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Versace, Gianni - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Gianni Versace

fashion designer house wear

(1946-1997)
The House of Versace

Overview

Gianni Versace was considered by many as one of the most influential and vibrant fashion designers in the world by mixing low-end and high-end culture. He made splashy, sexy, sometimes outrageous clothes that were favored by rock stars and others among the young, rich, and famous. He was the first Italian fashion designer to disclose living a homosexual lifestyle and, as a result, often was the target of ridicule and contempt. Versace weathered it all and, at the time of his death, was at his peak and had turned his clothing lines into a billion-dollar fashion empire.

Personal Life

Gianni Versace was born on December 2, 1946, in Reggio Calabria, Italy, the son of an appliance salesman and a dressmaker. From a young age, Versace loved playing in his mother’s workroom, where he made puppets from scraps of cloth. At the age of nine, Versace designed his first dress from these same scraps. Versace was always close to his sister Donatella, a self-described “rock-‘n’-roll girl.” The pair often sneaked out to discos, where 11-year-old Donatella would model Versace’s leather mini-skirts. She continued to serve as his muse throughout his career. Versace was vacationing in Miami Beach with his partner of 14 years, Antonio D’Amico, when he was murdered on the steps of his home by serial killer Andrew Cunanan.

Career Details

Never formally trained in fashion design, Versace studied architectural drafting at the Reggio Calabria technical school while working for his mother as a part-time buyer. He began creating designs for a local clothes maker at the age of 22, which attracted the attention of a manufacturer who offered the young man a job in the Italian fashion capital of Milan. In 1972, he began designing ready-to-wear fashions for three prestigious Milan clothing firms: Complice, Genny, and Callaghan.

Versace struck out on his own in 1976, when he started designing his first women’s wear collection. This collection debuted at a Milan fashion show in 1978 and the sexy, brightly colored clothes appealed almost immediately to those who sought youthful luxury. Versace explained his approach to menswear in Rolling Stone by saying, “The success I’ve had . . . is because people no longer want to look as if they all belong to the same club—that whole Ralph Lauren philosophy. The man I design for is against anything that makes him look stiff. . . . My clothes are very negligent, very nonchalant. A tie for me is a symbol of everything that is boring and old-fashioned.”

Versace’s designs for women were sometimes simply outrageously sexy, such as his famous 1982 metal mesh dress that put the designer on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. Ten years later, his fall 1992 collection featured leather bondage dresses. Richard Martin, director of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, told Time, “Versace is so important because he put sexuality first. Designers have always looked to the street; he looked to the streetwalker. He was transfiguring the prostitute as [the painter] Toulouse-Lautrec did in the late 1880s.” Versace did design more conservative garments as well as these shocking designs; the latter made headlines, while the former accounted for half of his sales.

Writing for Business Week, John Rossant commented that “no other major fashion house in the world is so closely identified with the lifestyle of its marquee-name designer.” Versace mixed business with pleasure, giving outrageous parties for his celebrity friends and clients, among whom were Elton John, Madonna, George Michael, Courtney Love, Sylvester Stallone, Sting, and Princess Diana. His four splendid homes (in New York City, Milan, Lake Como, and especially his $6.2 million estate named Casa Casuarina in Miami Beach) frequently were featured in glossy photo spreads in magazines such as Interior Design and Metropolitan Home. Versace’s fashion shows, often costing as much as $500,000, were highly theatrical events in which music was very important. At the opening of his flagship fashion boutique in New York City in 1996, Elton John and Jon Bon Jovi served as the house band. Versace loved orchestrating all of these exotic events; Forbes quoted him as saying, “I am a completely happy man. . . . I live in an ivory control tower.” Versace also was known to be hard working and home loving; he began work at six in the morning and preferred to dine at home. His friend Janie Samet told Time that the designer said, “things are always better at home.”

Versace was gunned down near his estate in Miami Beach on July 15, 1997 by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. Although Versace’s image and creative genius were a vital part of his company, it was predicted that the company would survive the loss of its creator. Over 2,000 mourners gathered at his funeral at the Duomo in Milan, along with celebrities Elton John, Naomi Campbell, Princess Diana, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and Sting. Versace was remembered as one of the most cheerful, creative, and gifted designers the fashion industry had ever known.

Social and Economic Impact

Versace was the head of a family-owned and run fashion business, The House of Versace. His older brother Santo served as the CEO; his sister Donatella served as the company’s vice president and was involved in advertising and promotion, as well as designing for the Versus line. Versace’s brother-in-law Paul Beck, an American and former runway model, headed the House of Versace’s menswear line. As a result, the company was able to make quick decisions and turn out “flash items.” These garments almost instantly answered a demand by the marketplace and were designed, manufactured, and delivered in weeks rather than the months it often took other designers. Also key to this technique was the fact that the company controlled 10 of its major suppliers. Another corporate strength was the team of able assistants that Versace created. When he was being treated for cancer of the inner ear in 1994 and 1995, the company continued to turn out its collections without deviating from the designer’s vision.

Although he catered to the whims of the rich and famous, with items such as $20,000 evening gowns and $395 bath towel sets, Versace did not approach fashion with an elitist attitude. Vogue editor Hamish Bowles told Time that the designer “moved fashion into the public domain in the most strident way.” Not only did he introduce elements of plastic and denim into his designs, he also made fashion a more celebrated part of pop culture. He was a recognized leader within the fashion industry and was also extremely influential in the entertainment world, as was evidenced by his receiving a VH1 Fashion and Music award in 1995.

The designer also played a part in increasing the celebrity of “supermodels.” Prompted by his sister Donatella, Versace used magazine models for fashion shows; previously it had been common to use thinner runway models. In doing so, he helped to launch the careers of such supermodels as Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington.

Chronology: Gianni Versace

1946: Born.

1968: Began designing fashions for a local clothes maker.

1976: Founded The House of Versace.

1978: Debuted his first collection of women’s wear.

1984: Won third consecutive Golden Eye Awards as the best designer of women’s wear for fall-winter.

1983: Received the Cutty Sark Award.

1992: Won the International Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

1995: Chosen for a VH1 Fashion and Music Award.

1996: Opened flagship fashion boutique in New York City.

1997: Was murdered in Miami Beach, Florida.

Versace was a popular, critical, and (despite his extravagant spending habits) financial success. Having worked for some 20 years in the industry, he had created a billion-dollar fashion empire. After beginning with women’s ready-to-wear, Versace expanded into menswear, jeans, and housewares. His clothing lines included Versace, Versace Atelier, Istante, Versus, Versace Jeans Couture, and V2. The designer also created theater, ballet, and opera costumes. At the time of his death in 1997, the family was planning to make an initial public offering of stock so that it could finance further growth. The House of Versace was becoming a “global” brand and hoped to double its sales by the year 2000. These advances put Versace in close range of his Italian rival Giorgio Armani, who made $1.2 billion in sales in 1996.

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