December 2, 1946– Gianni Versace was a vulgarian & a genius. His uncompromisingly glitzy fashions were designed to turn men into hot studs & 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, Elizabeth Taylor, but I have never understood how a designer with so little affinity for ordinary people could enjoy success on such a grand scale. 20 years ago, his Fall 1995 collection featured a $1,750 silk shirt, a $7,000 evening gown & an $800 gold-studded belt.
Versace insisted that the cost of his clothing was beside the point. He believed a sort of fashion trickle-down economy, with his designs influencing the 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 were Versace ads. He projected an image of his customer as free-thinking & 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 & staircases, & priceless antique furniture imported from Italy. Italian craftspeople were brought in to do gilding & hand-paint the stucco ceilings. The shop had bathrooms made of marble with gold fixtures.
Versace lived the life that his fashions represented. He lived in a former convent filled with priceless antiques in Milan, an 18th century villa on Lake Como that doubled as his design studio, & 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 & raised amidst dresses, & 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 & 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 & later that year showed his first men’s collection with a theme of “disciplined masculine negligence”.
Versace was influenced by the clean look of military uniforms, with looks that included epaulets & 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, handing 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 & too “pop”. Versace’s persistence & personality prevailed. In 1982, he created a sensation with costumes for operas & 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 & the street was imitating his looks.
By the mid-1990s, Versace was selling clothing for men & women, plus jewelry & accessories at 138 Versace Emporiums from Tokyo to Miami. He unabashedly borrowed the styles from the world of S/M & gay leather bars. Again, the critics harped & rich people purchased.
His brother Santo took care of the business side of the company & his little sister Donatella served as a muse, wearing his tight-fitting dresses & 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 international party scene. D’ Amico was originally a model when they met, but later became a designer in Versace’s company. They enjoyed friendships with Elton John, Princess Diana & Madonna.
Versace was noted for entertaining his famous friends in style, especially at the Miami mansion on Ocean Drive. The 3 story Spanish style house was ground zero for the party circuit, although it was removed from the hotels on the landmark Art Deco strip.
On the evening of July 15, 1997, Versace returned to Ocean Drive after having dinner in a nearby restaurant. He was unlocking the gate to his villa when a stranger walked up behind him & shot him twice in the back of his head.
Speculation over whether the killing was a mob hit gave way to the possibility that Versace was just one more victim of the 27 year old, gay California party boy serial killer, Andrew Cunanan. By the time he was in Miami, Cunanan was already the subject of a FBI nationwide manhunt, after he had killed 2 former boyfriends, & tortured & murdered 2 strangers.
In Italy, the news provoked disbelief & 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.
Versace’s murderer was, indeed, 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 & colleagues attended the memorial service at Milan’s Gothic Cathedral, including Giorgio Armani, Carla Bruni, Karl Lagerfeld, Naomi Campbell, Sting, Carolyn Bessette & her husband John Kennedy Jr. & Italian Olympic ski star Alberto Tomba. Sir Elton & Princess Diana comforted each other in the front row of the Cathedral. So sad, John would be mourning Diana herself, only 6 weeks later.
The Versace siblings got the company, but he had left the bulk of his estate to his niece, Allegra. When she turned 18 years old in 2004, Allegra received her share worth around half a billion dollars. She had no interest in 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 & is now The Villa At Casa Casuarina, a luxury hotel & restaurant, with suites that go for just $4500 a night.
“I am not interested in the past, except as the road to the future.”