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how Gianni Versace rewrote the rules of fashion

Glitz, glamour and tragedy: how Gianni Versace rewrote the rules of fashion

Gianni Versace changed fashion. Plenty of designers change fashion – a gamechanging hemline here, a much-copied dress there – but not like him. Versace transformed what fashion meant. He put fashion in the middle of a new celebrity solar system and clothes at the centre of popular culture. This change was already in the air 20 years ago, on the July morning when the 50-year-old designer was shot. But it was his murder that jolted the world into recognising how potent the name Versace had become.

Does that sound exaggerated and overblown? Even a little bit brash, maybe? I hope so, because that is precisely as it should be. That is what Versace did: he rewrote the rules of how we talk about fashion. He blew the cobwebs off haute couture, intensified the colour saturation, cranked up the volume. He turned clothes into pop. In a career that packed famous images back to back like a movie trailer, one of the key scenes was the catwalk show in 1991 in which models Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington catwalked while lipsyncing to George Michael’s Freedom. Decades before going viral was even a concept, Versace orchestrated a catwalk moment that lives on YouTube to this day. The high waistbands and tissue-layered drapes of their dresses are straight from the classical goddess playbook, but the colours – pillarbox red, sunshine yellow, black – are from a colouring book. There is a cartoonish simplicity to the image, which looks as presciently modern as an emoji-packed WhatsApp bubble.

It is impossible now to separate the horror of Versace’s murder from the bigger Versace story. The tragedy has become as much a part of the house’s origin story as Michael and the models. Versace’s death is seldom written about without the phrase “on the steps of his Miami mansion” sneaking in somewhere, glamour and tragedy intertwined. Even before his death, Versace had brought a frisson of danger into his clothes. He borrowed ideas from subcultures – safety pins from punk, spraypaint neons from urban graffiti – and put them on the red carpet and the catwalk. His Paris fashion week shows, with models in tiny dresses stalking a Perspex catwalk laid over the swimming pool of the Ritz, had become the focus of an increasingly frenzied paparazzi scrum each season.

The image from Versace’s funeral of a beautiful, bereft Princess Diana next to a weeping Elton John captures a moment in which the old establishment was being replaced by a new celebrity world order. Versace was instrumental in this shift in power; he is credited by Anna Wintour as being the first fashion designer to realise the power of having celebrities in the front row. He was among the first to fully recognise the potential of models to become significant players in the industry. He connected fashion to music in a way no designer had done before, with Prince and Jon Bon Jovi posing for ad campaigns. He was partying with Diana, Elton, Madonna, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Springsteen and Campbell many years before Taylor Swift came up with the concept of #SquadGoals. A modus operandi that was derided as vulgar by contemporaries looks now to have been ahead of its time.

From the beginning, Versace challenged snobbery. His dresses did not play by the traditional sartorial rules. There was too much print, too much glitz, too much bare skin, too much raw sexuality. The colours celebrated the raucousness of fashion at street level – and put it on the catwalk for the first time. Yet the taste level was distinctly haute. His designs were ambitious in their construction and fabrication. He pioneered dresses with panels of pliable metal mesh, a kind of glamorous, sparkling, fluid chainmail that is now a red-carpet classic. He was a skilful colourist, creating elegance out of the palette of a southern Italian gelateria. He was adept at flattering the female body, combining drapery that referenced Madame Grès with the bias cutting techniques of Vionnet.

Since Versace’s death, the house has been under the guardianship of his younger sister, Donatella. She has brought her own style, but the brand still stands, as it always did, for sex, for fun, for being at the centre of things. Fashion is entertainment: everyone knows that now. Gianni Versace made sure of it.

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