Gianni Versace was a highly original, vibrant, talented fashion designer who was also something of an exhibitionist. Once described by Time magazine as the youngest of Milan’s “young tyrants,” he believed that art and fashion were synonymous. After his shocking murder in 1997, his sister Donatella and his brother Santo took over the reins of the fashion house he created, keeping his legacy alive by successfully expanding the visibility of the Versace brand worldwide.
Born in Reggio Calabria on December 2nd, 1946, Gianni Versace learned to sew and design at his mother’s atelier at a young age. He designed his first off-the-shoulder velvet gown when he was nine years old and kept working for his mother Francesca until he moved to Milan at age 25. Versace often traveled to London and Paris on pattern buying missions and quickly picked up the secrets of dressmaking and design.
The year 1972 marked a turning point in Gianni’s life. He was called to work for the Florentine Flowers clothing factory in Lucca. The summer wear he designed flew off the racks. By the following year he was working as a ready-to-wear designer for Genny and Callaghan. In 1974, Versace conceived, designed and helped launch the Complice label.
Encouraged by his success, Versace presented his first signature women’s collection, on March 28th, 1978, at the Palazzo della Permanente, an art museum in Milan. Soon afterwards, he opened his first shop on Via della Spiga to showcase his menswear collection. As his logo, he chose the head of the ancient Greek legend Medusa, a beautiful but dark image of a fierce woman with snakes instead of hair.
A Multi -Talented Mould Breaker
Versace liked to consider himself a tailor, rather than a designer. He knew how to cut and sew the clothes he made. When creating a menswear line, he personally tried on each piece in the collection, while his sister Donatella tried on pieces from the womenswear collections. He always paid careful attention to the male and female form, and he particularly loved to create sexy clothes for the women in his life. The female Versace look is well known by all – young, aggressive, skin-tight, low cut, with sky-high slits on the skirts.
Versace was among the first to revive the cat suit, bring back the mini skirt, use bright neon colors, show tights worn as trousers and bring back the bustier and bead it. In 1982, Versace broke the mould when he revealed his metal mesh dresses for the first time. He won the Occhio d’Oro award for best fashion designer thanks to these light aluminium creations. During the same period, the hit TV-show Miami Vice introduced his brightly colored jackets to a much wider audience.
Meticulous management of the brand’s image was always a crucial element in Versace’s promotional strategy. He was one of the first Italian designers to hire world-class photographers, such as Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber and Steven Meisel, to shoot his advertising campaigns. He also employed the top modeling talent of the time, turning girls like Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Yasmeen Ghauri, Christy Turlington, Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen and Kate Moss into “supermodels” and global celebrities.
Always looking for a new edge, Versace was particularly innovative when staging his catwalks. Not only did he make sure the same supermodels featured in his ads strutted the runway during his fashion shows, but he was the first to deploy dramatic klieg lighting instead of the traditional overhead lamps. This flattered both the models and the clothes.
Versace has been referred to as the “rock-and-roll designer” because his clients included Phil Collins, Bruce Springsteen, George Michael, Eric Clapton, Elton John and Michael Jackson, among many other artists. He also made clothes for the Princess of Wales and Princess Caroline of Monaco.
In 1982, Versace opened a new chapter in his career making costumes for the theater, opera and ballet in close collaboration with choreographer Maurice Bejart. He continued to expand into accessories, jewelry, home furnishings and china.
In 1996, Gianni Versace S.p.A. reported a gross income of over one billion dollars for the entire group. At the time there were 138 Gianni Versace boutiques in the world and 345 sales points. Versus, the younger line, had 550 boutiques, and Istante, the lower-priced line, had 17 boutiques and 330 sales points. The company tried to go public in May 1997, but had some trouble winning over investors, as Gianni’s brother Santo was found guilty of bribing tax officials. This did not stunt sales or have an adverse effect on the label.
Gianni Versace was tragically murdered, on July 15th, 1997, shot in front of his home on South Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. The murderer, Andrew Cunanan, was a repeat offender thought to be targeting homosexuals. Gianni’s sister Donatella Versace took over as the company’s Chief Designer, with his older brother Santo as CEO. The first Versace show after his death had a guest list full of celebrities and fellow designers who turned up to show their support. Donatella’s collections met with considerable success, from both fashion editors and clients.
Bucking the global consolidation trend in the luxury business, the Versace Group has remained a private company. Gianni’s young niece, Allegra, holds a 50 percent stake in the business (vested in 2004 when she turned 18), while Santo and Donatella own the rest. The Versace brand is estimated to be worth roughly 2 billion dollars, but in the last decade its financial performance has not always been up to par with its competitors. The company went through three CEOs, before hiring Gian Giacomo Ferraris from the Jil Sander Group in 2009.
Despite these difficulties, Versace dresses and gowns are more visible than ever on the red carpet. Top actresses and singers, from Jennifer Lopez to Beyonce and Penelope Cruz, keep choosing the maison’s flamboyant style for award ceremonies and gala appearances. The company has a long history of fostering its image by courting global celebrities. While the late Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur rapped about Versace’s glamour for free, many other stars, such as Madonna, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Demi Moore, have endorsed the brand in exchange for free clothing allowances and multi-million dollar contracts.
Today, beside its main stake menswear and womenswear collections, Versace offers haute couture (Atelier Versace) and accessories, as well as fragrance, eyewear and jewelry lines. The lower priced Versus brand, originally conceived by Gianni Versace, has been re-launched with the help of Christopher Kane, a young British designer. Over the years, the company has rationalized its distribution network, remodeled its branded boutiques to more luxurious standards and reduced their number to less than one hundred worldwide. In 2008, the first Versace Home Collection showroom opened in Milan. New watch and jewelry boutiques are now located in Rome and Dubai, while Palazzo Versace Dubai Creek, the company’s second branded luxury resort (the first was launched in 2000 on the Australian Gold Coast), is nearing completion in the Persian Gulf.
Gianni Versace S.p.A.
Via Manzoni, 38
20121 Milano, Italy
Tel: [+39] 02 760-931
Fax: [+39] 02 7600-2635
Press Office: Isabelle Harvie-Watt Clavarino
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