The Enduring Legacy of Gianni Versace


“Versace, Versace, Medusa head on me like I’m ‘luminati,” begins the Migos song named after the Italian house. In case the Medusa reference slipped you, the video (which features the rappers decked out in classic baroque-patterned silks) or Drake’s line about visiting the mansion in Miami should be clues that the “Versace” of the song isn’t a current iteration of the luxury label, but an appreciation of the aesthetic established by Gianni Versace—the late designer, who would have turned 71 this week.

At the height of his fame, Versace, the man was a pop culture icon. Twenty years since his passing, and that hasn’t changed. When mentioned, the images that come to mind are still the flashy excess, gold, and supermodels of the early 1990s, despite the evolution of the brand over time. Nostalgia and appreciation for his talent aside, how is it that Gianni’s legacy continues to endure?

Part of that reason is the designer’s revolution in itself. In its heyday, Versace’s profile exploded beyond the world of fashion into popular culture at large in a way the coincided with—and closely mirrored—the rise of the supermodels.

The house of Versace was first established in 1978, and his couture line debuted in 1989, just as our appetite for models was about to reach the tipping point from fandom to total phenomena. What really made these women—Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, and Cindy Crawford—household names outside of fashion was their appearance in George Michael’s wildly popular video for Freedom! 90. One can imagine what a landmark moment it was when the four not only walked in Versace’s Fall 1991 show together, but they closed it lip-synching the song. The designer widely received credit for bringing the supers together on the runway (from that moment since, a must for any fashion designer). From that moment on, his brand was synonymous with the women of the time.

After that fateful show, Versace continued to dominate the runway, continuing to cast the supers, along with a new crop of then-alternative models including Kate Moss, Shalom Harlow, and Kristen McMenamy in his campaigns, many of which were shot by legendary fashion photographers including Richard Avedon and Bruce Weber.

It certainly helped that his over-the-top aesthetic made his work easy to identify. Versace put his favored-Medusa head on everything, from jewelry to fine china. The intricate patterns he used on silk shirts and scarves could be seen from miles away, and the Greek Key finished off most pieces. The symbolism of his work became as definitive as anything established by the likes of Chanel or Christian Dior. His aesthetic is best epitomized by his Miami mansion, which he completely renovated over the course of three years to resemble his style. Since his passing, the site has been converted into a luxury hotel, which continues to draw high-profile clientele.

It might be hard for those of us today to understand, but there was once a point in time when the fashion world wasn’t enamored with the stars, and the front row was occupied by the most important buyers and editors in the industry. Versace changed that, putting his famous friends, like Madonna and Elton John, on the guest list. He in turn became a celebrity himself, even filming a cameo for the Spice World movie (which wound up on the cutting room floor, as he died shortly before the film’s release).

The wealth and the luxury aside, a large part of the designer’s public image was his family life, which gave his story a down-to-earth appeal. Santo, his brother, helped run the business, while his sister, Donatella, designed his diffusion collection, Versus Versace (she was also his muse). His siblings’ devotion to keeping his memory alive, and his legacy strong, plays a large part in why the designer is still at the forefront of the brand. Donatella’s Spring/Summer 2018 runway show was an all-out tribute to her late brother.

Of course, all of this notoriety made it that much easier for the media to sensationalize his death. People would have been morbidly fascinated with the story of his murder anyway—the tale of a killing spree after which the murderer was on the run for over a week was always going to attract headlines. But Versace’s high-profile had paparazzi flocking to his memorial service in Milan to catch a glimpse of Princess Diana, Naomi Campbell, Elton John, and the Versace family in mourning. Fans continue to flock to his mansion to this day to lay flowers on the steps.

Since then the story of his life and murder has been recreated on television multiple times, including the upcoming season of American Crime Story. But the narrative has never been doom and gloom. On the contrary, his memory has been frozen in time, in an era in which decadence in fashion was celebrated. Nineties fashion didn’t die with Versace, but thanks to his visibility in popular culture, it’s hard to not think of him first.


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