adored him. She was — like my grandmother — this very independent, strong woman who had a career. You know, there are different ways of being a mother and being nurturing. She wasn't. She was an independent, but she [still] adored her family.

Diana worked at The Costume Institute until her well into her eighties, didn't she?
Oh yes, until she lost her eyesight, and then couldn't work anymore. And she established — well, the Met today has become an institute, thanks to Diana. She never stopped creating, and she had an amazing curiosity and love of life. She never complained. When they got rid of her at Condé Nast, she just moved on.

Do you think if your grandmother were alive today she'd be more approving of the path you took?
I think she'd be proud of me. I'd love for her to be still alive, actually. It would be wonderful, because when you're younger, you're not conscious of the things that one becomes conscious of along the way afterwards. You don't have the same conversations with your parents as when you do when you're young. So, yeah, I would love for her to be still alive … I'd have conversations with her and I think she'd be proud.  

From Oyster #99, our All Woman issue. Out now!

Special thanks to Prada and The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Alice Cavanagh

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