Elsa Peretti has long, elegant bones, cropped dark hair and what she describes as khaki‐colored eyes. At 11 o'clock one recent morning, she was wearing Halston's long red cashmere dress and cardigan. Curled up on the sofa in the living room of her friend, Joe Eula, she applied eye make‐up as she talked, getting ready to go out to a business meeting.
The meeting could be the most important one in her career. She was on her way to Tiffany's to discuss plans for the store to carry her jewelry. It's a big step for the model‐turned‐designer—and possibly a bigger one for the store. Miss Peretti works essentially in silver, and Tiffany has not carried silver jewelry for a quarter of a century.
Isn't that an evening dress she's wearing? Of course, but it's a daytime dress if she chooses and when it's cold, she uses the $350 outfit as a nightgown.
“Why not, it's warm” she said in the English that is fluent now after five years in New York, but still has a strong flavor of her native Italy.
She piled business paperi, make‐up, cigarettes and money higgledy‐piggledy in a Spanish peasant basket, wrapped a black shawl over her shoulders and was ready to brave Tiffany's. The ensemble would look bizarre on anyone else, but on her, it was elegant.
A Surface Zaniness
Her friends — she calls them “my family” — tell stories about Elsa's zaniness and she loves to tell them on herself. But the surface madness covers a talent and a fashion taste that is like true north. Back in 1969, when she rather timidly designed a few pieces of silver jewelry — a buckle shaped like a heart and pendants like small vases — Halston and Giorgio di Sant'Angelo showed them with their collections and that was it.
The jewelry not only became a status symbol, but Miss Peretti suddenly made silver fashionable min. She added the belt with the horseshoe buckle, moved into horn, ebony and ivory and was recognized with a Coty Award in 1971.
The tall (she's 5‐foot‐9) designer was born on May 1, 1940 — “it's Labor Day in Italy”—in Florence, because her mother's favorite doctor was there. But her family is Roman; there is a Peretti palazzo overlooking the Borghese gardens, where her father, president of the largest individually‐owned oil company in Italy, has his offices. Her mother refuses to live in it—“She thinks it's going to fall down, and she has a lot of animals and it wouldn't be safe.”
Wanted Her Home
She went to schools in Rome, got a diploma in interior design and worked for a time for Dado Torrigiani, a Milanese architect. Her family would have preferred her to stay home and be like her sister — “She has lace on her underwear and silk sheets, four beautiful children and a divine bourgeois husband who drives a Mercedes and goes to work in gray gloves.”
Instead, at 21, she went to Switzerland, earning her way by teaching Italian, French and skiing. Everywhere she went, people kept asking, “Why don't you model?” A friend, working in fashion in London, offered to get her some modeling stints. Wilhelmina, the former model who runs her own agency, saw Elsa in London and suggested she come to New York.
She arrived with a black eye—“I had a fight with my boyfriend”—and had to hide in a hotel room until it cleared up.
Modeling a ‘Trip’
“It was hard for me to model here,” she recalled. “The perfect American model was blond, looked 16 and was beautiful. I was too tall, too strange, too Spanish, they said.” Taxi drivers refused to understand her mixture of English, Italian and Spanish—“it was perfectly clear to Europeans”—and she almost didn't stay.
But her designer friends were encouraging and used her to show their clothes. However, modeling was, and still is, “a trip for me. A good model must have a model brain—she must always think that she is beautiful. I like myself, but I am not so concerned about my looks.”
What has always fascinated her are objects, both the shape and the feel of them. She instinctively knows that a silver bracelet has an added dimension of touch if it looks as though the molder's thumb is still on it. The simplicity of an ordinary letter envelope inspired a silver evening bag. She works closely with the craftsmen who make her designs in Spain and, last fall, she spent three months in Munich exploring crystal and semiprecious stones for her latest collection.
Although she loves clothes —“I feel fantastic in Halston's things” — she treats them with an enviable shrug. She thought nothing, for instance, of attending a showing at the couture house of her friend Manuel Pertegaz in Barcelona, dressed in mended corduroy pants and desert boots. The very proper Spanish senoras gasped, but decided she must be a celebrity. She travels with one suitcase. “And 15 paper shopping bags,” added Joe Eula.
Even though her friends are used to Elsa's follies, they decided she had really flipped when she bought two ramshackle houses in the nearly‐abandoned village of San Marti Vell, an hour from Barcelona. The houses had no electricity, no running water, the rain poured in through the roof, but the price was “convenient” — $3,000 for each house. She has been restoring them for two years. (“Elsa has the only inside bathroom in San Marti,” Mr. Eula remarked.)
“You are more important than your house,” the designer said. “A house should be like old shoes, comfortable, like a good friend.” Since a good deal of her jewelry is made at the studio of Xavier Corbero, in Barcelona, she manages to spend time in her country house, sleeping in her Halstons on cold nights.
“The country is a beautiful balance with New York,” she said, “I can work there.” In the meantime, with her one suitcase and paper shopping bags, she is off to the Orient to investigate stones for her next collection. Which, when the lawyers get through talking, could be housed in Tiffany's.