Gianni Versace

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."

Versace Remembered

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."

Further Reading on Gianni Versace

Martin, Richard and Grace Mirabella, Versace (Universe of Fashion), Vendome Press, 1997.

Mason, Christopher, Undressed: The Life and Times of Gianni Versace, Little Brown, 1999.

Orth, Maureen, Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, Delacorte Press, 1999.

Turner, Lowri, Gianni Versace: Fashion's Last Emperor, Trans-Atlantic, 1998.

People, July 21, 1997.

Time, July 28, 1997; October 20, 1997.

"Gianni Versace (1946-1997)," The Costume Institute, (March 17, 1997).

"The Versace Story," Modaonline, (March 17, 1997).