Royal fanatics remember the moment they heard Princess Diana had died. Americans remember the day of the JFK assassination. And fashion diehards will never forget the photo of that sandal on blood-stained steps.
On 15 July 1997, Gianni Versace changed his tried-and-tested routine, taking on the role of his loyal assistant who walked along Miami’s Ocean Drive to retrieve the morning papers each day. As the designer reached the steps of Casa Casuarina, Andrew Cunanan – a man who had brutally murdered four men in the weeks prior – shot him.
Sartorial society wept for Versace. His 2000-strong funeral took place at Milan Cathedral with guests including the fateful Princess Diana.
For many younger people, of my generation, a whisper of the name ‘Versace’ conjured associations with his sister, Donatella. The bleach blonde locks, big lips and even bigger heels – Donatella was queen of the brand; her older brother forgotten. But as I became more acquainted with the wonders of Google, I fell into a Gianni-shaped hole. It seems I’m not the only one.
Ryan Murphy’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: an American Crime Story is now airing in the UK, gripping audiences young and old alike. So we take a look at why, 20 years on, Gianni still matters.
Gianni and his fashion revolution
Gianni’s nose for fun and sense of joie de vivre goes a little way to explaining why we still talk about him two decades after his untimely death. You see, we’re currently in an era of nostalgia; a time where we’re yearning for the revolutionary ghosts of fashion past. Gianni was certainly one of them. One of his more memorable quotes (“I don’t believe in good taste”) slots in almost perfectly to the culture of 2018. Just look at Demna Gvasalia’s Vetements-slash-Balenciaga aesthetic’s continual upwards trajectory. Bad taste couldn’t be more in right now.
Despite introducing the Versace brand (alongside Donatella and brother Santo) in 1978, it wasn’t until the nineties that Gianni’s Medusa head really hit its stride. In a time when minimalism was the look of the day, he turned heads with his blend of graphic Warhol prints, dazzling hues and unadulterated sex appeal. When he wasn’t spending endless hours mixing leather, lace and Swarovski crystals, he was taking over the swimming pool of The Ritz. When he wasn’t courting Madonna et al, he was slicing fabrics and piecing them together with golden safety pins.
Critics fell in love. As did celebrities, who helped Versace go from a burgeoning talent to a fully-fledged icon. Gone were the days of monotonous shows. Instead, hundreds of fashion fans begged to witness a show that would see Madonna and George Michael bustling for a front row spot – with Linda and Cindy sashaying down the catwalk.
Versace and the original supermodels
Gianni in his prime would have had no time for today’s Instagram-loving gift-accepting influencers. He only had one kind of advertisement on his mind: women who wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day.
The term ‘supermodel’ barely existed before 1990. Models were nothing more than their name suggests – mannequins hired for parading clothes, warned to hide any and all traits of a personality. Gianni didn’t understand designers’ penchant for blandness, setting out to find young women who could embody the sassy and strong Versace brand.
Many may not realise that Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista owe their careers to the Italian master. But even the most fashion ignorant will remember the finale of the Versace AW91 show. Out walked Naomi, Linda, Christy and Cindy Crawford, singing and dancing to George Michael’s hit song, Freedom! ‘90. Affectionately known as ‘The Big Four’, these women were the bread and butter of Gianni’s existence.
The memorable moment still resonates today for the current ruler of the Versace kingdom, Donatella Versace, longs to pay tribute to her brother in any way she can. Last September, she delved into the rich archives for the very first time (it had previously been too painful, she said), teaming original pieces with spins on her sibling’s innovations.
By casting models that resembled adult women rather than barely teenage children, Donatella satisfied our desire to move away from social media-friendly models. Of course, It girls Gigi and Bella Hadid and Kaia Gerber (daughter of original supermodel Cindy Crawford) made an appearance. But the finale welcomed back Gianni’s original model family with Cindy, Naomi, Claudia Schiffer, Carla Bruni and Helena Christensen performing a second rendition of Freedom! ‘90; a minute of pure bliss that went viral within seconds.
Versace and the celebration of women
The onset of #MeToo and #TimesUp has allowed women to reclaim their power in the face of overbearing men. Throughout his industry rein, Gianni completely turned the gender tables, reversing the roles of his men and women.
Although both overtly sexual, the Versace man and woman were worlds apart. Gianni’s girls were headstrong and defiant, unapologetic in their sexuality and confident in their choices. His boys? Pure sex objects. In fact, it could be argued the designer kickstarted the trend for more muscular male models, leaving the era’s previous thin men jobless.
One glimpse of Versace’s AW94 campaign, featuring naked men fawning over fully-clothed Christy Turlington and Claudia Schiffer, is enough to show his commitment to celebrating female attributes. “Sexy is honesty,” he once said. “I think directness is sexy, saying what you think, being who you are, not being hypocritical.”
Speaking your mind and not holding back is a lesson we’re teaching our society of young women today. Just as Gianni said, women should feel assured of themselves and their sexualities, and as comfortable dominating the room as any man.
Our obsession with death
Ultimately, Gianni’s predilection for rule-breaking was his downfall. But this trope nicely fits into our somewhat macabre fascination with those rebels who pass before their ‘rightful’ time. Take Alexander McQueen, for example. A cheeky chap who whipped the fashion industry into a fantastical frenzy before making his sudden departure and ending up in the history books. The same goes for Kurt Cobain, a man who arguably became more famous in death than in life, and Amy Winehouse, a woman whose sorrowful tale we just can’t get enough of.
Gianni’s death, of course, was different. His life was taken unwillingly, which makes him all the more of a juicy subject to pore over. It’s the reason the Versace dynasty is the talking point of American Crime Story’s new series. It’s the reason we can’t get enough of true crime podcasts and Making a Murderer-type creations. It’s the reason we go to sleep at night, feeling luckier than our heros.
In a world where gruesome death no longer shocks, a glamorous murder tale is nothing short of ecstasy.