Gianni Versace: murdered fashion legend’s legacy lives on 20 years after his death

The rags-to-riches Italian designer to the stars was shot dead by a crazed fan in July 1997, but his rule-breaking style continues to inspire a new generation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 2017, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 6:01pm

Two decades after his 1997 murder by a gunman in Miami, Gianni Versace’s innovations continue to inspire young designers. Remembered not just for his clothes but as a marketing force, the Italian was quick to tap celebrity culture and counted Elton John and Madonna among his fans. Princess Diana too wore Versace.

The fashion legend was known for breaking the rules. And unlike his peers, he was inspired by contemporary culture, taking his cues from the street.

Versace’s rags-to-riches story is the stuff of Hollywood. He grew up in the southern Italian town of Reggio Calabria, surrounded by seamstresses in his dressmaker mother’s studio. After high school, he worked with his mother before moving to Milan in 1972 and branched out on his own in 1978 after designing collections for several Italian fashion companies, including Byblos.

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Drawing on his hometown’s Greek and Italian Baroque roots, he decorated his designs with elaborate motifs and prints, such as the now infamous Medusa head which covered a range of body-hugging dresses that would later become one if his signatures. The word “Versace” was plastered on almost every piece of clothing.

The look was brash, bold and unashamed to the point of vulgarity – and the fashion world couldn’t get enough of it.

Although Versace was known for his glamorous rock ’n’ roll styles, he was also an innovator. Dresses were made from aluminium mesh or leather and rubber fused together using cutting-edge techniques. One of his most memorable creations was a black dress held together by gold safety pins, which was worn by model Elizabeth Hurley. The dress made her a star overnight.

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Versace launched his first couture collection in 1989. In the 1990s he continued to grow his empire, adding new clothing lines like Versus and accessories. Numerous awards followed, including four L’Occhio d’Oros and a CFDA award in 1993.

He also lent his talents to designing costumes for the arts world, including La Scala and the San Francisco Opera. While he built his empire, he recruited his family to join the business, including brother Santo, who ran the commercial side, and sister Donatella, who designed for Versus.

Versace wasn’t just a talented designer. He used his marketing skills to pack the front row of his shows with famous faces from the film and music worlds.

To showcase his clothes on the catwalks he would enlist supermodels and friends including Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington. Thanks to Versace, they became household names.

His clothes were immortalised in sexually charged advertising campaigns, shot by greats such as Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber and Helmut Newton, that launched a new era of communication about fashion.

Along with his success came fame and a jet-set life. He had homes in Milan, on Lake Como and in South Beach, Miami, where he would entertain the rich and famous.

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Versace was shot in Miami by crazed fan Andrew Cunanan on July 15, 1997. At the time the brand reported annual revenues of almost US$1 billion.

Sister Donatella, who took charge following his death, has made her own creative statements, but her brother’s designs have inspired creative powerhouses such as Riccardo Tisci, Christopher Kane, Fausto Puglisi and Olivier Rousteing.