“Excess is entertaining, eccentricity stimulating. Only one rule applies, spontaneity.”
Gianni Versace, Signatures
On 2 December 1946 Nino and Francesca Versace welcomed their second child. They named him Giovanni Maria, Giovanni – for his maternal grandfather and Maria for Nino’s sister. Gianni as they called him already had a brother, Santo, who was born two years earlier and Donatella – nine years after.
The family lived in Reggio di Calabria, the largest city of the Calabria region, the boot-shaped peninsula in the south of the country, surrounded by mountains that separate it from the rest of Italy.
Not many people lived there, many emigrated back in 1800s, two-thirds were killed during an earth-quake in 1908 and some left the region in the early 1950s following the first signs of a post-war boom. Those who stayed were touch, hard-working and old-fashioned folks with incredibly strong family ties and values.
Nino and Franca Versace were a hard-working bunch, so by the mid 1950s they could afford some little luxuries including a spacious apartment, a car and a television, one of the very first in the city. While Nino Versace was selling gas canisters, refrigerators and washing machines, Franca became known as Reggio’s best dressmaker who created beautiful custom made clothes for the city’s most elegant ladies. Needless to say that her own children were among the best dressed. She opened a small boutique, bought patterns from the emerging couture houses in Rome and hired a few women who could help her make the dresses.
Gianni never went to fashion school nor was particularly bothered when it came to getting degrees or passing exams. His mothers workshop provided him with inspirations and tought him the skills he was after. The rest didn’t really matter. At first, little Gianni was allowed to play with the offcuts of fabric, which most visitors found adorable. At the age of nine, however, he designed his very first dress, a one-shouldered velvet evening gown.
A few years later his mother trusted his taste so much that Gianni was allowed to travel to Messina and choose new fabrics. He spent hours and hours in the atelier, flicking through numerous fashion magazines and sketching. His dream world was far away from Reggio. Paris was calling Gianni’s name. He stayed in Reggio until the age of twenty-five working for his mother in a boutique she opened next to her atelier, polishing his tailoring skills, learning how to sell, attending fashion shows and discovering exciting brands including Laura Biagiotti, Missoni, Krizia and Chloe. While in Paris, he met young Lagerfeld and the two became life-long friends.
The shop was flourishing, but for Gianni it wasn’t enough. He wanted more. His dream was to design his own clothes. He started bringing his sketches to fashion shows he attended and one day got attention from a knitting company called Florentine Flowers. He was offered a job. On 5 February 1972 he finally boarded a plane and set off to Tuscany.
Gianni Versace was hired by Salvatore Chiodini and Ezio Nicosia, the agent and owner of Florentine Flowers who were then looking for fresh ideas. Versace successfully designed an autumn/winter collection for the brand and made a new move. His next stop was Parisini of Santa Margherita followed by Callaghan in Novara, Alma in Bareggio and, in 1973, Genny and Complice. He worked very hard, leaving very little time for anything else, growing tired of being a hired designer. It paid off.
On March 28 1978 his own very first Gianni Versace Donna collection was shown at the Palazzo della Permanente, a contemporary art museum in Milan. The collection had a floral, romantic feel and also included leather trench coats softened by wool fabrics of the skirts decorated with delicate silk and chiffon petals. Although the collection wasn’t a huge hit among the press to begin with, both Italian and French Vogue picked the trench coats to use in their editorials a few months later.
The next few years were spent on creating the signature Versace style. Gianni tried mixing the fabrics, designed collections in Renaissance style and then something very modern, almost Japanese origami-like. He wasn’t satisfied.
All the time he wanted perfection, something modern and fresh but also something that would make history. He felt that he wasn’t there to create complicated silhouettes or spend too much time playing with hemlines. He wanted new patterns and new fabrics, too.
In 1982 he designed a fabric that not only won him a series of L’Occhio d’Oro awards for Best Womenswear Designer, but also put him firmly on the fashion map.
The Oroton chain mail was a remarkable invention. the fabric that made the body look as if it was covered in liquid gold was a fine light mesh that would mould to every curve.
He moved to lace, leather and silk – one of his favourite fabrics and was the first designer who used denim in a couture collection. His own style was emerging – a bold, extravagant and lavish glamour that’s so easily recognisable.
Versace clothes were also known for their ability to compliment the body and make women look and feel their best celebrating their curves in a most sensuous manner.
Every collection was presented by supermodels – a phenomenon also invented by Gianni Versace. The Trinity, Linda, Naomi and Christy, followed by Cindy, Helena, Tatiana, Carla, Claudia and Nadège would appear on a catwalk as epitome of gorgeousness. Most of them were editorial models who didn’t do catwalk, but Gianni and Donatella merged the two together creating a new concept.
He never made his models adopt a new look as seasons change. Instead Versace polished their own, adding charisma and glamour to the natural beauty. He paid them enormous amount of money (as much as $50000 for a show compared to £1000 an average catwalk model would earn during entire Milan fashion week) and treated each girl like a queen who stayed in the best hotels and had exclusive access to parties, dinners, spas and private jets. He remembered their birthdays and always sent them surprise gifts and kind notes. He turned fashion models into celebrities and they made his clothes even more desirable.
Versace fashion was craved by those who wanted or needed to be noticed. His clients (some of whom also became his friends) included Elton John, Princess Diana, Sylvester Stallone, Madonna, Sting and Trudie Styler, Demi Moore and Hugh Grant. Liz Hurley, Grant’s girlfriend became famous overnight after she wore infamous pin dress to a premier of Four Weddings and a Funeral. She later became one of the Versace family friends and was a frequent visitor in Casa Casuarina, Gianni’s home in Miami.
Together with Santo and Donatella, Gianni built his fashion empire that now included ready-to-wear Versace collections for men, women and children, several diffusion lines – Versus, Istante, Versace Jeans Couture, Versace Sport, Versatile and Versace Classic V2, plus jewellery (real and costume), perfumes, accessories, cosmetics and interiors allowing people not only wear Versace, but furnish an entire home with Versace items, from china, glass and cushions, bath lined and fabrics to furniture and lighting. Although he had support of his siblings and often turned to Donatella for advice, Gianni Versace was the one who designed every line and fabric pattern, checked every sample, followed every order and decided on which editorial images could be used for advertising campaigns. He also worked with La Scala designing costumes for Josephlegende, Don Pasquale, Doktor Faust and several ballet performances including Dionysos, Leda and the Swan, Malraux ou la Métamorphose des Dieux and Chaka Zulu.
The profits were invested in properties and art, particularly, Picasso, which at the end sparkled a big battled between two brothers and caused Gianni change his will leaving 50 per cent stake in the company to beloved niece Allegra, Donatella’s daughter, 30 – to Santo and 20 – to Donatella. There were talks that he later regretted his decision and was going to change the will, but fate had a different plan.
Gianni Versace never had a body guard. “Why should I?” he said once. ”I’ve never hurt anyone, and I don’t see why anyone would want to harm me.” Things were no different on Tuesday, 15 July 1997 when Gianni left his Miami home and walked to the nearby cafe to get a coffee and have a browse through international glossy publications. He returned a few minutes later. As he slipped the key into the lock on the iron gates, he was approached by Andrew Phillip Cunanan. The twenty-seven year-old college drop-out and one-time gigolo from San Diego was driven by his overwhelming jealousy and an insatiable appetite for fame and fortune and at the time was one of the FBI most wanted serial killers. The man raised his 40 calibre Taurus handgun and pulled the trigger.
At 9.20 a.m. Gianni Versace was pronounced dead. The memorial service took place at Milan’s Catholic cathedral, the Duomo at 6 p.m. on 22 July 1997.
“He made the dream of his youth out of his life.”
Photo sources: versace.com, Versace Atelier Fall 1994, Versace Fall 1994, Vogue Italia January 1975, Huffington Post, Vogue US 199(?), Richard Avedon Foundation
The post is based on the following sources: official Versace website, Gianni Versace: Fashion's Last Emperor by Lowri Turner, Versace (Fashion Memoir) by Richard Martin, House of Versace: The Untold Story of Genius, Murder, and Survival by Deborah Ball and Versace: Signatures, the quote by Karl Lagerfeld via vogue.com