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“Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me” by Patricia Folk

“‘When my great-grandparents die, one right after the other, I’m little and can’t figure it out. Where did people go?
‘How can they just disappear?’ I asked my mother.
‘They don’t,’ she said. ‘They’re in you. Every generation that precedes you. Sometimes in ways you don’t even know. It could be anything, darling. A turn of phrase. Not liking nutmeg. People don’t disappear. Look how you hold your pinky.’
I looked down. ‘It’s just like Poppy!’
—from Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me by Patricia Volk
Once upon a time in Manhattan, a daughter is born to an “outrageously” beautiful mother. When she is 10 years old, the daughter, Patricia Volk, discovers a book so compelling she feigns a sore throat to stay home from school and finish reading it. But really, there is no rush. She will come back to it, time and again, to understand that it is possible to be someone other than the ideal of Audrey, her beloved, complex and beautiful mother. The book is Shocking Lifethe autobiography of the legendary designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

Though Elsa’s New York office is around the corner from Morgen’s, one of the Volk family restaurants, it is unlikely that the designer and Audrey ever met. Audrey’s style is ever crisp. Audrey does not wear Schiaparelli’s daring, imaginative clothes. She doesn’t have leopard print bowling shoes; she doesn’t carry an accordion handbag. Likely she would have considered Schiaparelli’s lamb chop hat an abomination of epic proportions.

But in bringing Audrey and Elsa together on the pages of Shocked, Volk discovers what they have in common. Both are “brilliant and opinionated”, “secretive”, “generous”, “moody”, and, in their own ways, “crazy about clothes.” Both are superstitious, too. S is Schiap’s lucky letter. It adorns every scent she bottles, including “Shocking”—her most famous perfume. “Shocking” is Audrey’s signature scent and for luck, she adds a drop of it to her handkerchief as part of her ritual for leaving the apartment for the day.

"Always the perfume comes gift-wrapped. My father makes the paper himself. He uses as many hundred-dollar bills as it takes to get the job done."

Audrey marries into, and works alongside, a family of successful restauranteurs, Schiaparelli is self-made. Audrey and Schiap are both working mothers, readers, late-in-life learners. But where one is “fierce opponent of invention” the other is a risk-taker who carves out a place for herself in fashion history.

"Being original, being yourself to my beautiful mother was not safe. Being original, being yourself to Elsa Schiaparelli was life-giving. She made a hat out of a shoe. Reading that at ten, I knew: Anything is possible."


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