The signature extravagance of legendary fashion designer Gianni Versace — forever aligned with glamour, sex, celebrity and spectacle — can overshadow the Italian couturier’s broad and deep engagement with history and culture. More than any designer before him, Versace mined celebrity, music and Pop art for inspiration, and his subversive, maximalist and unabashedly seductive designs infused high fashion with an entirely new ethos.
“I don’t believe in good taste,” Versace once explained. Instead, he had a sexy good time with fashion — as he did with life. Today, vintage Gianni Versace clothing, handbags and other accessories look astonishingly fresh and freshly relevant.
Gianni Versace was born in Calabria, Italy. His mother was a successful dressmaker who employed more than 40 seamstresses. As a child, little Gianni marveled at her workshop, which would become a university of sorts, where he learned the exceptional construction techniques that were at the foundation of his creative expression. In 1972, at age 25, he moved to Milan to work in fashion. He launched his first collection — and his label — in 1978, with his older brother Santo managing the business concerns. Soon, sister Donatella, whom Gianni dressed and took to discos when she was still a child, joined the family venture, where she had a creative role and managed enormously popular ready-to-wear lines such as Versus.
Vintage Versace has become catnip for modern fashion enthusiasts who seek out the now-iconic house codes that originated in the designs of the 1980s and 1990s. His glamorous and seductive apparel — the clingy skirts and slender, strappy party dresses, as well as the erotic magazine ads that publicized them — looms large, but Versace’s art and historical influences were also vast.
Versace was an art collector, and he took on commissions to create costumes for theatrical performances during the 1980s and spoke of looking to numerous cultures for inspiration. The New York Times noted in 1997 that the fashion industry “is now driven by contemporary culture because Mr. Versace made it that way.” Insiders consider his 1991/1992 Autumn/Winter runway show — which featured supermodels Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista lip-synching George Michael’s “Freedom” — as the moment when the two worlds of fashion and pop culture became one, changing both forever.
Versace's adventurous spirit of design resulted in his creating jewel-toned prints rooted in Grecian motifs, Etruscan symbols, the Italian Baroque and Andy Warholʼs Marilyn Monroe. There were slinky dresses in Oroton, his patented chain-mail textile that draped like satin, and leather bondage ensembles. Sex sold, for both women and men. Wrote the late curator Richard Martin, “[Versace] became the standard-bearer of gay men’s fashion because he eschewed decorum and designed for desire.”
Following Versace’s tragic murder in 1997, Donatella took over the role of artistic director and continued to evolve the house codes with a twist of her feminine and feminist perspective. Today, Santo Versace is chief executive officer of Versace and Donatella is its chief creative officer.
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