09 January

How did Gianni Versace become a legend?

 

As Ryan Murphy’s new TV series about him is about to be broadcast in France, we look back at an extraordinary character who changed the face of fashion forever.

By Léa Zetlaoui

In the wake of infamous American footballer O.J. Simpson whose tumultuous lawsuit had the press in a frenzy for months, Ryan Murphy has chosen to portray the much mediatised 1997 assassination of Italian couturier Gianni Versace for the second season of his anthology series American Crime Story, set to commence on Canal+ on January 17th. Having made baroque glamour his trademark, Gianni Versace, accompanied by his sister Donatella and brother Santo, built a veritable fashion empire. Supermodels and celebrities, glitzy luxury and hard-hitting ad campaigns, a blanket refusal of good taste and provocative images, under the reign of Gianni Versace, “too much” was never enough. 

 

 

1- Glamour and decadence, Italian fashion according to Gianni Versace

 

Just as Gianni Versace founded his house, Italian fashion was booming. Although often compared to Giorgio Armani, who opened in 1975, his fashion was the opposite to the minimalist tailoring of his compatriot. With the help of his sister Donatella, who was also his muse, he established a glamorous, ultra-sexy and highly colourful style that hijacked the codes of Italian culture, art and the trends of his era. A true couturier, he constructed his creations by draping them directly onto the models without patterns or sketches. Inspired as much by theatre, ballet, architecture and modern art as by the prostitutes who lined the streets of Calabria during his childhood and gay nightclubs in New York, he blithely introduced black leather, bondage references, garish colours, baroque prints, indecent lengths, slits and ultra-body-con. He mastered these codes so completely that even when he did a grunge collection for winter 1993, it oozed sensuality. Encouraged by Donatella, Gianni Versace would liberate women (and men) from the shackles of good taste. He also applied his gaudy style, symbolised by a golden Medusa head, to interior décor with his villa in Milan and mansion in Miami, to perfumes, linen and tableware. From then on, abundance of luxury and wealth had a name: Versace.

 

 

“Gianni Versace built a destiny that was the complete opposite to his humble beginnings. An intense life shared between wealth, opulence and celebrities.”

 

 

Donatella and Gianni Versace

Casa Casuarina in Miami

2- Gianni Versace, 50 smouldering years of life

 

Originating from a small village in Calabria overrun with poverty and corruption, Gianni Versace built a destiny that was the complete opposite to his humble beginnings. An intense life shared between wealth, opulence and celebrities. In was in 1978, at the age of 32, alongside his brother, that he created what would become the future Versace empire. They were soon joined by their sister Donatella Versace, whose flamboyant personality and party-girl reputation further spiced the already vibrant Versace. Despite leading a pretty simple life, Gianni Versace had a taste for the beautiful things associated with an arrogant and rigid character. With his extravagant parties brimming with celebrities, alcohol and cocaine, his ultra-sexy models (both female and male), his astonishing declarations (“I have a fantastic relationship with money”), a handful of corruption cases and a (homo)sexuality not entirely assumed in a timorous era… Gianni Versace and his siblings were ideal fodder for the tabloid press. Then in 1997 tragedy hit the Versace family. Outside his palatial Miami residence, Gianni Versace, aged 50, was shot down by serial killer Andrew Cunanan who then killed himself before the police could arrest him. Subsequently, his brother and sister continued the name of Versace, now the stuff of legends. Because beyond his smouldering lifestyle, Gianni Versace had truly revolutionised fashion.

 

 

 

At a time when fashion was embarking on globalisation, these supermodels enflamed an already very flamboyant house of Versace.”

3- Creation of the supermodels

 

Last September in Milan, Donatella Versace honoured her brother with a tribute runway show that brought the most iconic Versace looks out of the archives once more. The artistic director gave us a show that only Versace could do, with a finale bringing together five of the biggest models of all time - Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen - all swathed in gold lamé, reviving a golden age of fashion. Before 1986, these models with their sculptural physiques were more used to appearing on the pages of magazines than on the catwalks during fashion week. But pushed by Donatella, Gianni changed that and put them on his runway. It was a roaring success and the supermodel era began. Boosted by the presence of these incredible girls, it was a time when champagne, caviar and unforgettable parties dominated Fashion Week. Later, it was Donatella who suggested showing a young Kate Moss, a few months before she started walking the runways. At a time when fashion was embarking on globalisation, these supermodels enflamed an already very flamboyant house of Versace.  

 

 

4- Actresses, rock stars and princesses, the new models

 

As well as being an incredible designer. Gianni Versace was a gifted businessman. Very quickly he realised the power of celebrities as free publicity for his brand. Thanks to his encounter with Elton John, whose theatrical style was the perfect match for the exuberance of Gianni’s creations, he began to weave links with the music industry. Like a walking advert for the Italian label, the English singer and his 40 number 1 hits on the American Billboard, massively contributed to the promotion of the house in both Europe and the USA. Among the artists dressed by Versace were Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson in their video for Say, Say, Say, Bruce Springsteen on his Born in the USA tour, and rapper Tupac who couldn’t get enough of his famous Medusa head necklace worth $45 000. In 1991 it was another personality altogether who wore the Italian designer. Shot by Patrick Demarchelier for the cover of British Harper's Bazaar, Lady Diana, still a princess at the time, gave the label a better-behaved image. And then along came Elizabeth Hurley who in 1994 joined her incredibly famous actor boyfriend Hugh Grant on the red carpet wearing a revealing black dress held together with oversized gold safety pins. That night both Liz Hurley and “that dress”, as it became known, entered the annals of fashion history. After that Gianni and Donatella would always invite celebrities to sit on their front row and they were among the first to turn their runway shows into red carpet events.

 

American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, from January 17th on Canal +

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