Versace: Gianni’s Legacy and Donatella’s Chutzpah
Versace is one of the best known Italian fashion brands, and for good reason. Its founder, Gianni Versace, and its torchbearer, Donatella Versace, have made the brand the epitome of rock-star glamour, decadent style, and in-your-face sexiness. Wearing Versace has become the signature style of the glitterati. With the passing away of Gianni, the brand may have lost its continuous association with theatre and art, it remains a formidable force in the world of fashion. No red carpet is deemed complete without a few contributions from the legendary brand.
Versace as a brand was the brainchild of Gianni Versace, who was born in Reggio Calabria on December 2, 1946. His mother was the family’s main provider, tailoring clothes to make a living. This meant that both Gianni and Donatella were exposed to tailoring techniques and designs from their childhood. Gianni used to help his mother as she embroidered dresses, finding gold braids and precious stones for her. He eventually began designing garments himself, which sold from his mother’s dressmaker shop.
After a stint studying architecture, he left for Milan in 1972. Here, he took on freelance designing for Italian labels like Genny, Callaghan and Complice. He designed the first leather collection for Complice in 1975, and found a lifelong fascination for leather as designer clothing material. Encouraged by the response his work received, he presented his first collection of womenswear in 1978 in Milan, and followed it up by his first menswear collection the same year. This was also the year the first Versace boutique opened, at the Via della Spiga. His style which celebrated excess, and took equal amounts of inspiration from Italian architecture, theatre, and the Miami beach life, set the ramps on fire.
Gianni had an unerring sense of style, and a hunger for image, which gave him a spurt of growth seldom seen in the fashion world. Not only did he prove his mettle as a costume designer for Italian theatre, he also excelled at playing couturier to Hollywood, and to stars in the UK like Elton John and Madonna. Princess Diana was one of his more illustrious clients. His success soon culminated in the first of a series of awards in his career: “L’Occhio d’Oro” for the best fashion designer of the 1982/83 Fall/Winter collection for women. Gianni went on to win this award a few more times. This was also the year he formally entered into a collaboration with the famous Teatro alla Scala.
By this time, Donatella had already joined the Versace brand, primarily in a PR role, but she went on to become his muse, inspiration, and favorite critic. Born in 1955, she was almost a decade younger than him but the two shared an extremely close relationship. Gianni said of her, “If my sister wants to do something, okay. If she doesn’t like a sketch, I will cancel it.” Donatella’s role in the company grew to a point where she was given the responsibility for designing the new line,Versus. Gianni Versace named a perfume, Blonde, after her to celebrate Donatella’s famous artificially blond hair.
Gianni and Donatella Versace
Donatella had her finger on the pulse of the youth, and was able to clue her brother in on the needs of a fashion-hungry new breed. She is widely credited for introducing supermodels in a group on Versace ramps, and began drawing celebrities like Madonna and Demi Moore to endorse the Versace brand. Versace clothing soon graced the red carpet, and the brand eventually won over celebrities like Brad Pitt, Jamie Foxx, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Lopez.
While Donatella Versace was taking the brand into new realms through her advertising, Versace himself was reaching stratospheric heights in the fashion world. His contribution to the world of art and fashion was recognized by Chicago’s National Field Museum, London’s Royal College of Art and the Kobe City Museum in Japan. His business acumen was not far behind and he was relentlessly spinning off diffusion lines for his collections.
1989 saw the establishment of the Atelier Versace, which catered to an ultra-high fashion segment. Then came the aforementioned Versus, meant for cute young things. The classic Signature line was launched in 1991 and the Home Signature came out in 1993. It was also in 1993 that Gianni received the American Fashion Oscar awarded by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Versace’s creed became: “Style makes sense only if it is your own.” Hundreds of sharply dressed men, and sexily clad women in nightclubs around the world echoed that sentiment, making Versace a bigger success than ever. Sensuous, revealing silhouettes and an aggressive chic became part of Gianni Versace’s design ethos, and this was best epitomized in the unforgettable safety-pin dress worn by Liz Hurley to the premier of Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994.
The brand almost received a death blow when Gianni Versace was gunned down at his own doorstep in 1997, by a serial-killer. Overnight, the company lost its guiding light, and the subsequent collections for that year were cancelled. Some of the biggest luminaries of the fashion, music, and high-society attended Gianni’s funeral, and tributes have been made to his name each year since.
Princess Diana, Elton John at Gianni Versace's Funeral
It was Donatella who picked up the reins of the company as its creative director, and gave it a new lease of life. It was not always easy and the profits of the Versace company dipped before they picked up again after the turn of the century. Donatella gathered herself together, successfully battled addictions. She then began to use her famous connections and her inner style instinct to regain and even supersede the heights to which her brother had taken the brand.
Donatella retained the legacy of Gianni in the sharp, revealing, often embroidered silhouettes. But she also tuned the brand into recognizing the needs of the modern career woman, who needs to transform from smart office wear into glam evening wear with very little notice.
The collections became more varied, and while there were still shocking pieces like the neckline-below-the-navel dress Jennifer Lopez wore to the Grammy Awards in 2000, the tone of the Versace line became more subdued, less explicit.
Penelope Cruz wore Versace to the Academy Awards in 2007, but it was a subdued monochrome affair. Despite the wealth of embellishments, Atelier Versace seemed to be moving in a simpler direction with more emphasis on materials used and pattern cuts than embroidery. This was amply proven in the Spring 2009 couture collection, which created quite a buzz in Italy and the U.S.
As she said in an earlier interview in 2006 with Harper’s Bazaar: “……. you can’t leave your style the same as it always was and so I try to ‘feel’ the trends and make them work for Versace. I’ve taken away ornaments, obvious expressions of sexiness, sheer things, showing legs, breasts. Everything is covered and subtle and that’s my way to go in a new direction.”
The fashion world is apparently taking notice. Donatella Versace won the Superstar Award by the Fashion Group International in 2008. She has done a great job, carrying forward the Versace label in new directions while maintaining Gianni’s legacy.
By Damyanti Ghosh