Style: Rock 'n' roll and royalty

Stars attended a New York gala dinner in memory of Versace to raise money for the Metropolitan Museum. Christa Worthington watched the tribute to the man who broke the boundaries of fashion.

The death of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, who was gunned down in Miami in July, injected enough life into the annual fundraising gala at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to raise the mummies in the museum's Temple of Dendur.

"I didn't want him to be remembered as the man who was murdered," explained Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute, about his decision to mount the exhibit "Gianni Versace" in time to be feted at the Institute's December ball. Hosted this year by Conde Nast and the cable channel VH1, among others, the gala is a highpoint of New York's social calendar. But with Versace as subject, the evening took on the urgency of the Oscars. Seating at dinner sold for a record high of $50,000 per table and the guest list, as well as the exhibit, testified to the designer's gift for making of high fashion rock 'n' roll. Sting performed instead of the usual string quartet; Elton John was a co-chairman, along with the designer's sister and heir to his fashion signature, Donatella Versace; Madonna and Cher dined with the stars of fashion beneath balconies of lit candles, serenaded by a boy's choir from Harlem.

It was the least they could do for the man who forged an alliance between fashion, media and entertainment that has been mutually beneficial to all.

"He made the Cinderella garments for our media world," said Martin to a platoon of furry mikes at the show's press preview. The Cinderella figure, of course, was Diana - a guest of honour at last year's ball. The beaded baby-blue Versace dress she wore on the cover of the September issue of Harper's Bazaar appears in the exhibit.

With 90 examples of Versace's important works, including the infamous "Elizabeth Hurley dress" held together, barely, by safety pins, the show sets out to establish him as one of the great dress-makers of the 20th century, a radical innovator attuned to history - to Vionnet, Poiret and Madame Gres; to abstract and ancient art - not just rock 'n' roll. In the analytical light of the museum, removed from sensational photography or beautiful bodies, an item like the "Elizabeth Hurley dress" is revealed as a fashion idea - a little black dress in the manner of Chanel's that does her "poverty de luxe" one better with Punk iconography. "His gift was to be popular without ever being middle- class," said Martin.

Versace came of age in the Armani-soaked atmosphere of Milanese fashion in the Seventies, when sportswear of lanky unisex elegance made headlines. But sexiness of a sort unseen in polite company would become his signature: bondage dressing, transparency, sado-masochistic lacing and leather, and punk safety-pin closures that revealed skin at every opportunity. For him, sex was charm itself.

"He's the first post-Freudian fashion designer," observed Martin. "He's simply unashamed of any sexuality. Somewhere in the Eighties he had this ideal of the prostitute, in the same way Toulouse Lautrec had it. When everyone else is looking to the street, he found the streetwalker. He transformed her, made her chic. It's really about saying sexuality is a force of identity, the same way contemporary culture is doing in the Eighties and Nineties." For men, too, he abhorred the convention of the business suit and preferred the look of South Beach bikers in lightweight clingy shirts.

"No one took him too seriously in the Eighties. He really takes off in the very late Eighties - in 1988 and 1989," said Martin of the moment Versace's image began to merge with that of his famous clients. Rocks and Royalty was the title of a picture book Versace produced, and he immersed himself in that equation as king and courtier, entertaining rock stars from Elton John to Bruce Springsteen in baroque palaces on Lake Como and South Beach. In the exhibit, the medieval wedding gown Versace made for Trudie Styler's 1992 marriage to Sting drips gemstone embroidery like the crown jewels of a media-made monarchy.

His white boucle suit worn by Claudia Schiffer on the cover of Time magazine in 1995 appears in the show as the rare mainstream garment amid outsized fantasy. Most of his clothes, even the simplest in silhouette, have an epic extravagance designed to catch some reflected glory, or light: opulent gold neo-classical and baroque celebrates immodesty, a quilted leather coat with a flared skirt is so pumped up as to seem airborne. Always erotic and hyperbolic, his mix of metaphor and material could be brutally surprising: a slip dress that looks featherweight is made of heavy metal: see through mesh is a appliqued with embroidered leather.

In a section called "The Dream", his vision lifts off from reality altogether with theatre costume designed for opera and ballet - choreographers Twyla Tharp and Maurice Bejart. In his alliance with media, entertainment and the arts, Versace follows in the visionary tradition of Poiret, the fashion innovator of the early part of the century who collaborated with Diaghilev, the Ballets Russe and the musicians and artists of his time.

"Rock 'n' roll was just one of many interests," says the curator who grouped the clothes according to Versace's preoccupations: art, history, and experimental materials (plastic and leather). Mobile chiffon dresses move like Alexander Calder's sculptures, and Warhol-like silk screens of the faces of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe adorn an evening gown. Under the heading of "History", short slave-girl sheaths in aluminium mesh fall like Greek drapery but weigh 20 pounds and strike the pose, said Martin of "cheesy gladiator movies". Denim jackets are combined with 18th-century lace and silk skirts that refer to Versailles.

"I want to be remembered as a man who broke boundaries in fashion," Versace says to the camera in a video accompanying the exhibit that now resonates as eery prophecy. "I try to make people beautiful and happy." His complex legacy has only begun to be considered. In July, the first biography of the late designer is due from Little Brown & Co and writer Christopher Mason; he scored a $500,000 contract and is writing without co-operation from the Versace family.

The Costume Institute's exhibit, according to the curator, is likely to travel to London, Paris and Tokyo.

The Gianni Versace exhibition is at The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (00 1 212 570 3711) until 22 March 1998

Strapless evening dress, fall-winter collection 1997-98: black leather embroidered with Japanese characters

Courtesy Gianni Versace Archives

Evening gown, spring-summer 1994: orange and purple synthetic jersey

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Gianni Versace, 1996

Suit, fall-winter 1991-92: polychrome printed silk panne velvet

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Anne H Bass, 1993

Evening dresses, fall-winter 1991-92: pink and pale blue quilted silk satin, silk georgette and lace The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Versace, 1993

three versace-look winners by Holly Davies

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