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Great European lives: Gianni Versace

Gianni Versace poses with a group of models wearing his spring-summer collection in Milan, March 1991. (Photo by Vittoriano Rastelli/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images) - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

The life of the fashion designer who was one of most the original and fearless in the history of couture

The two most photographed homes in the United States are the White House and Graceland. The third is Casa Casuarina, a converted 20th century apartment building in Miami’s busy South Beach district, a mix of historic art deco architecture, hedonistic nightlife and sandy beaches. Named after a Somerset Maugham short-story collection, Casa Casuarina was built in 1930 as an homage to the Alcázar de Colón, an early 16th century building in Santo Domingo and is so original and eccentric many consider it to be a folly.

The building’s confident walking of the line between tastefully classy and gaudily kitsch is exactly what appealed to the man whose former ownership of the house provides its main draw, for he recognised in it a reflection of his own career and personality.

Most tourists are drawn to the former home of the fashion designer Gianni Versace by its infamy as the location of his murder, shot dead for reasons that remain a mystery as he unlocked the gates after popping out for a newspaper. But Versace’s former home represents much more than a photo-opportunity for the ghoulish.

South Beach was a long way from the vibrant tourist draw it is today when Versace fell in love with and bought what was then a rundown apartment building while passing through the city on his way to Cuba in 1992. When he arrived the region was a place of long-faded grandeur, cracked plasterwork, litter on the streets and the constant sinister presence of danger (throughout the 1980s Miami was known as American’s murder capital). While Versace wasn’t single-handedly responsible for the area’s regeneration into a playground for the rich and a tourism hotspot, his presence was certainly the catalyst.

In South Beach, Versace found a place to relax, a place whose combination of brashness, shabbiness and bright colours provided a welcome relief from the slick glitziness of New York, Milan and Los Angeles. He loved Miami immediately and wasn’t shy about showing it, featuring the area in his catalogues and advertisements and even basing an entire collection on the place, plastering its art deco hotels and the name of the city across silk dresses and shirts that left their buyer with little change out of $2,000. With Versace ensconced there, the likes of Elton John, Madonna, Cher, Richard Avedon and Gwyneth Paltrow became regular visitors, as Miami became the place to be seen.

“All of a sudden what was going on in Los Angeles moved here when Gianni did,” said his sister Donatella, who took over the family business after his death. “All the fashion shoots were happening here: music people, fashion people, actors, he attracted everyone, he had that power.”

Gianni Versace was one of the most original and fearless designers in the history of couture but arguably his greatest talent was in this drawing together of different aspects of popular culture and placing fashion at their very centre. Whether by chance, calculation or sheer charisma, Versace transformed couture into the combination of art, design and unadulterated showbusiness we know today. That, as much as his revolutionary designs, is his legacy.

When Versace produced his first collection in 1978 the world of couture was almost hidden away, the exclusive preserve of a few super-rich clients visiting staid boutiques a long way from the high street. Shows and collection launches were small affairs attended by a clique and their few privileged hangers on until Versace transformed the catwalk into a spectacle, staging huge events that made superstars out of models and attracted the pinnacle of the A-list. A typical Versace show combined art, theatre and music with the celebrity kudos of a Hollywood premiere, making it the hottest ticket in town.

“He was the first to realise the value of the celebrity in the front row and the value of the supermodel,” said Anna Wintour. “He put fashion on an international media platform and everybody followed in his footsteps.”

Perhaps the most articulate distillation of this gift for combining fashion, celebrity, the spectacular and rock’n’roll was at his autumn 1991 show when Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington paraded along the catwalk arm in arm in the colourful high-waisted, classically-inspired dresses that were Versace’s signature at the time, while lip-synching to George Michael’s Freedom. The four had starred in the video for the song and Michael himself was sitting in the front row. “It felt like all the stars had aligned,” said Crawford. The fashion show would never be the same again.

When that epoch-defining moment was flashed all around the world Versace had been in the couture business for barely two years. In 1989 he was already a very successful and wealthy designer, having made his fortune from ready-to-wear collections and producing costumes for the likes of the La Scala opera house in Milan – where he also had a home – Twyla Tharp, Robert Wilson and the San Francisco Opera, not to mention being the subject of a number of museum exhibitions around the world devoted to his designs.

He certainly didn’t need to turn to the hothouse world of couture, but when he did he caused a sensation. Opinion in the industry was divided between those admiring his revolutionary genius and those who viewed his work as vulgar and downmarket. Versace took couture to places that were considered off limits: leather, denim, loud prints, bondage and a specially-devised metal mesh, all of which became virtual industry standards within a few short years. He knew the value of the ability to shock; the revealing dress that launched Elizabeth Hurley into the celebrity stratosphere was a Versace creation, one that brought him as much praise as condemnation for what some in the business regarded as cheap lewdness.

There was an appealing origin story, possibly true, possibly not, that Versace’s enthusiasm for the revealing nature of many of his designs originated with his intensely Catholic mother, a woman of such strict moral mores that when she walked with her son through their home town of Reggio Calabria at the toe of the Italian peninsula she would shield young Gianni’s eyes as they passed the town’s prostitutes. This sense of the erotic forbidden only fired his creative curiosity.

Versace’s mother was a key influence on his later career in more direct ways, being a gifted dressmaker who employed 45 seamstresses at her studio (according to her son, her religious faith even dictated that when she sat down at her work table “before she started cutting she would always cross herself”). Versace was even able to isolate a particular incident from his childhood as the moment he realised he was destined to become a designer himself. He recalled watching his mother hold up a dress made from black velvet against her client, a Signora Ippoliti, and thinking, “now my mother will shorten the dress in front, leave it longer in the back and then do something against the rules, something daring”. Not only was he right, this combination of the customary and the extraordinary would characterise his own career.

He remained in Reggio Calabria after leaving school, working with his mother at her studio until 1972. “Designing came to me,” he said later, “I didn’t have to move.” Eventually at the age of 26 he did move, almost the length of the country to Milan where he was in great demand among the leading Italian ready-to-wear houses. Before long he crossed the Atlantic to find international fame, fortune and a legacy still potent and tangible today.

Yet for all his glamorous, jet-setting lifestyle, part of Gianni Versace never left his southern Italian roots. “When you are born in a place such as Calabria and there is beauty all around – a Roman baths, a Greek ruin – you cannot help but be influenced by the classical past,” he said.

Classical themes were a key part of most of his designs and collections. The Medusa became the symbol of the Versace brand and he filled Casa Casuarina with classical statues and sculptures.

“In a way, South Beach was very similar to our roots,” said Donatella, a few months after her brother’s death. “We come from the south of Italy where people live on the beach and walk around, the beautiful, the young, the glamorous, playing loud music and full of the joy of life. That’s what he saw. Gianni was an observer; he didn’t miss a thing, and this was the right spot for him to see what was going on. Here you could hide yourself, but you saw everything.”

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