Thanks to a little show called The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, currently all over our small screens via BBC iPlayer, you’ll probably be familiar with what happened on a bright day in Miami, July, 1997. In a gunshot, one of fashion’s most iconic designers was wiped from the scene, just months after he and his sister had celebrated his recovery from cancer.
It was tragic, it was dramatic, and it was every bit as sensational as the designs that had made Gianni famous. The world is just as fascinated with this explosive exit as it was in 1997 - but not just because of the shocking way he died. The world is fascinated with Versace full stop. The brand has continued to flourish in the hands of Gianni’s iconic sister, Donatella (she of the megabucks pout and Paris Hilton-alike mane) .
“But why?” I hear you wonder. “What is this Versace malarkey all about?” Glad you asked.
To answer this question, we’re going to need to go back to the 90s – the age of Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, 5p Freddos and velvet scrunchies. Versace wasn’t just a major fashion force in the decade, it was the fashion force of the decade (don’t @ me).
Whether you were into Gianni’s designs or not, there was no denying that his risky looks were changing the way we thought about fashion. With his heavy embellishments, bursts of colour and classical, Grecian drapery, the Versace models were like a hurricane on the runway – and not only because of what they were wearing, but also because of who they were.
Famously, Versace was the first designer to bring supermodels seen only in magazines or on billboards to live fashion shows. He was changing the game in other ways, too - fusing the worlds of fashion and pop by making muses out of Madonna, Prince and Courtney Love. In 1992, he even designed the stage costumes and album outfits for his good friend Elton John. Under-the-radar normcore this was not.
With each radical, boundary-pushing move, Gianni Versace pulled the bricks from the wall that divided us mere mortals from the world of fashion, filling the runway with faces we recognised and the front row with celebrities we knew. As fashion royal Anna Wintour puts it, “ He was the first to realise the value of the celebrity in the front row, and the value of the supermodel, and put fashion on an international media platform.”
"He relished media attention and masterminded it, and everybody followed in his footsteps.”
Forever turning heads and piquing our interest, GV threw us all a line to his dreamworld, then pulled it back just before it was in our grasp. Everybody was chasing that Versace dream; as Donatella puts it, it’s a “dream that people want to be a part of.” And Andrew Cunanan killed to be a part of it.
But the foundation of Versace’s dreaminess isn’t just in pop culture legend: it’s in the clothes themselves. Everybody knows a Versace when they see one – flashy, opulent, daring, dripping in glamour, glamour, and more glamour. The signature baroque-patterned silk was iconic, the Andy Warhol print was iconic, Elizabeth Hurley’s safety-pin dress was iconic. With an imperious side-eye at 90s minimalism, Versace pushed luxury to its most spectacular limits. Arrive wearing Versace, and you might as well have been ferried in in a bathtub full of money. Gianni saw his clothes as being a ‘gift to women’, and nobody doubted it. They were a celebration of the woman who dared to wear them, with no expense spared.
With an imperious side-eye at 90s minimalism, Versace pushed luxury to its most spectacular limits.
Even after his death, the Versace name stayed synonymous with wealth and abundance. With Donatella at the helm, the world kept on watching – usually with wide eyes and an open mouth. One pivotal moment being at the 2000 Grammys, when Jennifer Lopez walked the red carpet in a legendary plunging silk green dress. Baring both her thighs and belly button (d’uh, it was the 00s), the look was just as theatrical, provocative and PR-friendly as any of Gianni’s 90s designs.
And now, 21 years after GV’s death, the brand is as recognisable and as prestigious as ever. Just look at this season. Glitter and sequins are a must-have for the summer; shining metallics are everywhere, plastic is still fantastic, more is always more. The earrings are huge, the colours are bold, the branding is worn with delicious arrogance. And there’s no mark of luxury like Versace’s signature Medusa head print – chosen by Gianni because of the way she locks people in her stare. It was Versace Serena Williams wore on the cover of Vogue, Versace Dua Lipa wore to perform at the Brits, and Versace that Jennifer Lawrence refused to cover up with a coat on that freezing cold January rooftop. It's a brand for unapologetic boldness.
So if you want to pay homage to Signore Versace’s vision, turn heads and drop jaws. Combine your colours, pile on the accessories, flash your branding and let your drapery glimmer in the sunlight and billow in the wind. While Gianni might have died as he lived – shockingly, colourfully and unforgettably – it’s up to us to keep the dream alive.
Kitty's Versace starter kit...
READ: The Art of Being You by Gianni Versace
At the time of his death in 1997, Versace had just finished this book – a personal archive of paintings, drawings, and sculptures juxtaposed with gorgeous couture fantasies. Think of it as a high fash picture book.
BOOK: tickets to the V&A Versace exhibition
Following a spectacular retrospective in Berlin that ended last week, it's rumoured London's V&A will host a Versace exhibition later this year. Keep your eye out and get ready to pounce, leopard-style, on those tickets when they appear.
Who better to give you some insight into life behind the scenes at Versace than the Queen bitch herself? Donatella's dog Audrey.