“Versace Shot Dead in Miami,” “In the Path of a Killer,” “Murder of a Fashion King,” these were some of the headlines across the world on the morning of July 15, 1997 when Italian design icon Gianni Versace was shot dead outside his Miami home by a serial killer. The news shocked the fashion industry and the world, the latter of which had been watching the trail of 27-year old killer Andrew Cunanan, who took his own life several days later.
Despite Mr. Versace absence from the fashion industry for two decades now, his legacy is arguably just as strong as ever. In fact, as Vogue noted recently, “Much of what is considered de rigueur about fashion in 2017, [Mr. Versace] put his stamp on in his 1990s glory days—the splashy, expensively made ad campaigns; the star-studded front rows; indeed, the entire fashion-celebrity nexus.”
Versace’s brand, which he first presented in 1978 in Milan at age 32, was survived by his sister, Donatella, Mr. Versace’s muse, who has since taken the creative reigns of the brand and held on to this day.
Prior to his death, Gianni Versace cemented himself as a risk-taking designer, who eschewed fashion rules. While Miuccia Prada was busy showing muted hues and ladylike pantsuits (a la Spring/Summer 1992), Rei Kawakubo was covering the entire body with her trademark twisted-proportions (a la Fall/Winter 1992), and hints of grunge permeated the Perry Ellis runway, ultimately getting Marc Jacobs fired, Gianni Versace was selling sex – pure and simple. (And to be fair, so was Thierry Mugler with latex hot pants, chaps, and cowboy-inspired wares).
Inspired by Hollywood, music and pop culture, and Versace famously walked a fine line between high fashion and what might otherwise be characterized as way-too-vulgar. The same could be said of the just-a-bit hazy line between opulence (think: golden Greek patterns, Medusa imagery The, and – at times, pins (remember that dress that Elizabeth Hurley wore in 1994) – that held garments together) and brash. Leopard prints, sequins, what we now know was Miami Vice-inspired wares, and leather bondage-inspired frocks can certainly tend to elicit strong reactions.
Mr. Versace paid no mind. And there was much more to it than that. In addition to be an objectively and unapologetically talented designer, Versace was one of the first over-the-top showmen with which fashion had the opportunity to acquaint itself. In addition to his eye-catching designs, known in bold colors and downright oozing of sex appeal, Versace’s marketing strategy and his penchant for supermodels and famous faces foreshadowed what was to come over the next 20 years; he was nothing if not thoroughly ahead of his time. Back then, it was loud, fun and statement-making; in hindsight, it’s genius.
Not surprisingly, Gianni Versace has been credited with creating some of the 1990s’ most iconic fashion moments, and the models that helped to usher them in. Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, Stephanie Seymour, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington were all Versace regulars. Mr. Versace knew that putting these famed faces – the first truly iconic supermodels the fashion industry had ever seen – would help pack some extra punch for his garments and accessories.
Who could forget the finale of his Fall/Winter 1991 show, in which Versace sent Linda, Cindy, Naomi, and Christy (they needed nothing more than first names) arm in arm down the runway, singing the lyrics to George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” all the while.
But not every collection was a hit with critics – and Mr. Versace likely preferred it that way. Of his “Miss S&M”-entitled and fetish-themed Fall/Winter 1992 collection, for instance, the now often-very-complimentary critic Suzy Menkes had some choice words about the collection: “I don’t want women to be sex objects or any of that,” were some of them.
At the time of his death in 1997, Gianni Versace was one of the most famous fashion designers in the world. His fans (and friends) ranged from Princess Diana to Elton John and the late rapper Tupac Shakur, which makes a whole lot of sense given Versace’s penchant for describing his fashion designs as "half royalty and half rock and roll.”
In just under twenty years, Gianni Versace managed to create an international fashion company – a brand! – that put Italy on the map and forged an unrivalled reputation for luxury and glamour, for attitude, provocativeness and for downright sexy, cutting-edge clothes. Maybe even more impressively, he laid the foundation for a house that could withstand the loss of its creative heart and soul, and yet still, as Donatella noted in connection with her latest collection, she still looks to her late brother for inspiration. That is a lasting legacy.