Obituary: Gianni Versace

Gianni Versace was a talented vulgarian. His clothes appealed to the type of woman - or man - who could make a Faustian deal in return for a one- way ticket to Hollywood. And Hollywood was the appropriate venue for his louche offerings.

From the mid-Eighties, in a mutually promoting symbiosis, he teamed up with the gaudier stars of film and pop music to persuade the general public that a Versace outfit automatically conveyed sexual stardom on its wearer. Could anyone - even if they had wished - have avoided seeing the catapulting into the public eye of Elizabeth Hurley in the safety-pinned dress?

Versace was the unrivalled master of sound-bite dressmaking. In an age when performers have to seize the milli-second of fame before the world's cameras at the Oscars, the Emmy or the Cannes awards, his clothes ensured they were noticed. Loudly coloured, swagged in pinchbeck - "fool's gold" - chains and medallions stamped with Medusas' heads, and cantilevered into improbable hourglass forms, the clothes yelled "Fame!"

Versace boasted that he took inspiration from the prostitutes in the vicinity of his childhood home in Reggio di Calabria, in southern Italy. He liked to explain that he was offering "femininity" back to women, but he clearly confused Availability with Allure, and the Sexual with the Sensual.

Born of humble origins in 1946, he was apprenticed at his mother's knee, for she ran up outfits for the locals. Having moved to Milan, in 1973 he began freelance designing for the prominent ready-to-wear labels Callaghan and Genny before launching his eponymous label in 1978.

An adept self-promoter, he immediately employed Richard Avedon to photograph Brooke Shields, Janice Dickenson, Kim Alexis, Jerry Hall and Gia - the supermodels of their time - in an arresting advertising campaign. Versace, along with his bitter rival Giorgio Armani, Mariuccia Mandelli of Krizia, Gianfranco Ferre, and the Missonis, put Milan on the international fashion map, rendering Rome, the traditional centre of Italian fashion, obsolete.

This handful of designers was responsible for Italy's second post-war miracle; they built up their country's ready-to-wear to become its premier industry.

In collaboration with Italian textile manufacturers and Milanese fashion editors who pioneered the quid pro quo - editorial pages for advertising revenue - these designers, in a mere 10 years, reached a global buying public. By underscoring their brand with product placement in blockbuster films, their commercial success was assured.

Versace's clothes were consistently clean-cut, unromantic and sporty. Initially he restyled basic sports clothes - bomber jackets, jeans, jodphurs - in luxurious materials, such as silk, leather and suede.

These casual shapes were flatteringly cut and were well suited to the raunchier working woman who emerged from the barricades of feminism to march hand in hand with her Barbie Doll sister towards flaunted and rootless materialism. Alternatively, he offered a pastiche of Thirties and Forties dressing, epitomised by Charlotte Rampling's coldly amoral character in Luchino Visconti's film The Damned (1969).

Versace had talent. He was an adept cutter, could tailor with skill and possessed a clever and experimental sense of cloth. Keen to harness science, he was an eager exponent of the latest technology.

In 1982, inspired by the aluminium chainmail gloves used in abattoirs, he introduced an aluminium mesh which he draped across the body. Its sweet liquefaction gave the appearance of mercury dripping, imperceptibly slowly, over a woman's curves. It was an exquisite use of a modern material for evening wear.

The following year, having studied laser technology in Japan, he used the laser to fuse rubber to pelts. This was dubbed "neo-couture", for it ousted the needle and thread. The result, alternate strips of leather and rubber that had the appearance of undulating corrugated iron, was made into biker's jackets and fitted anoraks, that were hard-hitting but soft to the touch.

Versace surrounded himself with family. His brother Santo was his partner, his sister Donatella, a perma-tanned, bottle blonde, was his muse and latterly co-designer. It is common knowledge that she is principally responsible for the diffusion lines Versus and Instante which he launched in the Nineties. Donatella's profile was raised, it was said, when it was rumoured that he was HIV positive.

Visiting his headquarters in Milan reminded one of the antiseptic presentation of the classical world favoured by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Classical renditions of the male torso stood in frigid white alcoves, importantly lit so as to emphasise the assumed refinement and scholarship of their owner.

Lest one failed to appreciate his grasp of art history - he loved to be referred to as a "Renaissance Man" - one was soon plied with files of "background material" on his show homes on Lake Como and in Miami, where he housed his art collections.

A frenzy of promotional zeal announced the opening of Versace's Old Bond Street shop in London, in the middle of the recent recession. He pioneered the recent fad for fashion designers requisitioning the old noble buildings that had once housed "Old Masters", perhaps intending to underscore their assumption that they were the new masters of art. It was said the building cost pounds 11m to "restore". If Hollywood were to make a film about Caligula, surely the setting should be this shop.

At the time his look had reached the apogee of bawdiness which was laughingly marketed as "couture" and "atelier". Lingerie lace and satin baby-doll dresses, whose hems swung just short of lace-topped stockings, were worn with Louis-heeled mules and Louis-Quinze-style curly tresses - proof that he had a fine appreciation of French ancien regime culture.

Though the look was promoted on the backs of supermodels, it tended to be worn by those women who could afford a few thousand for these little nothings, namely ageing media tycoons. Their men were dressed like henchmen in black shirts, black boots and black suits all swagged with gilt gewgaws. Similarly dressed, Gianni Versace and his band of cohorts hijacked Sting and Trudie Styler's country wedding in 1992.

By the Nineties Versace and his band of blackshirts were in cahoots with a triumvirate that was to dominate fashion: Richard Avedon, the image manipulator, Naomi, Christy and Claudia, the image dolls, and various glossy magazine editors, the image purveyors. They created an image that could be read at 50 paces from a news-stand or street hoarding; an image which served the industry but not the reader. When editors such as Suzy Menkes criticised, they were banned from shows.

In recent seasons, though his look softened, it could not wrench itself from the boudoir. Customers were dressed in lingerie satin and lace cut on the bias. Versace liked to claim that this was couture; it was merely a ham-fisted rerun of the refined techniques of Gres, Augustabernard and Vionnet of the 1930s.

Gianni Versace was truly a designer of his time. It is little wonder, in an age when beauty is judged by the configuration of dots on a screen and glanced fleetingly as the viewer surfs through the channels, that day-glo colours, more gold than Midas could have hoarded, and pastiches of call-girl gear, should attract both attention and custom.

Jane Mulvagh

Gianni Versace, fashion designer: born Reggio di Calabria, Italy 2 December 1946; died Miami Beach, Florida 15 July 1997.

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