Versace: very sexy

The essence of many great designers can be captured in one word: `elegant' for example, or `radical' or `startling'. In the case of Gianni Versace the word is `sexy' - not subtly sexy or surprisingly sexy but blatantly, gloriously, ravishingly sexy. Only an Italian could have done it. By Tamsin Blanchard

Without Gianni Versace, fashion as we know it would be very different. His clothes, and who was wearing them, made news. More than his contributions to the wardrobe of Elizabeth Hurley, what the King of Glitz did for fashion is weld together high fashion with the very fabric of popular culture.

He is responsible for the dressing of Hollywood stars at the Academy awards, of rock stars on tour, of cultivating the public Hello! lifestyle of the rich and famous and inviting his friends, be they David Bowie and Iman, his star photographer, Richard Avedon, Elton, Sting or Madonna to spend time with him on vacation at his Miami home.

Without Versace, we would not have the cult of the supermodel, the Eighties catwalk stars who became celebrity clothes horses photographed wherever they went in the unmistakeable siren dresses that were the designer's trademark. It is impossible to imagine a fashion world without Versace. Over the past 20 years, he has been a dynamo in contemporary fashion. You either hated his clothes or you loved them. Whether you wore the safety- pinned dress, sat on the Medusa head printed cushions or wore the rip- off Versace sunglasses, or bought the jeans, you know the designer's look with your eyes closed.

Ironically, the Eighties, which were Versace's shining years, are now in vogue again. How were we to know that last Sunday's haute couture show for autumn/winter 98 in the Ritz was to be his last? The reactions to the collection were mixed. He had made a statement as only Versace can, that razer-sharp shoulders, thigh-high skirts and hard-edged power-dressing were The Look again. His vision of couture was at times vulgar, and always in your face.

Versace traded on sex, and made no bones about it. The women who wore his dresses looked instantly fabulous, as though they were the life and soul of the party. And usually, wherever there was Versace in person or frock, there was champagne, caviar, gloss and glamour.

While designers have long looked to the street for inspiration, Versace delved deeper, into the murky depths of the streetwalker herself. Divine Brown and her hooker friends were closer to Versace than the closeted world of Elizabeth Hurley. His mother made him cover his eyes as a child when he passed by the local brothel, and it only served to whet his appetite. Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, who worked with Versace on his book Without Ties, said last night: "Sexiness is key in Versace's work. He took declasse pornography and turned it into high style. His sexuality was completely unabashed. He's a great figure in fashion."

Versace was born in 51 years ago in Reggio-Calabria. His family has always been as tightly knit as his business, with brother Santo and sister Donatella in close cahoots. His first perfume, launched in 1981, was named Donna, after his sister. She now designs the diffusion label, Versus, which shows in New York in the true spirit of Versace, with a whole host of celebrities and music stars in tow.

In 1972, Gianni began designing for Italian labels, Genny, Complice and Callaghan. He set up his own label in 1978, ready and raring to go for the high-powered glamour years of the Eighties. Along with Mugler and Montana in Paris, Versace rejuvenated the Italian fashion scene of the late Seventies. He will be most remembered for the signature clashing prints and psychedelic patterns that used baroque imagery from South Beach to the Italian Renaissance and were copied from Bangkok to Top Shop. Then there was the recurring theme of bondage that manifested itself in leather bustiers, tiny buckles, and dresses that can only be described as deeply kinky. There was the chain mail, used in metallic pastels that acted like living, moving disco balls, just perfect for the Euro trash and their jetset lifestyles.

It was not until spring/summer 1990 that Versace showed his first haute couture collection. Whether or not it was couture in the real sense of the word was always up for debate. He caused controversy by using PVC to make shower-curtain ballgowns and by introducing decidedly un-couture fabrics like denim to his Atelier line. But it rejuvenated haute couture as much as Galliano and McQueen have done now. He brought to Paris a younger, hipper client, and the paparazzi were always guaranteed a star entrance to the venue at the Ritz Hotel. Prince, Hurley, Elton, Jon Bon Jovi, Sylvester Stallone. In the early Nineties in particular, the front row and the party afterwards would be solid with celebrities.

Love his style or hate it, Versace's death marks the end of a unique style. At times, Versace has dominated world fashion, from high fashion to high street. As news spread around the fashion world yesterday, the most common response was uncomprehension of life without the Italian maestro. At British Vogue, editors were shocked. Lisa Armstrong, fashion features director, said, "he was one of the top five designers of the world. It's a huge loss."

Photographs: Chris Moore, Richard Avedon (courtesy of Versace), Rex Features, Mario Testino

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