New York, December, 2018: Daniel Roseberry would wake up on the floor of a friend’s SoHo apartment where he was crashing and head off to a cold, dusty studio in Chinatown. There, as the Manhattan Bridge above the building shuddered with trains, he would spend the day sketching, compiling a project for a role he was in the running for. He had left a job he loved, as design director at Thom Browne, terrifying, he admits, ‘but I knew I needed to create a void in my life in order for something to come fill it.'
It did. Fast-forward to Paris, July 2019 and these sketches had sprung to life as Roseberry’s first collection for Schiaparelli – and the new artistic director’s first ever couture offering. In under two years, he’s not just made his mark, but established himself as one of fashion’s most exciting talents. Even a global pandemic can’t halt his momentum; the most recent awards season saw Schiaparelli a hit among A-listers who prioritise looking interesting rather than predictably pretty: see Bella Hadid in a black gown complete with gilded brass necklace in the shape of trompe l'oeil lungs from the AW21 couture collection recently shown in Paris.
Emma Corrin also wore a mini dress festooned with gigantic, glinting teeth, there was Beyoncé in a leather LBD and gloves with trompe l’oeil fingernails and, for the Christmas holidays last year, Kim Kardashian West chose a Hulk-ish, fully-abbed green bodice.
How did it feel the first time he, then largely unknown, walked into the Schiaparelli headquarters on the Place Vendôme, the first American to head up a French couture house? ‘It’s so fitting it was at Schiaparelli because there really is no word other than “surreal”,’ he says on a Zoom call from Paris, where thanks to lockdown he has lived a largely ‘monastic’ life since arriving. Indeed. Surrealism was integral to Elsa Schiaparelli’s work. Her lobster hat, skeleton dress and signature colour – shocking pink – remain iconic today, as do her collaborations with artists like Salvador Dalí.
Taking on a house with such illustrious heritage comes with a hefty helping of pressure. ‘I knew going into it that most relaunches of houses do not work. A big question for me was “why?”,’ says Roseberry, adding that impersonations ‘feel disingenuous and fall flat’. So, artist collaborations were out and, although he spent a day at the Met looking at archival pieces, none was referenced in his first few collections. ‘I wasn’t like “let’s burn it down” but I really didn’t want it to feel nostalgic at all,’ he says. ‘The primary focus was let’s 180 the house, make the conversation completely different and just make a scene.’
While the clothes do make a scene, Roseberry – composed, thoughtful, affable – is the antithesis of the theatrical showman. Raised in Dallas, the son of a minister, his earliest memories of clothes are of his mother getting ready for church (‘it’s kind of drag-ish; I love the performative, ceremonial aspect’). He admired the ‘intersection between the way my mom dressed and her graciousness to other people. I’ve never been inspired by bitchy people who look good. It’s much more interesting and much more modern to be someone who looks incredible but is also full of grace for the people around you.’
As a teenager, Roseberry would pour over Vogue, marvelling at John Galliano’s Dior, Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel. ‘But it never felt like something I could even dream to be a part of. When I started here that was one of the first things I said: I really want to open the doors up of the house, to our process, to my process, to seeing the way that clothes are made so that people might feel more invited to be a part of [it] with us.’ He wants young people to give themselves permission to participate. It was fashion, he says, that inspired him to move out of his hometown. Its impact can be formative.
It’s odd that the relevancy of couture is so often questioned in a way other arts aren’t. It’s the ostentation, the extravagance, the princessy gowns that can distract from the intimacy and artistry of the craft. Rather than be shackled by the rigour of the craft and heritage, Daniel has been emboldened, liberated even, by it. ‘[We can be] perverse and joyful in an interesting way, and not precious about things. These clothes are made on the fifth floor in the Place Vendôme, we have nothing to prove to anybody. They are so elevated but then we get to redefine what elevated looks like.’
There’s something irresistibly punky about this attitude. ‘It’s that weird thing because it is one of the grand couture houses but it’s also a lot about questioning the rules.’
He doesn’t shy away from wit, absurdity, even the ugly. It’s a pertinent message for now, a reminder that people can be both silly and cerebral, sexy and serious, glamorous and provocative. ‘I like the dichotomy of a personality,’ he says. ‘I love that there’s a performer inside us and then I love that there’s an introvert inside us.’
It’s this duality, coupled with the ‘why not?’ attitude spurred on by pandemic – life is short, just take the damn risk, have fun with it – that emboldens his fans to try something different. ‘When people choose things that are that strong and look that good it’s so encouraging,’ says Roseberry. ‘All I want to do is serve and amplify that moment.’
Perhaps Roseberry’s biggest moment to date, however, has been the sweeping red silk faille skirt and navy cashmere jacket – embellished with a gilded dove of peace brooch – that Lady Gaga wore to the presidential inauguration. He still gets chills thinking about it. ‘The fact that we got to be a part of that in such a beautiful way will always be shocking to me.’
The inauguration was charged with hope, and there is a sense that globally we’re on the cusp of something new. It’s time to shake up the system. With fashion in introspection mode, there is space there too for change, curiosity. This fever-dream year, sartorially defined forever by trackpants, however, has left us all questioning the purpose, relevance of fashion, asking whether clothes matter.
‘Do clothes ultimately matter? I don’t think so. I don’t think in the grand scheme of things what you put on your back is ultimately what you’re going to remember before you die,’ Roseberry says.
‘But dreams matter, beauty matters and vulnerability matters and confidence and humour, those abstract ideas that can be channelled and captured in moments and visual elements, like clothes or in any of the arts. I’m not obsessed with making gowns for the rest of my life. I love that Schiaparelli is about ideas first. She really just asked people to think about fashion in a broader sense and if I even get to 1% of that mark I'm thrilled.'