From Texas to the Place Vendôme: The Surreal World of Daniel Roseberry
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From Texas to the Place Vendôme: The Surreal World of Daniel Roseberry

Aug 04, 2023

By Nathan Heller

Photography by Annie Leibovitz

Styled by Alex Harrington

Long before the summer showing of Schiaparelli’s couture collection, Daniel Roseberry, the house’s creative director, gathered his thoughts as he always did: by starting from the future that he hoped to reach. He imagined a review of the collection in the press, and wrote a version of it, line by line. He grew up in Texas and, on arriving in Paris to lead Schiaparelli toward a new phase of growth in 2019, worked to find a narrative order for the rangy span of his creative life. Roseberry loves reviews, their clarity and judgment—given the choice, he’d often rather read reviews of movies than see them. Imagining a critic approaching his fashion helps him find its big emotions, its broad sweep. “If I can identify and anticipate in my mind what people want to see, I can work backward,” he explained. “How do I make that review come to life?”

A few months later, Roseberry is assessing a brown felt coat with a swirling, cowl-like lapel being walked up and down the room before him by a model with neat auburn hair. This is Paris, early July, and the couture collection he imagined in the spring will travel down the runway in just two days’ time. At the moment, more than two dozen pieces, four tables of accessories, and a cast of models must be matched and gathered into a coherent whole. If he fails, his runway will seem scattershot and random. If he succeeds, the collection will achieve its own daring inevitability: the haunted rightness of a strange dream brought to life.

THROWING SCHIAPSThe house’s founder, Elsa Schiaparelli, in 1948.

“Some of these could be good,” he murmurs, picking up bonelike gold-and-stone extensions, to be used as earrings.

“Separate?” one of the models asks.

Roseberry nods. “One, two,” he says, gesturing at his own ears.

When the jewels have been placed, Roseberry contemplates the revised look, a hand to one side of his silvering beard. At 37, he’s of medium height and build, usually dressed in Carhartt work trousers, no belt, track shoes, and athletic socks pulled high. He has a gentle, placid style of speech, like a high school counselor trying to calm a jumpy student; it breaks at times into a bubbly laugh. He grew up a long way from here, he’s usually the first to point out, and relishes his incongruities. “I think my work can be summed up in Plano, Texas, Place Vendôme,” he says. “Everything that works at Schiaparelli works when the New World starts talking to the Old World and the Old World answers back.”

In this moment, the Old World voices are especially strong. Roseberry’s team is fitting models in a salon of the exquisite 18th-century French style: high ceilings, double doors. This was the Place Vendôme town house, the Hôtel de Fontpertuis, where for decades Elsa Schiaparelli ran her couture trade. After a renovation—honey-colored herringbone floors, eerie creped plaster over the molding of the third floor, where the ready-to-wear line is shown—it has been restored as the spiritual center of the brand.

Across her lifetime, Elsa Schiaparelli, born into an eclectic family of Italian scholars in 1890, befriended an array of artists including Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Francis Picabia; she made her fashion reputation first in trompe l’oeil knitwear. By the 1930s, when she installed herself in the Place Vendôme, she had carried Surrealism into couture. There was the hat shaped like a high-heel shoe, the Salvador Dalí lobster that she printed on a silk-organza dress. Schiaparelli is today one of the smallest and most exclusive of Paris’s heritage houses, a cosseted jewel in the crown of French luxury, but it remains one of the most uncanny, too, a couturier possessed by spooky magic.

When Roseberry became creative director, in 2019, after a decade at Thom Browne, where he’d ended up design director, he was swiftly hailed as Elsa Schiaparelli’s 21st-​century heritor: a designer who could carry the house’s Surrealist affinities into the digital age, reimagining her mystical iconography for a time more haunted by the fame and fantasies of American pop. Tilda Swinton, whom Roseberry has often dressed, describes him as “unnervingly symbiotic in his capacity to channel and take forward the sensibility of not only the house itself but also the person of Elsa Schiaparelli and the atmosphere of the fellowship around her.

“The glee with which he feeds on the detail of Schiaparelli’s universe and the boldness with which he owns his authority to interpret this language is incredibly impressive,” she adds. It was Roseberry who created the dress—a tailored navy upper, a flowing scarlet skirt, a golden brooch shaped like the dove of peace—in which Lady Gaga performed the national anthem at President Biden’s inauguration. And it was Roseberry who, at the Met Gala this past spring, dressed cohost Michaela Coel in an exquisite dress of pearls, celestial ornaments, and an embroidery of 130,000 crystals that took nearly 4,000 hours of work to produce. Roseberry had been Coel’s first choice, but she found herself surprised both by the fluency of his process—two fittings, no stress—and by his manner.

“On the day of the Met, we spoke a bit about the dress, but really just about our lives, our human flaws,” Coel says. “I found myself able to be really open with Daniel about my absolute fuckery, and it didn’t scare him away. He was like, Oh, I know what that’s like.”

Back in the Place Vendôme, a new model enters the studio, and applause breaks out. She wears a two-piece garment assembled from more than 12,000 dully shimmering rectangles of leather, puffed up like a duvet gathered about her. Many of the looks in Roseberry’s new show were inspired by the work of visual artists and artisans—a nod to Elsa Schiaparelli’s creative debts. This piece, one of the most elaborate, was inspired by the marquetry of the interwar furniture designer Jean-Michel Frank.

The model begins to walk her path; then, all at once, she stops. Her eyelids flutter. “She needs to sit down,” someone says. Staffers rush to her side; somebody offers a chair. The model folds into the seat like a blade of grass in midday heat. All around her there is now concern, as tailors pull the heavy padded garment from her shoulders and her legs. Water is brought. After a moment, the model slips from the chair onto her knees, and then her hands, prostrating herself as if overcome.

“Sorry, my love,” she says meekly, finding Roseberry’s gaze as she regains herself. “The jacket—it’s a little heavy.”

As a boy in Texas, Roseberry was tutored in drawing by his mother, Fran, an artist. One of her early lessons was how to work through trouble, when the image he’d created didn’t match the perfect picture in his mind. Now the Frank look, a triumph just a few moments ago, is a hot, heavy problem to be solved. “She wore it for 15 minutes,” he says. “She—someone—is going to be in this for an hour.”

He takes up the pillowy garment and, slowly, as if adjusting a drawing in real time, begins playing with its draping to admit more of a cooling breeze. A tailor pulls pins from his wrist cushion and, catching on, begins to fix the new design in place. An hour later, the model takes on the garment again and tours the room at speed. “It’s heavy,” she says, weighing it with pleasure, “but okay if you find the balance.”

HAUTE PROFILEA Schiaparelli skirt suit and headdress in 1947.

Roseberry’s father, David, is an Anglican priest, born again. He and Fran met at a seminary in San Francisco and moved to Plano to help found the church in which their four children would be brought up. The faith, as Daniel explains it, grows from an idea of redemption. “It’s the idea that you will chase your tail your entire life trying to be enough and always fail,” Roseberry says. “But it’s okay, because God sent a savior to be enough, and all you have to do is place your trust in him and surrender your life, and the offshoot of that surrender is peace.”

To many people outside the church, the worldview, which was conservative enough to inspire the church to break from mainstream Episcopalianism over the elevation of a gay bishop, seems austere or worse. But for his parents, Roseberry says, it meant steadfastness and generosity. “My parents, every day of their marriage, have woken up and, in the wee hours, lit a candle,” he says. “They sit next to each other on a sofa and they pray for each one of their kids, for each other, for their community. Even if you say they’re just meditating together, it is creating a space in which it’s not just about the two of them.”

From an early age, though, Roseberry felt his own life carry him inward rather that outward. “Most of my childhood memories are drawing,” he says—a private, self-​expressive pursuit. “I was both shy and needed to be the center of attention.” His dream was to become a Disney animator.

“We recognized Daniel as a different kind of child, very talented, very intense,” his father recalls. Also, in the rhythm of their lives, a little overwhelming. So they prayed for help and guidance. One day, visiting South Carolina when Roseberry was seven, David and Fran were moved to take him between them as they approached the altar for communion. “We put our arms around him,” his father says. “We were just crying our eyes out because we saw this as one of those surrender moments.” What they felt themselves surrendering was a parental claim on—maybe even total understanding of—their son.

“We gave him to God,” David explains. “And everything changed after that.”

On returning to Texas, they enrolled Roseberry and his sister in a different school, with a more artistic focus. When Roseberry was 13, he went to his older brother’s wedding in Lubbock. The bride wore a dress made by a local seamstress in the style of Carolina Herrera. “I was shook,” he says. “When we got in the car to drive back to Dallas, I started to draw the dress the way I would have seen it.” It was the end of his ambition to become a Disney animator; when he caught a TV documentary about Michael Kors—a boy from the suburbs, like him—the die was cast. His dream, from then, was to move to New York and become a fashion designer.

This new ambition sat uncomfortably within the context of his church. As long as Roseberry could remember, he says, he felt he was “keeping a secret” from even his family. During his teenage years, as his fashion interests bloomed, that secret took on a vexed name.

“Sex and sexuality were so othered and so wrong,” he says. “I was allowed to watch Die Hard when I was three years old, but when it came to sex it was like, Change the channel.” His parents had ministered to AIDS patients in San Francisco in the 1980s. “The prospect of their son being gay was just so scary, and I can understand that,” Roseberry says.

In high school, Roseberry says, a friend slowly brought him out of his shell. Yet the liberation was uneasy. A photograph of him at 16 shows a clean-cut boy in a bright red turtleneck sweater; by the end of adolescence, he was bleaching his hair. “What was I? A hot mess,” he says. “I would say I was asexual, just completely shut down. I was exploring my work, but mostly I was just overwhelmed by social dynamics around me.” For a while, he worked as a waiter at Chili’s. “I was all over the place! I couldn’t remember orders.” Waiters were rated gold, silver, or bronze—his grade. “The only other person who was bronze was a woman who had a broken arm and couldn’t carry her own food,” Roseberry says. “I was politely fired.”

At 19, after enrolling in a state college, he announced that he was going on a church mission, and from there to seminary, to become a priest. His mission carried him to Hawaii, and then to Pakistan, where he distributed aid and supplies to refugees after the Kashmir earthquake of 2005—“a very beautiful experience,” he says. But in its transparent extremism—Roseberry and his friends were ordered to speak in tongues, and were told of events in their past that never actually happened—it shook him from the church. On returning, he decided to go not to the seminary but to the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York. Near the end of his education there, he came out to his parents as gay.

The revelation startled them, they say; it challenged their beliefs. But they worked to understand. “It goes back to that moment in South Carolina. We gave him to God,” David explains. “Anything that happened was part of his path.”

GOING LARGEModel Imaan Hammam in spring 2021 Schiaparelli couture.

On the morning of the Schiaparelli couture show, held in the Petit Palais of Paris’s Musée des Beaux-Arts, photographers line the base of the building’s grand front staircase, awaiting the arrival of the morning’s famous guests. Inside, the models receive makeup and hairstyling in a vaulted, brightly lit room, and Roseberry, in jeans and a washed-out denim button-down with a fraying collar, approaches from a board where he has been walking editors through the looks. After all those years working for Thom Browne, whose backstage preparations are notoriously high-strung, he became, he says, “traumatized by the backstage”: He peeks around a curtain in the doorway of the room where the models are getting ready, then pulls back.

“I can’t,” he says with an apologetic laugh.

“All right, girls!” another staffer shouts, taking the lead. “If you’re dressed, find your place in the lineup!”

Roseberry began his internship with Browne while still a student at FIT, dropping out to go for his career. “What I saw was somebody who wanted to put the work in,” Browne recalls. When the designer unveiled his first full ready-to-wear women’s collection, in 2011, Roseberry was close at hand; as Browne increasingly began pushing at gender norms, Roseberry’s skills became more and more valuable. “Daniel approaches fashion from more of a feminine point of view, and I approach it more from a masculine point of view, and we complemented each other really well,” Browne says.

In retrospect, Roseberry recalls these as freewheeling, outward-expanding years. But it was also a period of chaos. He spent eight years “wildly addicted” to the drug Adderall, he says: “I was taking it every day. It was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me in my whole life.”

During his break every summer, he and a group of friends would go to Maine and take psychedelic mushrooms in nature. On the cusp of his 30s, he had a reckoning.

“I saw myself as a character in a book—a boy that was full of promise, full of ambition and hope. And then these dark, shadowy figures started to come in: the Adderall, the cigarettes, just body abuse, because I was going like this.” He snaps his fingers in quick rhythm. “I knew that when I left Thom Browne, whatever came next, I couldn’t bring those things into the next chapter.” At 30, he broke up with his partner and took himself off cigarettes and Adderall.

On receiving the offer from Schiaparelli, in 2019, he recognized a house small but ambitious enough to offer a balance of freedom and control where he could find a creative home. “I think because Elsa Schiaparelli was not really thinking in a mass-market kind of way, and because the house was dormant for so many years, its DNA feels pure and raw and untouched and at the same time incredibly elastic,” he says. “And the beauty of making things at a smaller scale is that everything can be truly extraordinary.”

“He believes in giving a woman something that is able to express what she cannot articulate in words—a persona of herself as somebody braver or more colorful or more unconventional than she is,” says Roseberry’s close friend Hanya Yanagihara, the novelist and T editor in chief. “Not to be reductive, but I think there are two types of fashion designers. The first gets their inspiration from the outside world—they go to a lot of museums, they travel a lot. And then there are the designers who create from an interior landscape that they’ve been living in since they were children. They go inwards. Daniel is very much in the second category.”

Backstage, Roseberry has begun rushing between models, making small adjustments to each look. He fixes the wooden beads—a first in Schiaparelli’s deep library of larger-​than-​life jewelry—slung across the shoulders of one model in a huge, shaggy white mohair coat; the necklace comes to a point in two crossed hands modeled on those of Pascal and Pascaline, Elsa Schiaparelli’s favorite mannequins. He marvels at a model dressed in a two-piece suit of gilded wooden beads with a branchlike brooch molded from one of his houseplants; her bared torso is half-painted in Yves Klein blue.

Last year, as he approached his January 2023 couture show, Roseberry found himself both restive amidst an industry mired in a season-to-season churn and drawn to the challenge of a big project. He dreamed of an undertaking that would allow fashion to work at the scale and ambition of the other arts that he admired. If couture wasn’t the place for that experimentation, what was?

He reread Dante’s Divine Comedy and thought about its three cantiche: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. “You meet Dante, who’s in his mid-30s,” he says, of the famous opening. “The story is about someone who thinks that they’ve got life figured out, and thinks that they’ve arrived at some final part of their journey—Dante had achieved some level of fame—but then you see the reality of what his life was like and realize he was just at the beginning.” Roseberry saw a reflection of his own progress through demons and endeavor on the way to the unknown. “It was a way for me to think about something rigorous, reduced, and controlled at the beginning, going into something released, sensual, and souffléed in the second part.”

That first collection, shown this past winter, combined Schiaparellian variations on classic eveningwear with radical, shield-like forms: tightness and control. Its array of animal elements—a resin snake built into a neckline, shell-like marquetry, realistic stuffed-animal heads of leopards and lions—made his mother think of his Disney childhood, when his whole world was drawing cats. Some internet viewers, however, worried that the stuffed heads glamorized trophy hunting. And some Europeans found the riff on Dante its own species of sacrilege. “I didn’t realize this, but the Italian press considers the Divine Comedy to be right next to the Bible as a divine text,” Roseberry says. He was persuaded to avoid the D-word for his other shows in the trilogy, but Dante’s framework remains his touchstone.

The new collection would be called And The Artists, rather than Purgatorio, and would pick up where the first ended, with asymmetrical volumetric forms. It would move to looks inspired by artwork and be assembled by his spontaneous method—“an exultation of the hand.” Invitations to the show came with a cast Edenic apple.

As the models begin to line up before a staircase leading to the runway, a stage manager pores over a floor plan with one of them, explaining the route. Upstairs, the guests are settled in gilded chairs on either end of the carpeted runway in the vaulted room, greening through the windows in high Paris summer.

From its first pieces—a tipping wavelike skirt, deconstructed from the concept of a ball gown; a high-collared white coat with the trompe l’oeil outline of a person—the collection builds into elaborate looks, layered with quirk and accessories. One model, painted Klein blue, drips with beads, feathers, and preserved flowers, some accoutrements formed into the shapes of eyes and hands. A miniskirt is threaded with several feet of looping black coil, creating a halo at the hips that moves as the model walks.

As the soundtrack quiets to a whisper of percussion to prepare a swell, the Frank look appears at the foot of the runway, worn by a new model. The hall stills with the music, and an air of wonderment gathers. Slowly, the model and her dress approach, and the padded, painted leather bounces gently as she moves. The audience looks starry-eyed.

When the show ends, Roseberry returns backstage, where he is swarmed with well-wishers and admirers. Cardi B, wearing a black Schiaparelli hourglass dress with an ecstatic wrap of shimmering feathers, crowds him warmly. “I loved it,” she says.

The bosses are pleased, too. “This is a big laboratory where we try to parlay the codes of the queen that is Elsa,” Diego Della Valle, Schiaparelli’s owner, remarks, admiring the crowd. “And Daniel is a fantastic prince.”

Waiting mildly near the back of the throng are David and Fran, the designer’s parents, she in a trim black Schiaparelli look, he in a summer suit of pinstripe checkers.

“A lot of things I look at and read today, I feel like I’m a diminished person—because it’s hard, you know?” David says with pride. “I feel strongly that Daniel’s mission is to bring beauty back into the world.”

That evening, guests are invited to the Place Vendôme for a cocktail party on its third floor, fitted with arrangements of handbags, jewelry, and mannequins displaying exquisite black, white, and red garments. Earlier this year, Roseberry created Schiaparelli’s first full ready-to-wear collection: a linchpin of the house’s growth plans, and also of its first real—and yet still precious—retail expansion.

At the moment, Delphine Bellini, the house’s CEO, guides Elsa Schiaparelli’s granddaughter, the actress Marisa Berenson, through a room where the new pieces are draped on mannequins for study. “Daniel is a dreamer,” Bellini remarks genially, standing near a piece in glorious black feathers. “When we saw the vision that he had for Schiaparelli, we could see the future.”

Roseberry spends the next morning in quiet contemplation, in the apartment he rents in the leafy 7th arrondissement of Paris. It’s a cool, soft day, and the double windows are propped open to the breeze. A large glass vase of sunflowers rests on the dining room table, near an array of books—James Baldwin and Richard Powers, Daniel Kahneman and the landscape work of Monet. During a normal week, Roseberry wakes at 6:30 a.m. and makes himself breakfast. He lights incense and puts on music (Fleet Foxes, Taylor Swift). “There’s something innately and unabashedly basic about me—I’m not cool,” he says. He sees the morning hours as a chance to connect to the world of his childhood, to steel himself for work in a country whose language he barely speaks. “Growing up, we would have said it’s ‘putting on the armor of God,’ ” he says. He glances out the window, which faces a soaring Gothic church. “You prepare yourself for going out into the world.”

FINER POINTSCoel wears a Schiaparelli dress.

At 9 a.m., he is often the first in at the Schiaparelli offices; he ends the workday by visiting his trainer and then comes home to cook himself “a super-simple dinner” and turn to the TV. “Lately I’ve been watching these Ken Burns documentaries—those aggressively American documentaries.”

Roseberry has been open about his ambivalence toward Paris. “I’m deeply dissatisfied with life here,” he says, “but that’s because I’m so turned on by work. I don’t have the community to pull me into the richness of what life here could look like.”

While preparing for the summer show, he went out to a dinner party, returned home vaguely depressed, and awoke the next morning to what he describes as an “out-of-body experience.”

He goes into the next room and returns with a large sheet of heavy paper on which he had taken notes during his out-of-body time. Roseberry no longer attends church, but still feels that he has a relationship with a higher power. “In my mind I’m asking”—he gestures toward the sky—“what is the lesson here?”

His adult life, he realized, had four parts. First, the 20s: Texas to New York, friendships, Thom Browne, ambition, demons. “It’s the fantasy of youth, the imagination hiding in plain sight, the American roots.” Then the 30s: “That’s the move to Paris, building a body of work,” he says. “It’s full of pressure, trial by fire.” Realizing where he stood brought peace of mind. “Paris is really not about a community-based life for me. It’s about building a body of work.” He has a boyfriend and some facet of a social life but thinks the brightest bits are yet to come.

“The 40s started feeling like the great creative beyond,” he says. This year, he signed with CAA, the talent agency. “I know I’m not just a dressmaker,” he says. “I want to be able to work additionally in creative fields that go far beyond fashion. That could be film, music, any number of things.” Beyond that point—he looks to the fourth quadrant in his notes, representing his 50s and 60s—“an age of mastery, becoming like a child again.” Paradise, his paradise, at last.

Until then, there’s the struggle, the uncertainty; the lonely, short-lived happiness of trying to make art. As Roseberry rode home from the couture show, a friend called him, and asked him how he felt. “Awful,” he said. “You toil and troll for months to create something that feels magical, to prove to yourself that there’s some meaning to the commitment,” he explains now. “Then you get there, and—it just never feels like enough.”

And so—after the show, after the backstage accolades, after the first admiring reviews had come through, eerily like the one he’d written for himself—Roseberry went to the gym. “I went on the treadmill to run off the blues,” he says, and allows himself a gentle smile. “And the first thing I started thinking about was next season.”

In this story: hair, Antoinette Hill; makeup, Kenya Alexis; grooming for Daniel Roseberry, Peter Gray.

The interviews and photography in this story predated the SAG-AFTRA strike.