Gianni Versace: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

  • November 5, 2018

On the 15th of July, 1997, Gianni Versace, one of the world’s most successful fashion designers, woke up in his Miami beach mansion called Casa Casaurina. Every morning, Versace’s assistant would run out to pick up his coffee, but this morning was different. He decided to get it himself, walking to a nearby café on the famous Ocean Drive, picking up the latest magazine issues and morning papers along the way. Upon arriving home, Versace was met out front by a young man named Andrew Cunanan. When Andrew called out his name, Versace turned around a saw the face of his killer. He died that morning at Jackson Memorial Hospital at 9:21 AM, leaving behind a company worth $800 million, 130 boutiques around the world, and an important fashion legacy.

For the last twenty years, many have longed to unmask Cunanan’s motives in killing Versace. He was most recently portrayed by Darren Criss in Ryan Murphy’s Emmy-award winning miniseries American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace as a young man filled with disillusion, jealous of the life of glamour Versace led as one of fashion’s top dogs. The designer was portrayed by actor Edgar Ramirez in the series that ignited a new obsession for Gianni Versace amongst today’s youth. Since its release, many have sought out to learn about his history and contributions to the fashion world. Before the dark cloud of Cunanan’s infamous killing spree (with a total body count of eight other people) casted over the House of Versace, there was man who created garments that contributed to culture as we know it.

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Late fashion designer Gianni Versace
Late fashion designer Gianni Versace
Casa Casuarina, Gianni Versace's Miami Beach mansion (Photograph courtesy of extravaganzi.com)
Casa Casuarina, Gianni Versace’s Miami Beach mansion (Photograph courtesy of extravaganzi.com)

Sewing with Mom

In the height of Versace’s fame, he and his partner, model Antonio D’Amico, were staples of the international party scene. The two were seen jet-setting between Milan to Miami, Paris and New York, attending only the most glamorous and exclusive of events. Versace was popular amongst the celebrity crowd, rubbing elbows with the likes of Princess Diana and Elton John. He also had homes all over the world, a far cry from his humble youth at Reggio Calabria, Italy.

Born in 1946, he grew up at the southern province as the son of a dressmaker named Francesca. Like most male fashion designers expressing themselves in the early 1950s, Versace was criticized in school because of his passion for making dresses. He was also a homosexual. Instead of shaming his son, Francesca allowed Gianni to join her team of 12 seamstresses, so that he would be able to hone his craft. Inside their small atelier, a future fashion legend was in the making.

It was also at Reggio Calabria where Versace’s influence for ancient Greek mythology and culture began. His home was filled with structures and art work from the ancient period and it would eventually be evident in most of his work. For instance, the Versace logo is that of the Medusa head. Another recurring theme in his work is the Greek Key, a decorative border defined by straight lines inspired by walls of a labyrinth. Later on, he would also sight the modernist painters of the 1960s such as Andy Warhol and Roy Liechtenstein as influences in his design.

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A vintage ad for Gianni Versace, circa 1980s. The designer had a penchant for bold colors and sexy silhouettes.
A vintage ad for Gianni Versace, circa 1980s. The designer had a penchant for bold colors and sexy silhouettes
Gianni Versace with his sister Donatella
Gianni Versace with his sister Donatella

Family Ties Matter

At the age of 26, Versace left his town for Milan to pursue a career in fashion. He was eventually employed to be a designer for Genny’s, a manufacturer of ready-to-wear clothing. His work with Genny’s led to more unique and experimental clothing that was popular amongst the Milan fashion crowd. Because of his new found success, Versace decided to branch out on his own. After a successful solo show, he opened his first Milan boutique at 1978, filling the walls with garments in bold colors and sexy silhouettes. He was an instant smash hit, lauded by both fashion critics and regular women, who were obsessed with his provocative style.

As Versace’s success began to rise, he decided that he needed a strong team around him that would protect the company’s name and his vision. He looked no further than his siblings, hiring his brother Santo as the president of the enterprise, while sister Donatella would act as Vice President. Versace’s relationship with Donatella would become of vital importance in his growth as a designer, and for the Versace brand in general. Donatella wasn’t his right hand and confidant, but also his muse. She and Versace would discuss everything, from their personal lives to the company’s growth. Donatella, who was given only an organizational position at the beginning, also showed a passion for design. Gianni was more than happy to mentor her, and allow her wings to spread. Later, Donatella would succeed him as the company’s chief designer after his death, protecting his vision and aesthetic till this day.

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Linda Evangalist in Versace for Vogue Italia
Linda Evangalist in Versace for Vogue Italia
Naomi Campbella and Kristen McMenamy appearing in a Versace campaign in 1993
Naomi Campbella and Kristen McMenamy appearing in a Versace campaign in 1993

Defining Vogue

Versace’s empire was defined by the sexuality it oozed. The designer was unafraid of suggestive outfits, dressing men and women as if they were “sexual objects”. His attention grabbing clothing contrasted to the work of other designers of the period, who preferred straight cuts and flowy silhouettes. His penchant for revealing clothing and bright colors carried him all throughout the 80s and well into the 1990s. One of his major contributions to the fashion world was in 1982, when he invented Oroton, a light textile reminiscent of medieval amour. This would eventually become a recurring theme in many of his collections.

He was also said to have invented the idea of the “super model”. Versace loved using girls like Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell in his shows, and would eventually ask them to appear in his campaigns as well. As their faces appeared on billboards and magazines around the world, their fame skyrocketed side by side with Versace’s. This made the designer very popular amongst celebrities who wanted to be in his inner circle. Soon, Versace’s fashion shows were filled with super models, musicians, actors, filmmakers, royalty, and socialites at the front row.

Despite general popularity, it wasn’t always good publicity for Versace. Many criticized his work for being too overtly sexual, bordering to the style of a streetwalker. In 2005, Giorgio Armani, who had a lifelong feud with Versace, was interviewed by the UK’s Sunday Times Magazine. He said that Gianni has once told him, “I dress sluts. You dress church ladies.” Donatella Versace was displeased with Armani’s comments, retaliating by the telling the media that he was “rude and tasteless.”

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A editorial in Vogue featuring the designs of Gianni Versace
A editorial in Vogue featuring the designs of Gianni Versace
Gianni Versace is one of fashion's all time great designers
Gianni Versace is one of fashion’s all time great designers

An All-Time Great

By 1982, the Versace brand really took off with its expansion to jewelry, luxury furnishing, china, perfume and textiles. Versace was becoming a name to reckon with in both the fashion world and in entrepreneurship. The premier of his haute couture line Atelier Versace catapulted yet again. During his free time away from the pages of Vogue and the limelight’s of Paris and Milan, Versace regularly created costumes for the stage, ballet and opera. He said that theater “liberated him” and he found joy in doing these artistic projects with a story.

Versace’s life ended quite abruptly when he was murdered by Andrew Cunanan on the steps of his Miami estate. At only 50 years old, it is unimaginable what heights the Italian designer would have reached if he had lived. In 1997, the year he died, Versace was still a top name in fashion, and his $800 million fortune reflected his power in the industry. “I have a fantastic relationship with money. I use it to buy my freedom,” he was said to have stated. However, Versace had a secret, months before his death, he was diagnosed with ear cancer. The designer did not disclose this information to anybody.

Versace’s big personality, work ethic, and interest in both good fashion and good business makes him a model for any young designer looking to find success. “I want to be a designer of my time,” he once said. Surely, despite the horrific event that ended his life, Mr. Versace is somewhere in another realm, smiling, and proud that he has grown to become more than a designer of his time, but one of the all-time greats.

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