The Legacy and Tragedy of Versace

April 18, 2018


He was the first designer to have a
Rock ‘n’ Roll approach to couture

In Town & Country magazine a piece about Gianni Versace, titled Family Drama, and written by Kate Betts, appeared in March 2018. It promoted the TV series American Crime Story, which is based on Vulgar Favors a book written by Maureen Orth that recounts Andrew Cunanan’s crime spree.

Back in the day, I had read Orth’s 452-page tome and thought it was excellent. This prompted me to note the date and time of the series (Wednesdays at 10 pm on FX, Channel 10) that featured Penelope Cruz and Edgar Ramirez. I wanted to be sure to watch. So I did – and I didn’t. I had forgotten that Andrew Cunanan committed four murders before he shot Versace in Miami. I’m positive I read this in Orth’s book but seeing them portrayed so graphically on American Crime Story was too much for me. I stopped watching after three one-hour segments.


Versace and his siblings were raised by their dressmaker mother and coal merchant father in Reggio Calabria, located on the toe of the boot of Italy. He spent his youth watching his mother and her studio of 45 seamstresses sew and made his first dress at the age of nine.

In 1972, when he was 26-years-old he moved north to Milan and designed for various clothing brands. Six years later, in 1978, he had his own fashion house and was showing sexy dresses in leather and lace. Being a southern Italian outsider in puritanical Milan was not easy. He ignored the criticism and surrounded himself with family and friends for protection.


Art, music, theatre, dance and classical sculpture all infused Versace’s daily life, whether he was in Lake Como, Miami or Milan. He was inspired by the three-dimensional works of Alexander Calder and by the gutsy glamour of his sister Donatella, his lifelong muse. He designed stage costumes for Tina Turner’s concerts and, in his flagship stores on Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris and Fifth Avenue in New York he hung works by Julian Schnabel and Frank Stella. (I remember his Manhattan store very well – it was a jaw-dropping spectacle that stunned me.)

A super-glam ad for Versace that appeared in the March 2018 issue of Vogue

In my mind, he really soared when he created a punk-inspired black silk dress held together with giant gold safety pins that Elizabeth Hurley wore to a movie premiere in 1994. It’s his best-known design and is often called THAT DRESS. Her escort for the evening was actor Hugh Grant who was probably referred to as “that guy” – as in “Tell that guy to get out of the way so we can see “that dress.” Poor Hugh.


To honor her brother and the 20th Anniversary of his death, Donatella staged a tribute collection in Milan’s Triennale Museum on September 22, 2017 with a retrospective – or reinterpretation – of his iconic fashions.

But this was not enough. She had to somehow recapture the moment – the excitement of 1990s glamour. So she called her supermodel friends and hired all of them to walk the runway. Out came Claudia Schiffer, Carla Bruni, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen. At the end Donatella appeared and they all marched forward together as if a minute had not gone by since the mid-90s supermodel apogee. THE AUDIENCE WENT CRAZY AS IT JUMPED TO ITS FEET CHEERING AND CLAPPING.  

ABOUT THE OSCARS: Now, a quick look at a controversial Oscar “Best Picture” nominee: Phantom Thread. I say it that way because everyone I speak to seems to have a different opinion about this film that stars the super-talented, Daniel Day-Lewis. Personally, I loved it. But I must admit. A big part of this was my admiration for Daniel’s stellar performance. But talking to others I heard expressions such as, “a curious picture” or “couldn’t relate to the fashions” or “didn’t care for the actresses” – in short: not too much enthusiasm. Update: it didn’t win “Best Picture” – no surprise, I’m afraid.

Shaun Nelson-Henrick

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