It is a sad irony that Gianni Versace was gunned down in front of his house on Ocean Drive, the main drag of Miami’s South Beach that has become a mecca for the hangers-on, bit players and stars of the fashion world. The campy Art Deco strip is a spirited mix of flash and cash, history and hedonism, and between its extremes of the chic and the vulgar, there is no better environment for Versace’s designs.
After starting his own label in 1978, Versace grabbed the limelight with his now-legendary chain-mail dress. It gave clear signals to the direction his work would take—the technical proficiency, the innovative use of unusual fabrications and the deification of the female form. But his work was most clearly defined by an in-your-face celebration of sexual fantasy: leather bondage straps from which elegant evening gowns hung, naughty-punk schoolgirls safety-pinned into kilts and candy-colored baby-doll dresses, all with the requisite high heels.
For this he was lionized and criticized. As the man who helped spawn the supermodel phenomenon of the early ’90s after he sent a chorus line of glamazons down the runway arm in arm, Versace ushered in an era of unbridled glitz. That created a backlash from which fashion is still reeling. He didn’t even pretend to dress the working woman unless she was in the business of becoming Mrs. Sylvester Stallone or nabbing a cosmetics contract. He upped the ante for glamor, sexiness and physical perfection to almost burlesque proportions, which was great for the paparazzi but a standard real women found difficult to meet.
But this excess, plus his love of gold hardware and Greco-roman motifs—he emblazoned his trademark Medusa heads on everything from sunglasses to jeans to plates—was right for a moment when too much was never enough. While Giorgio Armani retreated behind a discreet wall of good taste and Karl Lagerfeld distanced himself with his hand-held fans and intellectualism, Versace was the most populist of the three Euro-
pean superpowers. The one thing that the much-maligned 1995 film Showgirls got right was the fact that a Versace dress was the pot of gold at the end of stripper Nomi’s rainbow. The appeal of his sensibility was elitist pricing and quality combined with a taste level egalitarian enough to filter down. And while “Armani dressed the wife and Versace dressed the mistress,” as Holt Renfrew’s Ian Hylton puts it, in his later collections the designer moved with the times beyond his rock ’em, shock ’em leanings to a more genteel take on femininity that a client like Diana, the Princess of Wales, could buy into.
Versace provided much of the footage that turned fashion into the global spectator sport it is today. His shows were not so much runway presentations as scenes, whose heat was generated by famous bodies in close proximity. Only he could have orchestrated an event where some of the best breasts in showbiz—Mira Sorvino, Elizabeth Hurley and Salma Hayek—were positioned front-row wearing various permutations of the same red gown constructed with his signature support. Elton John, Madonna, Jon Bon Jovi and The Artist (formerly known as Prince) were just some of the glittering friendships that Versace savvily cultivated into marketing bonanzas.
Celebrity, including his own, was the currency that fuelled Versace’s billiondollar empire. He captivated the public imagination with his palatial homes and opulent lifestyle, for which he made no excuses. And this was what his esthetic was about. One knew that disgraced Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson was over his mea culpa phase when he was spotted in a trendy Toronto bar playing pool in a distinctly patterned shirt that could only be a Versace.
Suzanne Boyd is editor-in-chief of Flare magazine.
It is another sad irony that Versace’s most recent fragrance was christened The Dreamer and that the allure of the American Dream fuelled his ambitions. The fresh energy of the new world, so like that of his best runway shows, propelled his creativity and drew him to South Beach. While the Versace family has lost a loving brother and uncle and the world has lost a great talent, the world of fashion—which, unlike rock, had never suffered the violent death of an icon—has now fully lost its innocence. The show’s over, at least for this season.
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