The House of Versace – ITALIAN FASHION – FIB Designer Fashion Guides

The fashion industry has no shortage of famous Italian families who have turned their name into towering multi-million dollar empires. Gucci. Prada. Armani. Fendi. All have a fascinating story, but none can rival the tragedy and drama of Versace.

Santo, Donatella and Gianni Versace | Credit: People

It reads like an Italian opera of epic scale, from the meteoric rise and the dizzying heights of the Miami years to the untimely murder of one of the most iconic designers of the 20th century.

Gianni Versace revolutionised the fashion industry with his transcendent desire to be daring and compelling, mirrored in his extravagant and dynamic designs. The world was captivated by his bold and glamorous collections, injecting sexuality, art and stunning colour into luxury fashion. But though he was the envy of the Fashion world, Versace’s story is shrouded in tragedy. His shocking murder in 1997 shook the industry and the brand to its core and left a gap only his sister Donatella could fill. Here we take a look as the towering, multi-billion dollar dynasty that has endured and continues to inspire: the fashion powerhouse that is the House of Versace.

Born in 1946, Gianni Versace was a small town boy from Reggio in Calabria, Italy. He was nurtured in a home that valued design, with a dressmaker mother who helped shape his artistic and avant-garde sensibilities. by the age of 9 Gianni had designed his first dress: it was a glimpse of the triumphs awaiting him. After graduating high school, where he studied architecture, Versace worked with his mother at her workshop.

By 1972 the young designer had moved to Milan to catch the eye of the luxe Italian fashion labels of the day. Nevertheless, in his heart he always carried home with him and it remains woven into his fine collections.

Credit: Versace

 “When you are born in a place such as Calabria and there is beauty all around a Roman bath, a Greek remain, you cannot help but be influenced by the classical past”.

History ran deep in his collections, most clearly present in the Medusa-esque emblem that would become synonymous with the Versace label. Gianni Versace favoured a seductive traditionalism and Baroque motif that flourished in his bright, extravagant, and flashy dress designs. By 1974, Versace was designing for dominant Italian labels like Florentine Flowers, De Parisini, Callaghan, and Complice, and was establishing the Versace name as one of the most fearless in the world of Italian fashion.

The House of Versace was officially launched in 1978 by Gianni and his sister, Donatella, under the name “Gianni Versace Donna”. Opened in Milan’s Via della Spiga, the first womenswear collections met with almost immediate success. Colour and serenity radiated from the streets of Milan. It was fast becoming the fashion capital of the world, and the House of Versace was to become the foundation.

Powerful. Sexy. Glamorous. Italian fashion changed with every new and daring collection that the compelling designer created. Versace was innovative,  revolutionizing techniques of bonding leather and rubber using lasers. He also invented the now inherently “Versace” metal mesh dresses.  Moreover, he effortlessly melded fashion with music and art to influence pop culture at a level unrivalled by any designer before or after, and is credited with introducing the world to the “supermodel”.

Credit: Harper’s Bazaar

Versace understood the influence of Celebrity on a label’s credibility and kickstarted the careers of now iconic models like Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Christy Turlington. But magazines, photo shoots and billboards were not the only ways to demand attention, fashion shows were his forte. Versace fashion shows were always decked out with the “now” celebrities, the most influential artists in the world sitting in the front row of the most renowned and captivating fashion shows. Everything was photographed to tap into a strong publicity scheme. The likes of Madonna, Jon Bon Jovi, Prince, Elton John, Bruce Weber and Patricia Arquette were a mainstay at Versace’s shows, sitting in thrilled anticipation to see the next new thing aeons before any other designer clocked on. The world was enthralled by the infinite mastery of Versace.

In 1993, Gianni moved to Miami Beach, buying a lavish mansion on Ocean Avenue which he restored to a level of garish opulence. Named Casa Casuarina, the house emblem was the Medusa, that recurring image of Versace’s clothing items and accessories chosen for the legendary ability of the Medusa to make people fall in love with her forever. It certainly seemed that way for the brand. The sunny, carefree summer of 1993 would see Versace’s reputation as a designer and his influence on pop culture approach its zenith.

At this time celebrities flocked to Miami, attracted by the lifestyle and endless summer. Frequent guests at Casa Casuarina included not only fashion royalty but those in the entertainment business, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Elton John, Cher, Madonna and Sting. Casa Casuarina became a modern day Gatsby mansion and Gianni Versace was Gatsby himself. Alongside the partying he became known as the “Rock n’ Roll designer” for dressing pop stars, celebrities and even royalty. Within a year he had designed the dress that would make him a household name.

Credit: New York Post

Although Versace had a long history of designing barely there, super sexy dresses, it was a punk inspired, black slit gown held by strategically placed gold safety pins that went into Fashion’s hall of the fame.

In 1994, Hugh Grant arrived for the premiere of his film Four Weddings and a Funeral with his, then, unknown girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley on his arm. Grant was riding the wave of his mounting profile in the film industry. However, it was not the charismatic actor that stole the spotlight that day, but Hurley, wearing the suggestive, plunging yet sophisticated Versace masterpiece. The dress was splashed all over newspapers and magazines around the globe and became known as “that dress”. It is credited with launching the career of Hurley and gained iconic status as Versace’s best known piece.

Ever the innovator, Versace continued to be synonymous with change and a desire to influence. In his own words:

“I think I want to be remembered is what I will do tomorrow. What I did is boring to me. I think I’m too classic…You really have to break barriers everyday. Fashion, to me, born and die everyday.”

Gianni Versace also expanded into fragrances and interior design.  From the release of his first perfume “Signature” in 1981, to the 66 fragrance collections that came after, each have captured the provocation and passion of the evolving designer in a striking and decadent bottle. Similarly his “Home Signature” range of dinnerware, quilts, carpets and cushions for homes has allowed aesthetes to immerse themselves in interior spaces that reflect the power and beauty of Versace’s perfectionist eye for detail and design.

Credit: Style Watcher

Versace’s instinct and design eye attracted the attention of opera and ballet directors, resulting in incredible costume design for the stage. Most notably, Versace collaborated with Andrew Strauss to bring a frivolity and glamour to high-class ballet that in turn influenced a new attitude to his own design process, a desire to support more comfortable, unrestricted movement in ready-to-wear women’s collections. Alongside countless awards in fashion, Versace received an American Fashion Oscar and theatre’s Maschera D’Argento prize for unrivalled excellence in costume design.

So much achieved in a couple of decades, yet we will never know the full extent of his talent. The seemingly endless Summer of fashion accolades and high-class parties would be cut tragically short. On July 5, 1997, moments after taking his morning walk Gianni Versace was shot dead by serial killer Andrew Cunanan outside his Miami home. The world would never know why Cunanan chose to murder Versace, but what was made perfectly clear is how much the inspirational designer was truly loved as a man and an artist. In a gothic cathedral in Milan’s centre, 2 000 mourners said goodbye to an icon of fashion in an iconic city of fashion he helped put on the map. Gianni left an $800 million empire behind, that included approximately 130 boutiques worldwide, and a cultural ripple effect that was felt around the world. He was 50-years-old.

Credit: Popsugar

Following Gianni’s devastating death, his sister Donatella Versace took over as creative director and his brother, Santo Versace, became CEO. Gianni’s niece, Allegra Versace, inherited 50% of the company when she turned 18. It was a mammoth task for all involved. The size of the Versace empire meant that the work was not just limited to the high-end ready-to-wear lines. For Donatella, it was a difficult period in which she appeared to spiral out of control and her cocaine addiction became an open secret within the industry. Sales plummeted and with each consecutive poorly received collection, the pressure mounted. For nearly a decade, the corporation that had been valued at approximately $800 million at the time of Gianni’s death, hemorrhaged fiscal value and creative capital.

The details of the rise and fall are covered in a 2010 biography that inspired the 2013 film “House of Versace”. Directed by Sara Sugarman and starring Gina Gershon, the film highlighted the ups and downs of the Versace siblings as they steered their fashion dynasty.

The fashion house continued to suffer financially for over a decade. The turn of the 21st century however sparked an incredible resurgence for the brand. Donatella successfully emerged from rehap and found her feet. Just like her late brother, began to revitalise popular culture by melding the power of fashion with the influence of music. Jennifer Lopez was her first muse, draped in the now famous green, bohemian jungle dress at the 2000 Grammy Awards. Every gentle, sensuous twirl of her hips drew our eyes to the House of Versace. Flowing, elegant, and exquisite, the dress sparked complete pandemonium, especially in the digital world as users frantically searched for “that jungle dress”. This event ultimately led to the launch of Google Image Search. The world became captivated by the untamable touch of Donatella who, just like the mythical phoenix, rose from the ashes with a raging desire to be bold, outrageous and influential.

Audacious artists flocked to Donatella’s rebellious aura and exuded the joyous sensuality that has become a staple of the Versace style, most notably Lady Gaga, who became the beautiful, powerful face of the 2014 Spring collection. The fearless singer was wrapped in an alluring and flirtatious lilac bondage-dress that embraced the sensuous curves of the female form.

As Donatella has stated, “the campaign shows how Lady Gaga completely captures the Versace essence: creative, experimental, fearless…the embodiment of the Versace DNA”.

Credit: Dazed

It was not just Donatella’s designs and fierce determination that dazzled the world, it was who she was as a person. Her incredible influence led to Lady Gaga releasing an upbeat pop song, “Donatella”, that does not focus on the Versace fashion label, but the strong woman behind the brand.

As Lady Gaga put it, “Maybe she’s a bitch, maybe she’s too skinny, maybe she’s too rich, maybe she’s too out there. Or, maybe she’s brilliant, maybe she’s intelligent, maybe she’s strong, maybe she’s everything, maybe she’s Donatella”.

The House of Versace had regained its rightful status of one of the most influential fashion labels in the world, and Donatella had no intention of letting it wither away. Her 2016 Spring collection garnered exclusively rave reviews and ecstatic reactions from front-row attendees. The looks included the return of the military jacket but with a sexy twist – cinched at the waist and paired with tiny shorts, along with little sporty dresses and casual camouflage suiting. Suddenly, the brand was revitalised and the sexiness was made a little more accessible.

The brand also collaborated with Lamborghini to design the Lamborghini Murciélago LP640 VERSACE, with white Versace satin interiors and logo embroidered into the seats. Available in black and white, only ten units were ever produced and sold with customized Versace luggage set, luxury driving shoes, and driving gloves. Other collaborations include the AgustaWestland AW109 Grand Versace VIP luxury helicopter, a men’s line for Ford Motors,a  line of sneakers with dancer Lil Buck, luxury “Versace residencies” in China and India, and men’s and women’s collections for H&M stores.

Today, the House of Versace is one of the world’s leading international fashion houses and an enduring symbol of Italian luxury. In an industry famous for its ephemerality, the brand has outlasted many others and remained more or less immovable.

Just like Gianni said, “what you do in the past is boring and classic, it is what you do in the future that defines you as an artist.”

Donatella continues to showcase what made the Versace label so revolutionary, and her gaze is firmly set on the future. Now, the House of Versace designs eyewear, shoes, handbags, fragrance, furniture and tableware, womenswear and menswear collections with a powerful, sensual elegance that translates into haute couture and retail fashion. Versace is versatile and edgy, designed to elevate modern chic and make luxurious living accessible for the every day.

Credit: Dazed

The symbolic flashy but stylish prints and colors of Versace are a mainstay, but in 2018 fur was banned from their collections followed by kangaroo leather. By the end of 2018, Michael Kors Holdings acquired all outstanding shares in Gianni Versace for $2.12 billion (USD), keeping Donatella Versace as head of creative design.

Currently, the House of Versace is valued at over $5 billion, a remarkable resurrection of one of the most iconic and powerful forces in the history of fashion and popular culture.  Donatella has also been a rallying force of optimism through Italy’s darkest days of the Coronavirus pandemic, lending words of support and pledging over $200,000 to Milan’s San Raffaele hospital intensive care units.

As much as the Versace story is riddled with challenge and tragedy, it is also an inspirational tale fronted by determination, fearlessness and growth, showcasing the strength and resilience of the Versace family. Gianni will forever be the revolutionary, ambitious, exuberant designer that forged an incredible monument of popular culture, Donatella the fearless expander. Both sister and brother redefined the fashion industry with their desire to be audacious and radiant, and together solidified the House of Versace as an icon of modern fashion.

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