Remembering Gianni Versace
It’s been twenty years since the senseless murder of Gianni Versace, a day that will always be etched in the minds of the fashion community. The late designer revolutionized fashion with his hybrid blend of ‘high glamour meets rock and roll.’
Gianni Versace passed away on July 15, 1997 outside of his mansion, Casa Casuarina, in South Beach, Miami. He was shot to death by deranged killer Andrew Cunanan. The fashion world was in shock as the infamous party boy, always flocked by his super-model crew, died in such a tragic and horrific way. Fashion lost its playful innocence and the fantasy world of fashion was shattered.
Gianni’s impact on fashion and pop culture is undeniable. He was at the forefront of reinventing fashion as a glamorous feast on a global scale. He surrounded himself with celebrity royalty – Madonna, Sting, Bon Jovi, George Michael and Hugh Grant – they all attended his extravaganza runway shows. Supermodels fought to walk his shows – he had all the greats – Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, to name a few.
Gianni’s looks were sexy and seductive. His body hugging creations were worn by his supermodel friends and celebrities as they partied the night away. Gianni’s skill was to connect raunchy sex with couture audacity – like his iconic safety pin dress, which was catapulted into fashion history by Liz Hurley.
Gianni was born on December 2, 1946, in Reggio Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot. Like many of the great designers, Gianni came from a modest background. His father Antonio was a local coal merchant, his mother Francesca sewed dresses for the elite townswomen, and Gianni made his first dress – a blue one-shoulder evening gown – at the age of nine. Some forty years later, Princess Diana wore a version of that creation.
After studying architecture, Gianni moved to Milan and spent 10 years working for a variety of mainstream labels, before he came to attention in the late 1970’s when he staged his first signature show in the Palazzo della Permanente in Milan.
From the start, Gianni’s clothes were ground-breaking ; his mix of fabrics were unique and cutting edge – he was known for pairing leather and lace with metal, studs and Swarovski crystals. At the time, mixing all these elements was inconceivable. Gianni also had a keen eye for color and worked with rich sherbet colors. He was a master draper and often referenced the Grecian goddess gowns of Madame Grès as well as Madeleine Vionnet’s bias cut designs that accentuated the body to perfection.
Gianni’s true genius was in the form of branding. His logo – the Medusa head and the Grecian frieze – became his trademark. Everyone knew the Versace symbol. It was everywhere from his clothing to his lingerie from his bedding to his fine China.
His business grew incredibly fast, creating a fortune large enough to afford his private palazzo on Via Gesù and his magnificent Villa Fontanelle on Lake Como – all containing his eclectic mix of ancient Greek and Roman statuary, Renaissance furniture and modern art.
Gianni was openly gay, living publicly with loyal partner Antonio D’Amico, during a time 20 years ago when many homosexuals were still in the closet. He greatly valued family, which appealed to traditional Italian famiglia ideas. Gianni’s brother Santo ran the commercial side, while little sister Donatello designed the diffusion line, Versus.
At his infamous Miami mansion, friends like Anna Wintour would come to stay with her family and picnic on the beach. But also party animals like Whitney Huston and Bobby Brown would attend Gianni’s legendary parties – and boy did Gianni and his elite friends know how to party! Gianni transitioned from designer to celebrity and attracted the world of Hollywood and music. Being a celebrity comes with a price; you are a target. On the tragic morning of July 15, 1997, Gianni was off on a coffee run and regrettably met his death, shot down by Andrew Cunanan, a failed dreamer who had met Gianni seven years before – when the designer dressed the San Francisco Opera – and felt deep resentment towards him.
His funeral packed out Milan’s great cathedral, Il Duomo. Princess Diana arrived to pay her respects and the entire fashion industry came to pay homage, as well as Hollywood and musical royalty. Within just six weeks, Princess Diana would die in a fatal car accident. Two fashion icons gone in the summer of 1997.
After Gianni was murdered, it was announced that Donatella would become creative director, with a 20 per cent share of the business, and Santo was appointed CEO, with a 30 percent share. (Donatella’ daughter Allegra, who was eleven at the time, was left a 50 percent stake, which she assumed control over on her 18th birthday).
The Versace brand has had its many ups and downs, but today, Gianni’s aesthetic is apparent every season in fashion – with a new generation of creative directors as diverse as Christopher Kane, Riccardo Tisci, Fausto Puglisi and Olivier Rousteing all openly admitting the Versace inspiration, while a new wave of contemporary music icons, including Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj have fallen for the brand all over again.
Donatella has been busy designing the brand while watching her children grow. Her daughter Allegra has caught the fashion bug as she is working on Versus, which has been reborn as a hothouse of fledgling talent, bringing in young design stars like Christopher Kane, Jonathan Anderson and Anthony Vaccarello, each of whom has gone on to achieve international success in their own right.
This past February, Donatella announced that she has lured Riccardo Tisci as creative director for Versace, a very smart move; after all, Tisci is responsible for all the great success at Givenchy. Retailers, fashion editors and bloggers everywhere are holding their breath waiting to see what Tisci brings to the legendary house of Versace.