December 2, 1946– Gianni Versace
Donatella Versace, as portrayed by Penelope Cruz, in FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story:
“I will not allow that man, that nobody, to kill my brother twice!”
For American Crime Story‘s Season Two, Ryan Murphy‘s series examines the murder in 1997 of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, played by hottie Edgar Ramirez. Ricky Martin plays Versace’s partner, Antonio D’Amico. Versace was murdered by spree killer Andrew Cunanan (played by Glee‘s Darren Criss). Cunanan killed four people prior to Versace and then committed suicide eight days after killing Versace.
The series depicts Versace’s opulent and glamorous lifestyle, contrasted against Cunanan’s movements before he meets Versace.
Criss as Cunanan:
“This world has wasted me, and yet this world also made you, Mr. Versace, into a star. You’re not better than me. We’re the same. The only difference is that you got lucky.”
In real life, Versace was a vulgarian and a genius. His uncompromisingly glitzy designs were made to turn men into hot studs and women into objects of desire.
His chief rival, Georgio Armani, whose work is the very essence of understatement, accused Versace of turning fashion into “a porno show”. Versace’s reply: “Armani is a bore”.
Versace dressed his friends Elton John, Joan Collins, Ivana Trump, Madonna, Prince, Cher, and Elizabeth Taylor. I have never understood how a designer with so little affinity for ordinary people could enjoy success on such a grand scale. His fall 1995 collection featured a $1,750 silk shirt, a $7,000 evening gown and an $800 gold-studded belt.
Versace insisted that the cost of his clothing was beside the point. He believed in a sort of fashion trickle-down economy, with his designs influencing street looks. But, I think maybe the secret to his success was seducing the bourgeoisie by insulting it.
Versace was a master of hype. Whenever I would open my new copy of Vanity Fair, the first 30 pages would be Versace ads. He projected an image of his customer as free-thinking and fearless.
In 1992, Versace opened his first retail store in London in a former bank. His team transformed the place into a neo-classical palazzo, with marble floors and staircases, and priceless antique furniture imported from Italy. Italian craftspeople were brought in to do gilding and hand-paint the stucco ceilings. The shop had bathrooms made of marble with gold fixtures. No wonder Ivana loved him.
Versace lived the life that his designs represented. He lived in a former convent filled with priceless antiques in Milan, a 18th century villa on Lake Como that doubled as his design studio, and an opulent mansion on Ocean Drive, Miami.
Versace was born in Reggio, in the Calabria region, where his mother was a dressmaker who owned a small boutique. Versace:
“I was born and raised amidst dresses, and everything I know about fashion I owe to my mother.”
As a boy he was obsessed by design. When he turned 18-years-old, he began to work for his mother as a buyer, attending fashion shows in Florence, Rome, Paris and London.
At 22 years old, Versace began producing his own clothing designs made by a manufacturer in Milan. In 1978, he brought out a collection of women’s ready-to-wear clothes under his own name and later that year showed his first men’s collection with a theme of ”Disciplined Masculine Negligence”.
Versace was very influenced by the clean look of military uniforms, clothing that included epaulets and raised piping on the trousers. In 1982, inspired by the London punk scene, he took the military theme farther by creating woven metal mesh dresses. He developed a technique that bonded leather to rubber without stitching or seams by using a laser.
“Were it possible to make plastic clothes. I’d be the first to do it.”
Versace was not an expert draftsman. He would hand off his sketches to his team of designers to flesh out. He was not all that popular with the design establishment who found his work vulgar and too “pop”. Versace’s persistence and personality prevailed. Beginning in 1982, he created sensations with his costumes for operas and ballets for the world’s major companies.
”My experience at La Scala has helped me a lot in finding a new attitude to give my clothes.”
In the 1990s his designs showed daring contrasts: black leather appliqued with velvet; grey flannel doubled with shiny silk. Again, the critics called his work vulgar, but high society was buying it and the street was imitating his looks.
By the mid-1990s, Versace was selling clothing for men and women, plus jewelry and accessories, at the 138 Versace Emporiums from Tokyo to Miami. He unabashedly borrowed the styles from the world of S/M and gay leather bars. Again, the critics complained, and rich people purchased.
His brother Santo took care of the business side of the company and his little sister Donatella served as a muse, wearing his tight-fitting dresses and spiked heels.
Versace was one the first Italian designers to fully come out of the closet. He met his partner Antonio D’Amico in 1982. As a couple, they were regulars on the Jet Set party scene. D’Amico was a model when they met, but later he became a designer in Versace’s company. They hung out with Elton John, Princess Diana and Madonna.
Versace was noted for entertaining his famous friends in style, especially at the Miami mansion on Ocean Drive. The three-story Spanish style house was the center of the international party circuit, although it was removed from the hotels on the landmark Art Deco strip.
On the morning of July 15, 1997, Versace returned to Ocean Drive after having gone for a walk to get coffee and the paper, a chore usually designated to an assistant, but on this lovely day the designer decided to enjoy the air and sunshine. He was unlocking the gate to his villa when a stranger walked up behind him and shot him twice in the back of his head.
Speculation over whether the killing was a mob hit gave way to the real possibility that Versace was just one more victim of the 27-year-old, gay California party boy serial killer, Cunanan. By the time he was in Miami, Cunanan was already the subject of an FBI nationwide manhunt, after he had killed two of his former boyfriends, and tortured and murdered two total strangers.
In Italy, the news brought disbelief and concern. Santo Versace had recently been convicted of bribery. In 1995, luxury designer Maurizio Gucci, had been shot dead outside his office in Milan. There were rumors that the Versace Company had Mafia connections. The Italian press noted that the shots to the back of Versace’s head were typical of a mob hit.
But indeed, Versace’s murderer was Cunanan. He shot himself in the head after being cornered by police in a houseboat a few miles from the murder scene a week later. The gun he used was the same one he used to murder Versace.
More than 2000 friends and colleagues attended the memorial service at Milan’s Gothic Cathedral, including Armani, Carla Bruni, Karl Lagerfeld, Naomi Campbell, Sting, Carolyn Bessette and her husband John Kennedy, plus Italian Olympic ski star Alberto Tomba. Sir Elton and Princess Diana comforted each other in the front row of the Cathedral. So sad, John would be mourning Diana herself, only six weeks later.
The Versace siblings got the company, but he had left the bulk of his estate to his niece, Allegra Versace. When she turned 18-years-old in 2004, Allegra received her share which was worth around 500 million dollars. She had no interest in fashion design or business. The running of the company has continued under her mother Donatella’s direction. Versace left D’Amico a pension of 50 million Lire ($35,000) a month for life, plus the right to live in any of his houses. The Miami house sold for 49 million in 2009 and is now The Villa At Casa Casuarina, a luxury hotel and restaurant, with suites that go for just $5000 a night.
”I am not interested in the past, except as the road to the future.”