One of the most innovative fashion designers of the 20th century, Gianni Versace (1946-1997) startled the world with his clothes made from metal, plastic, and leather, and delighted ballet and opera lovers with his stunning theatrical costumes. Versace socialized with celebrities, who loved and wore his expensive clothing. The world was shocked when the designer was murdered outside his Florida mansion in 1997.
Gianni Versace was born on December 2, 1946 in the industrial town of Reggio di Calabria, in southern Italy. His parents, Antonio, an appliance salesperson, and Francesca, a dressmaker and clothing store owner, had three children-Santo, Gianni, and Donatella. Gianni Versace spent much time in his mother's shop as a child. He watched her make clothes and admired the chic women who came into the shop. He knew at a young age that he would become a fashion designer. Versace also drew inspiration from the area where he lived. He often wandered among the ancient Greek and Roman ruins, which would later provide him with themes for his clothing. Although he loved clothes, art, and music, Versace studied architectural drafting. At the age of 18, while he was in school, he also worked for his mother as a buyer, going to fashion shows throughout Europe.
Made a Name for Himself
Versace started designing clothes when he was 22. A local garment maker hired him to design a collection that was sold in Francesca Versace's store. Fashion models from Rome and Milan came to southern Italy to perform in runway shows. Soon Versace's name was heard in Milan, the center of Italian fashion.
On February 5, 1972, Versace flew north to Milan. Salvatore Chiodini and Ezio Nicosia of the Florentine Flowers clothing mill had asked Versace to hurry there to design a collection that had to be rushed. Versace designed some "instant" summer wear, which was so successful that he earned not only his four million lira wage, but also a Volks-wagen convertible. He then designed Florentine Flowers' fall and winter collections.
During the early 1970s, "Made in Italy" clothing was just beginning to surface. Milan had just become the fashion capital and was the logical place for the emerging ready-to-wear industry. Chiodini and Ezio Nicosia's hiring of Versace marked a turning point in the fashion industry. They realized that clothes could not continue to be anonymous. Increasingly sophisticated buyers demanded a personal touch.
The work for Florentine Flowers was Versace's first independent assignment. Shortly thereafter he designed for De Parisini of Santa Margherita. In 1973, Versace designed women's ready-to-wear clothing for Callaghan, known for its knitwear and Genny, which featured leather and suede. In 1974, Versace created and developed his own line-Complice. Although he wasn't yet working under his own name, Versace already had his own label. Under the Complice name, Versace designed an all-leather collection. He was one of the few designers to feature leather at this time.
A Family Business
In 1976, Santo Versace, Gianni's older brother, left his management consultant's practice in Reggio di Calabria and moved to Milan. Santo had earned a degree in business administration from the University of Messina in 1968. He and his designer brother set out to create the Gianni Versace label. In 1977, Donatella Versace Beck joined the business. Her husband, Paul Beck, also worked for the company, overseeing the menswear line. At the beginning of 1978, the company opened its first Versace shop in Via Spiga, Milan, but it sold only Genny, Callaghan, and Complice lines as Versace's first fall women's collection had not yet been released. Versace's first signature collection was presented in March 1978. His first menswear collection followed in September. The collection was characterized by a stylish nonchalance and the use of pastel colors.
Versace decided to remain independent, becoming one of the few big labels in control of the entire product cycle, from design to retailing. Creative and marketing operations were handled through the company. On the manufacturing side, the company had a controlling interest in its production facility. Control of manufacturing was necessary in order to monitor quality and image. Eighty percent of the styles that reached the runway were produced by Alias. Retailing through boutiques was handled directly for image purposes in Paris, London, New York, Madrid, and Milan or through exclusive franchising and multi-label boutiques. To smooth distribution, buyers viewed the collections and placed their wholesale orders out of the company's Milan showroom. Retail operations were franchised.
Awards and Artistry
In 1979, Versace, who was always greatly concerned with his image, began a collaboration with the American photographer Richard Avedon. In 1982, Versace won the first of a series of awards, "L'Occhio d'Oro," (Golden Eye) for the best fashion designer of the 1982-83 fall/winter collection for women. In this collection he displayed his famous metal garments, now a classic feature of his fashion. His metal mesh dress was inspired by the punk fashions he saw in London in 1980. To develop the mesh material, Versace worked with German engineers. In later collections, metal dresses were made in bright colors. In the 1980s, Versace introduced another technological innovation, the bonding of leather to rubber using lasers.
That same year, Versace began collaborating with the Teatro alla Scala and designing costumes for the Richard Strauss' ballet "Josephlegende." Versace felt that his involvement with costume design gave his clothing a new attitude. In his ready-to-wear line, many of his clothes reflected those needed for dance, allowing unrestricted movement. In 1983, at the show "E' Design," Versace displayed the synthesis of his technological research. The following year, Versace designed the costumes for Donizetti's opera Don Pasquale and for the ballet Dyonisos choreographed by the Belgian, Maurice Bejart. Bejart created a triptych dance in honor of the launch of the fragrance for men, "Versace l'Homme."
The National Field Museum in Chicago presented a major retrospective show of Versace's work in 1986. Versace designed the costumes for Richard Strauss' opera, Salome in 1987. On April 7, the book Versace Teatro was published. Two months later, Versace went to Russia with Bejart, for whom he designed the costumes of the Ballet du XX Siecle. In September 1988, Versace opened a 600-square-meter showroom in Madrid, his first boutique in Spain.
In 1989, the film The Fortune of Friendshipwas shown. It recounted the relationship between Versace and Maurice Bejart. In Milan, Versace presented "Versus," a new line for young people, which explored informal themes and served as an alternative to so-called conventional ways of dressing.
On October 21, 1990, the San Francisco opera season opened with Richard Strauss' Capriccio, with costumes designed by Versace. The following year the fragrance "Versus" was debuted and "Signature," Versace's classic line, was launched. Elton John, an ardent admirer of Versace, began his world tour for which Versace designed the costumes. In New York, for the Italian Trade Commission, Versace inaugurated the charity Gala "Rock'N Rule," with profits given to the Amfar anti-AIDS Association. A retrospective show at the Fashion Institute of Technology featured Versace's work.
The "Home Signature" line was launched in 1993, which included dinnerware, carpets, quilts, and cushions. Versace's spring collection for 1993 shocked many with its sadomasochistic styles. In 1994, the book The Man Without Tie came out. In 1995, Versace and Elton John held a party for the Elton John Aids Foundation. Versace opened his world flagship store in a 28,000-square-foot restored Vanderbilt townhouse on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in 1996.
A Violent End
Versace owned four homes around the world, including a mansion on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, a villa on Lake Como in Italy, and a 15th-century palazzo in downtown Milan. He enjoyed listening to music and reading, especially biographies of musicians.
On July 15, 1997, Versace was shot in front of his Miami Beach, Florida home by Andrew Cunanan, who had crossed the U.S. on a killing spree. It is thought that Versace and Cunanan met in San Francisco when Versace was there designing costumes for the opera. After a private service in Miami, Versace's remains were cremated and brought back to Italy by his siblings. In Milan, 2,000 mourners attended a memorial mass held in the city's gothic cathedral. Many celebrities attended the funeral including Princess Diana, Elton John, Versace's favorite supermodel, Naomi Campbell, and Maurice Bejart. Versace's fashion colleagues paid their respects, including his archrival Giorgio Armani. Versace's companion Antonio D'Amico also attended.
The three Versace siblings controlled the company, with Gianni owning 45 percent, Santo 35 percent, and Donatella 20 percent. She had taken over more of the designing in the last five years of her brother's life because of his bout with cancer of the ear. Four days before his murder, Versace signed a contract to take his company public. Versace left his shares in the company, worth a reported $800 million, to his 11-year-old niece, Allegra, and a $28,500 monthly allowance to his companion.
In her book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, journalist Maureen Orth claimed that Versace had the AIDS virus when he was murdered. The Versace family won a legal battle in 1998 to exclude the designer's medical history from the police report on the crime. The family called the allegation in Orth's book an invasion of privacy and a "scurrilous attack on the reputation of someone who was a victim of a horrible crime and is not here to defend himself."
Robin Givhan wrote of Versace in the Washington Post, "Designer Gianni Versace is being mourned by the fashion industry as a fallen titan. Before Versace, there were no supermodels, no celebrities at shows and in advertising, no screaming fans. Fashion was not entertainment, it was merely clothes. … Over time, his work was celebrated not only in fashion annals for its brashness but also in museums because of the ways it reflected the culture and re-energized the Old World artistry of the … seamstress of the couture. … Versace understood the importance of marketing. He loved celebrities and knew that they not only attracted the attention of the press, but they also helped to set trends."
An exhibition celebrating the major themes of Gianni Versace's career in high fashion took place at The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from December 11, 1997 to March 22, 1998. The exhibition began with "Versace: The Landmarks," a mini-retrospective of the designer's major themes, including the prints, the white suit on the cover of Time magazine on April 17, 1995, and Elizabeth Hurley's safety-pin dress. In the second gallery, the theme "Versace and Art" traced his inspirations from Warhol and modern abstract art. The third and largest gallery, "Versace and History" revealed his appreciation of ancient Greece and Rome, Byzantine crosses, madonnas, 18th-century court-style silhouettes, and 1920s and 1930s themes of the Vienna Secession, Vionnet, and Madame Grès. "Versace and Experiment" in the fourth gallery presented new materials, including plastic dresses, leather, including the 1992 "bondage" collection, and the metal-mesh dresses. The final gallery, "Versace: The Dream," featured clothing for the theater. Richard Martin, curator of The Costume Institute called the exhibit an "extraordinary reckoning, a moment of assessment and farewell."
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Born: Reggio Calabria, Italy, 2 December 1946. Education: Studied architecture, Calabria, 1964-67. Family: Brother Santo, sister Donatella, and four nieces and nephews. Career: Designer and buyer in Paris and London, for his mother's dressmaking studio, 1968-72; freelance designer, Callaghan, Complice, Genny, Milan, 1972-77; formed own company, Milan, 1978; showed first womenswear collection, 1978, first menswear collection, 1979; signature fragrance introduced, 1981; home furnishings collection launched, 1993; launched Blonde fragance and opened New York flagship store, 1996; introduced V2 diffusion line for 1997; firm continued after his death by siblings Donatella and Santo; Donatella took over designing duties, 1997; formed joint venture with Sunland Group for luxury hotels, 1999; plans to take the firm public, 2001-02. Exhibitions: Galleria Rizzardi, Milan, 1982; Studio La Cittá, Verona, 1983; Galerie Focus, Munich, 1983; Gianni Versace: dialogues de mode, Palais Galliera, Paris, 1986; retrospective, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1992-93; Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. Awards: Occhio d'Oro award, Milan, 1982, 1984, 1990, 1991; Cutty Sark award, 1983, 1988; CFDA International award, 1993. Died: 15 July 1997, in Miami, Florida. Company Address: Via Gesu, 20121 Milan, Italy. Company Website: www.versace.it.
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"The Renaissance of Gianni Versace," in the Economist, 7 April 2001.***
Gianni Versace's work was both metaphorical opera and real clothing, the first in its larger-than-life exuberance and design bravura and the latter in its unpretentious, practical application to the comfort of the wearer and the expressiveness of the body. Versace made all the world a stage for flamboyant and fascinating costume with the knowledgeable pageantry of the Renaissance, a Fellini-like sensuality of burlesque, and the brilliant notes of operatic color and silhouette. Richly cultivated in historical materials and vividly committed to the hedonism of late 20th-century culture, Versace created distinctive, at-the-edge designs that achieved the aesthetic limit of the avant-garde and the commercial success of viable apparel.
Versace expressed his admiration for Poiret, the fashion revolutionary who in a brief éclat of design genius combined a theatrical fantasy with legerdemain eclecticism. Similarly, Versace functioned as a kind of impresario to his own style, commanding authority over his image and advertising, menswear, womenswear, and accessories. His apparel design was characterized by a particular interest in bias, itself a means of revealing the body in dramatic, sexy clothing for women. His embroideries (and metal mesh) harkened back to the art déco, but were as mod as magazine covers. Likewise, his fascination with black-and-white grids and alternations recalled the 1920s and 1930s.
His abundant swathings suggested Vionnet, Madame Grés, and North Africa. Line was important, with many Versace suits, dresses, and coats marked by lines as if the bound edges of fabric would in outline define waistlines, shoulders, or center front. Like any great showman on stage, Versace was also concerned with metamorphic clothing; that which could be worn or perceived in several different ways. In these respects, it is clear the Milanese designer looked to Tokyo as well as to Milan and Paris. His metallics, trousers for women (ranging from voluminous pantaloons to cigarette-trouser leg wrappings), leather for women, and chunky, glittery accessories have created an image of women as a cross between Amazon and siren.
The boldness of silhouette in his womenswear was only reinforced in his work with photographers to represent the clothing, generally against a pure white field to grant further starkness and aggressiveness. But, in person and in the individual item, Versace's clothing was far less diva and dominatrix than it might seem. Versace's jewel-like colors, his geometric line in pattern, his recurrent fascination with the asymmetrical collars engendered by bias, and his flamboyant juxtapositions of pattern were all elegant traits. Likewise, Versace employed luxurious textiles, classical references, bias cut, and such combinations as leather reversible to wool, and embroidery-encrusted bodies and soft flowing skirts, to his unmistakable fashion.
Versace's menswear was also accented by leather, body wrapping for sensuality, audacious silhouette, and oversizing for comfort. Even in menswear, Versace played with asymmetry and the bias-influenced continuous rotation around the body, rather than a disjunctive front and back. Versace's menswear in particular was sometimes criticized as being futuristic with its big shoulders and technological detailing seeming to suggest science fiction. Yet Versace employed the most elegant menswear materials in a loose, capacious drape defying any space-age references. His designs did, however, recall a futurist ideal of clothing fully realized for the first time with sensuality and practicality.
Versace was an encyclopedist of classical tradition. His insistence upon directing all aspects of his fashion, from publicity and his books to the exhibitions interpreting his work reflected a consummate craftsman. Versace was neither a secluded scholastic, though, nor merely the glittery dresser of stars and celebrities some have perceived. The truth was somewhere in between, in a design imagination of brilliant theatrical insight, probing and analytical interest in bias, and a desire to reconcile the use of fashion history with making apparel appropriate for today.
After overcoming cancer of the lymph nodes, Versace was facing life with renewed vigor. Yet on the morning of 15 July 1997, a gunman named Andrew Cunanan, after a multi-state killing spree, shot Versace on the steps of his Miami home. The fashion industry united in outrage and grief and Versace stores were shuttered for a day in his memory. Donatella and Santo vowed to carry on in their brother's name, releasing a statement that read, "It must be remembered that Gianni Versace stood for the future, and so, of course, we stand dedicated to the future of our company." And so they soldiered on, building the Versace business to new heights amidst the tragedy.
By the year 2000, three years after Gianni's death, the Versace empire had been reorganized, streamlined, and poised for a possible initial public offering. Though Gianni was prepared to take the firm public in 1997, the plans had been tabled after his death. On the design front, Donatella's expertise grew with each succeeding collection, maintaing the Versace sensationalism and colorful style. In addition to the evolving apparel and accessories offered with the Versace label, the firm's name became associated with luxury hotels and resorts through an alliance with the Sunland Group. Gianni's former South Beach home in Miami, was also turned into a hotel.
updated by Sydonie Benét
The House of Versace
Gianni Versace was considered by many as one of the most influential and vibrant fashion designers in the world by mixing low-end and high-end culture. He made splashy, sexy, sometimes outrageous clothes that were favored by rock stars and others among the young, rich, and famous. He was the first Italian fashion designer to disclose living a homosexual lifestyle and, as a result, often was the target of ridicule and contempt. Versace weathered it all and, at the time of his death, was at his peak and had turned his clothing lines into a billion-dollar fashion empire.
Gianni Versace was born on December 2, 1946, in Reggio Calabria, Italy, the son of an appliance salesman and a dressmaker. From a young age, Versace loved playing in his mother's workroom, where he made puppets from scraps of cloth. At the age of nine, Versace designed his first dress from these same scraps. Versace was always close to his sister Donatella, a self-described "rock-'n'-roll girl." The pair often sneaked out to discos, where 11-year-old Donatella would model Versace's leather mini-skirts. She continued to serve as his muse throughout his career. Versace was vacationing in Miami Beach with his partner of 14 years, Antonio D'Amico, when he was murdered on the steps of his home by serial killer Andrew Cunanan.
Never formally trained in fashion design, Versace studied architectural drafting at the Reggio Calabria technical school while working for his mother as a part-time buyer. He began creating designs for a local clothes maker at the age of 22, which attracted the attention of a manufacturer who offered the young man a job in the Italian fashion capital of Milan. In 1972, he began designing ready-to-wear fashions for three prestigious Milan clothing firms: Complice, Genny, and Callaghan.
Versace struck out on his own in 1976, when he started designing his first women's wear collection. This collection debuted at a Milan fashion show in 1978 and the sexy, brightly colored clothes appealed almost immediately to those who sought youthful luxury. Versace explained his approach to menswear in Rolling Stone by saying, "The success I've had . . . is because people no longer want to look as if they all belong to the same club—that whole Ralph Lauren philosophy. The man I design for is against anything that makes him look stiff. . . . My clothes are very negligent, very nonchalant. A tie for me is a symbol of everything that is boring and old-fashioned."
Versace's designs for women were sometimes simply outrageously sexy, such as his famous 1982 metal mesh dress that put the designer on the cover of Women's Wear Daily. Ten years later, his fall 1992 collection featured leather bondage dresses. Richard Martin, director of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, told Time, "Versace is so important because he put sexuality first. Designers have always looked to the street; he looked to the streetwalker. He was transfiguring the prostitute as [the painter] Toulouse-Lautrec did in the late 1880s." Versace did design more conservative garments as well as these shocking designs; the latter made headlines, while the former accounted for half of his sales.
Writing for Business Week, John Rossant commented that "no other major fashion house in the world is so closely identified with the lifestyle of its marquee-name designer." Versace mixed business with pleasure, giving outrageous parties for his celebrity friends and clients, among whom were Elton John, Madonna, George Michael, Courtney Love, Sylvester Stallone, Sting, and Princess Diana. His four splendid homes (in New York City, Milan, Lake Como, and especially his $6.2 million estate named Casa Casuarina in Miami Beach) frequently were featured in glossy photo spreads in magazines such as Interior Design and Metropolitan Home. Versace's fashion shows, often costing as much as $500,000, were highly theatrical events in which music was very important. At the opening of his flagship fashion boutique in New York City in 1996, Elton John and Jon Bon Jovi served as the house band. Versace loved orchestrating all of these exotic events; Forbes quoted him as saying, "I am a completely happy man. . . . I live in an ivory control tower." Versace also was known to be hard working and home loving; he began work at six in the morning and preferred to dine at home. His friend Janie Samet told Time that the designer said, "things are always better at home."
Versace was gunned down near his estate in Miami Beach on July 15, 1997 by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. Although Versace's image and creative genius were a vital part of his company, it was predicted that the company would survive the loss of its creator. Over 2,000 mourners gathered at his funeral at the Duomo in Milan, along with celebrities Elton John, Naomi Campbell, Princess Diana, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and Sting. Versace was remembered as one of the most cheerful, creative, and gifted designers the fashion industry had ever known.
Social and Economic Impact
Versace was the head of a family-owned and run fashion business, The House of Versace. His older brother Santo served as the CEO; his sister Donatella served as the company's vice president and was involved in advertising and promotion, as well as designing for the Versus line. Versace's brother-in-law Paul Beck, an American and former runway model, headed the House of Versace's menswear line. As a result, the company was able to make quick decisions and turn out "flash items." These garments almost instantly answered a demand by the marketplace and were designed, manufactured, and delivered in weeks rather than the months it often took other designers. Also key to this technique was the fact that the company controlled 10 of its major suppliers. Another corporate strength was the team of able assistants that Versace created. When he was being treated for cancer of the inner ear in 1994 and 1995, the company continued to turn out its collections without deviating from the designer's vision.
Although he catered to the whims of the rich and famous, with items such as $20,000 evening gowns and $395 bath towel sets, Versace did not approach fashion with an elitist attitude. Vogue editor Hamish Bowles told Time that the designer "moved fashion into the public domain in the most strident way." Not only did he introduce elements of plastic and denim into his designs, he also made fashion a more celebrated part of pop culture. He was a recognized leader within the fashion industry and was also extremely influential in the entertainment world, as was evidenced by his receiving a VH1 Fashion and Music award in 1995.
The designer also played a part in increasing the celebrity of "supermodels." Prompted by his sister Donatella, Versace used magazine models for fashion shows; previously it had been common to use thinner runway models. In doing so, he helped to launch the careers of such supermodels as Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington.
Chronology: Gianni Versace
1968: Began designing fashions for a local clothes maker.
1976: Founded The House of Versace.
1978: Debuted his first collection of women's wear.
1984: Won third consecutive Golden Eye Awards as the best designer of women's wear for fall-winter.
1983: Received the Cutty Sark Award.
1992: Won the International Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
1995: Chosen for a VH1 Fashion and Music Award.
1996: Opened flagship fashion boutique in New York City.
1997: Was murdered in Miami Beach, Florida.
Versace was a popular, critical, and (despite his extravagant spending habits) financial success. Having worked for some 20 years in the industry, he had created a billion-dollar fashion empire. After beginning with women's ready-to-wear, Versace expanded into menswear, jeans, and housewares. His clothing lines included Versace, Versace Atelier, Istante, Versus, Versace Jeans Couture, and V2. The designer also created theater, ballet, and opera costumes. At the time of his death in 1997, the family was planning to make an initial public offering of stock so that it could finance further growth. The House of Versace was becoming a "global" brand and hoped to double its sales by the year 2000. These advances put Versace in close range of his Italian rival Giorgio Armani, who made $1.2 billion in sales in 1996.
Sources of Information
Contact at: The House of Versace
Via Manzoni 38
Milan 20121 Italy
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Gianni Versace, 1946–97, Italian fashion designer, b. Reggio Calabria. A dressmaker's son, Versace worked for several Italian designers before opening (1978) his own Milan studio in partnership with his brother Santo and sister Donatella. He became famous for designing flashy, sexy, beautifully cut outfits in strikingly extreme colors, patterns, fabrics, and leathers. His fashion empire eventually encompassed men's, women's and children's clothing, accessories, jewelry, perfume, and housewares, included some 130 boutiques worldwide, and had annual sales that exceeded $800 million. Versace merged the worlds of fashion and entertainment; his lavish shows were pop-culture events, and he drew inspiration from contemporary street life, art, and films as well as art and design history. Emminently theatrical, he also designed for the stage, opera, and ballet. He was murdered on the steps of his Miami Beach, Fla., mansion by a fugitive serial killer. His sister succeeded him as his company's chief designer.
See biography by L. Turner (1998); museum catalogs ed. by R. Martin (1998) and V. Claire and M. Wilcox (2002).