Gianni Versace….. a fashionable life and a life in fashion
Writing this article about fashion legend Gianni Versace allows me to remember him via my own memories, call upon those who knew him and worked with him and finally to enlighten those who may not have had the pleasure of “growing up” with this brilliantly talented man. In today’s world of fashion, the modus operandi is to rarely look back and only to see what is in the present. Hopefully, this telling of the life and times of Gianni Versace will entertain and educate you about this once in a generation legendary and iconic designer as well as his influence over the past 40 years. Gianni was a gift to us all … even if you were not a fan of his clothes, his imprimatur is still felt on runways, season after season, around the world … if you can see it or dare to acknowledge it!
Gianni was born in 1946 in Italy and was always attracted to the world of fashion. It was his mother, Francesca, who opened the door and welcomed him to his eventual destiny. As with many of his peers, it was not exactly a welcomed prospect that a male wanted to enter into the arena of fashion but like so many of his counterparts of that era it was in his blood and he knew it. Gianni was in his glory when he was spending time in his mother’s shop and allowed to participate within this fantastical world that he was experiencing and exploring.
One must keep in mind that the time frame in which Gianni was maturing and evolving was an era when designers were not the marquee for a brand; it was the brand that reigned supreme and there were multitudes of great 20th century designers who operated in the shadows of a burgeoning or well established brand. Within this hierarchy or this organizational chart of designer fashion, Gianni was lucky enough to be recognized as a great talent. He was quickly scooped up by Donatella Girombelli to design for Complice, Callaghan and Genny which were brands that were experiencing meteoric popularity among the fashion crowd. It was here that he cut his teeth and slowly but surely, Gianni was becoming more well known as the force behind the brands and very very soon he and his siblings would begin what can only be deemed as the Versace legacy.
Ken Farrar, friend and confidant.. Gianni’s best feature was his honesty and his sweetness. Of course he was a genius … and like all creative people they always they have sides to them that are somewhat difficult.
By the late 70s Versace was establishing himself as an eponymous brand for both men and women. In my opinion, at the beginning of his label, the strength of the brand was in menswear as it was just the beginning of the generation in men’s fashion that was being defined by Giorgio Armani. While Armani adhered to the deconstruction and easing of the prevailing up tight men’s silhouette, Gianni set out to smash all the confines and rules of traditional menswear, whether in clothing or sportswear, by adding the element of sex! ... and it was here that these 2 designers hit the fork in the road and diverged. Gianni was paving the way for what would become part of his DNA and his vocabulary. Gianni was provocative, erotic and suggestive while Mr. Armani remained serene, discreet, and more conservative. Gianni had discovered, very simply, that sex sells!
I’m trying to break the border between chic and shock … G.V.
And within a very short period of time Gianni rocked the fashion world with his brazen and in your face creations. He redefined a generation of designer fashions for men and women. He drew his references from the underground world of fetish wear, pop culture and from the highest echelons of terminally chic fabric patterns a la the house Hermes. It is rarely, if ever, publicized that when Gianni formed a partnership of sorts with the house of Ratti, it was then that Gianni and his designs became as ubiquitous any top tier designer. It was at that point that he was thrust into and exploded in the world of major players and it was then that people took notice of what he presented and what he espoused. It was fashion on his terms. (it was also then that he was one of the most imitated and copied of designers)
Susanna Laurie ... model … Although I did some print work for him I really looked forward to his shows. They were a great reflection of women in the Eighty's. Sexy power dressing for empowered and self-assured girls.
During these formative years, you must be aware that always by his side was his ever faithful sister, Donatella and his older, wiser and much more level headed brother Santo who oversaw the business end of the growing fashion empire. Gianni, like all great designers wasn’t interested in how much it cost as long as he got what he wanted and that included the wildly extravagant homes, advertising budgets including Avedon as your house photographer or having 40 or 50 models prance down a runway ... and I mean the likes of Claudia and Marpessa, Alda, Susannah, Christie, Linda, Hoyt, Tony Spinelli and their ilk. Gianni was a master of hype and as stated, in your face moments. All of this added to the S&M overtones and the inclusion of the house logo, the medusa head, and you have the making of some of the sexiest and some might say trashiest clothes to ever hit a cat walk.
Alda Balestra (model) remembers Gianni.. I arrived as a shy provincial girl to see him for the first time….he told me…”.we are having a show in a few hours…would you like to be in it? I smiled and I said of course YES …. And asked….what shall I do in your show? His answer….”just be yourself…do whatever you like” ….. so I did…..I ran though the runway instead of walking (that took care of my shyness and probably clumsiness in walking ) and then I took the scarf and the silk belt and whatever was kind of something very childish to do….but people liked it and so did Gianni
Gianni was true to his words and true to his philosophies until the day he died. He married music to fashion via the likes of Elton John, Bon Jovi and Sting and he may have even been one of the first to promote and endorse celebrities wearing his fashion via his triumph of supplying Elizabeth Hurley with that safety pin dress. It was during this time that he also coined what was to become one of the most hackneyed, and most overused and misunderstood moniker of fashion … that is term of supermodel! Gianni was a visionary in many ways and as stated, whether you were a fan of his designs or not, you had to give him the respect and credit he so rightfully deserved.
I hate designers who live in an ivory tower. I think you have to be part of this culture, of this music, of our time. If you understand your time, you are a good designer… G.V.
Now would be a good time to reflect upon the influence that Gianni Versace has had over the business of fashion during the last century and into this century. Gianni did it all first, when it was taboo, when it was frowned upon or when it was misunderstood. He mixed leather and lace, he used chain maille, he used laser cut leathers and God knows he used hardware as embellishment. It is today that you can recognize that Gianni paved the way for the shock jocks of 21st century fashion i.e. Tisci, Raf, Browne, Vauthier and many more. Gianni is rarely recognized as the trailblazer that he was and that is a great deficiency within the world of fashion today. Personally, I believe that Gianni was one of the most influential and prolific designers of the 20th century and his influences and inspirations are still in play within today’s business of fashion, acknowledged or not!
Hoyt Richards… model, friend.. I worked for Gianni in the mid-80s. He was one of the first big campaigns I did out of Italy. I got to work with Richard Avedon, Claus Wickrath, etc. It was really my first introduction into the “big time” of working European A-list designers, photographers and models. It was a little surreal. I was just a kid right out of college and there I was working beside Cindy Crawford, Paulina Portzikova and the likes. I was all a little surreal. His fashion shows were always epic - it was like spectacular theater.
As is the wont of fashion, the tides were changing and the overall scope and look of fashion was morphing which pushed Gianni out of the white hot spotlight but he never lost faith and never quit believing in his concepts and visions of fashion. In retrospect, the spotlight shone brightly on him and his collections for 20 years and in fashion speak, that is a few lifetimes, not to mention an amazing accomplishment. Unfortunately, with all this attention came the downside which is the opening of closets with their skeletons and family dynamics/secrets were being aired like dirty laundry. Gianni’s lifestyle came under scrutiny, whether it was his lavish spending habits, his choice of companions or the less than lady like habits of his increasingly caricatured and very naughty sister. There is a price to pay for fame and they all paid it as their lives went under the microscope for all to see.
At the time of Gianni’s death in 1997, the business was greatly and firmly established within the continuum of fashion albeit that it might have lost some of its luster, the name Versace would never be forgotten due to all that it encompassed and for all of its contributions during his lifetime. What happens next is one of the greatest fears of any hugely recognized eponymous fashion company and that is who would succeed the namesake designer… and so we get to the continuing saga of Versace.. the brand! The most telling event after his demise was that the company was inherited by his niece and not his sister or brother and no designer was named to succeed him.
There has been great speculation about the future of Versace, the brand, and in my opinion it was and still is all very much warranted. Without being a fly on the wall, it is difficult to postulate what really transpired between Donatella and Gianni and therefore harder to ascertain whether or not she is even vaguely qualified for the job as a replacement for her late brother. She herself has said many times she is not a designer!
She may be a stylist but certainly she is no designer, as I see it, with no technical skills and increasingly I find very little of her output that can be considered tasteful. Then again, if your tastes lean toward mistresses of oligarchs, call girls or boys who sell their wares in the shadows of the night, you might have struck gold! She has yet to find her footing in women’s collections and she surely doesn’t have a handle on men’s. It is difficult to come out of the shadows from her late brother but the reality is that she needs a lot of help whether it be in the women’s or men’s collections.
Her men’s collections tend to bear more of the Gianni esthetic but then when she steers it off course it just all goes to hell and to the ghetto. In order for a brand to be a true success, the clothes must sell but who would buy these clothes. If Donatella thinks the success of a show is based on male beefcake, she might win a prize but is all so blatant, so forced and sex for the sake of sex. Gianni had a way of massaging your mindset and his strengths so that you could understand what he showed while Signora Versace beats you with a sledge hammer and leaves you dazed and confused; it is all so gratuitous.
She exercises this same kind of hubris in her women’s collections, haute couture included, and with not much more success. Signora needs to step back and, in doing so, bring the brand back to its luster and that requires a more passive design role for her which I feel is not in the cards due to ego.
No matter, the future of the brand, what can be learned is that Gianni was abundantly talented, good natured, a dedicated family man, loyal and a showman. His archive is a treasure to behold and should be utilized to further his legacy in a much more constructive way rather than in this caricatured GaGa sort of way. The clothes once had a chic about them, they had a style and no matter how in your face they were, they were never cheap and low class looking. Gianni was above all a ringleader not a sheep and always the provocateur and not the punch line for a dirty joke! He expanded our visual fashion vocabulary with more lasting effect than many other createurs from his era. He was a star builder as well as a mentor and without hesitation, I can say that everyone I spoke with about Gianni adored him and that’s quite a testament to him as designer, employer, friend and brother!