The Things That Shaped Our Year: Gianni Versace

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The Independent Culture
You Would think that since black clothes and dark glasses are practically its official uniform, the fashion industry might handle death in a relatively stoic manner. Yet the violent murder of Gianni Versace - shot twice in the back of the head, at point-blank range, on 15 July this year - traumatised devotees, celebrities, peers and rivals alike.

How they grieved over the gravy-skinned god of all things gaudy! Naomi, Elton, Liz and George - red-eyed and deeply, deeply shocked. Kate, Claudia, Giorgio and pout- rocker Jon Bon Jovi - who had recently figured in a Versace poster campaign - thumbed the lexicon of loss to pronounce themselves stunned, distraught, devastated. They just couldn't believe it.

Why? Partly because the murder was so brutally efficient - shot dead on the steps of his own house - but mainly because it was too damn close to home. Darling Gianni, after all, had been one of them. If not a star, at least a household name, an international media personality, who had built his pounds 400m fortune by marketing narcissism as a lifestyle choice.

This, in fact, was the key to his success: Versace understood the anxieties of the nouveaux riches, and taught them to relax, to luxuriate in their aesthetic shortcomings. He took nightclub drag upmarket and gave it a trademark, inventing a sartorial shorthand for the garish display of wealth; flashy, colourful, cartoon clothes that railed against fashion's minimalism and intellectual snobbery. Versace's top-dollar glad-rags proclaimed defiantly: "I'm gonna wear my dough on my sleeve. And my hips. And my shoulders. And my arse. And ..." He also purchased magazine advertising by the kilometre and threw lavish parties for the media's upper echelons. Unsurprisingly, the fashion press acclaimed his genius.

In a way, they were right. Versace clothes effect a strange alchemy, conferring a golden glow upon the dowdiest showbiz dross. Their power lies in sardonic caricature. In Versace's universe, gender is exaggerated beyond parody: women look like rich hookers and men look like queer pimps and closeted gangsters - except for gay men, of course, who look like Miami Beach gigolos.

As for Versace as the champion of liberated sexuality, this is tugging the tassels a bit. Sure, his clothes are about sex, but not in the way that Hello! readers imagine. As fashion statements go, wearing Versace is more a cry for help than a seductive growl, rather like thrusting one's hips a little too frantically to "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" at the office party. (Rod Stewart, incidentally, is a noted Versace wearer.)

Always looking to grab headlines, Versace courted celebrity in all its ludicrous shapes and sizes, fuelling the supermodel phenomenon and kissing up to Demi, Sly, Tina and, er, David Copperfield. It was a mutually beneficial situation; celebs believed they seemed more cosmopolitan and sophisticated hanging out with a gay Italian designer, while Versace got a touch of that Hollywood glitz.

In this era of image saturation, any brand that transcends fashion's boundaries is priceless. Versace created just such a brand. Whether he did this with innovative, challenging clothes, or by knocking out sensational tack and manipulating a star-hungry media is a matter of opinion.