His passing image

Andrew Gumbel reports from Rome on Italy's fulsome coverage of the murder of an icon

Andrew Gumbel
Sunday 20 July 1997 23:02

Gianni Versace was an Italian media dream come true. In a country increasingly obsessed with show business, glamour, beauty and fancy packaging, here was a man who not only was a top-notch fashion designer but also surrounded himself with super-models, dressed princesses and rock stars, was courted by the trendiest film directors, lived in a clutch of beautiful houses around the world and - not insignificantly - had an interesting face to photograph.

In such a context, his brutal and spectacular death could only elicit one response: an outpouring of stunned emotion, splashed liberally over the first four, five or even six pages of every publication in the country for days on end. Versace was no longer the remote figure living in a cocooned world of cliquey privilege, a man at the very epicentre of the bitchy, competitive fashion whirlwind; he was Gianni, our Gianni, the poor Italian boy made good, the modest, smiling nice guy who charmed everyone and offended nobody; the very finest ambassador for what the papers like to call "il made in italy".

The newspapers and television pumped out interview after interview with fellow fashion designers calling Gianni their only real friend in a brutal business. Busty small-time TV starlets wept into their low-cut Versace outfits, whimpering how they owed so much to the man whom, strangely, they all claimed to know as intimately as a childhood sweetheart.

Nowhere was there a hint of criticism, an attempt at a rounded portrait of a personality who, whatever his merits, must surely have had a couple of faults somewhere too. This, of course, says much about the Italian attitude to death. If a person is being mourned, especially a public figure, woe betide anyone who cannot keep their bitter, negative thoughts to themselves. But it also illustrates the reluctance with which the Italian media will investigate or attack public figures, dead or alive, who are deemed to be good for the image of the country abroad. Gianni Versace is considered untouchable, as is the Agnelli family, or Sophia Loren. Any investigative urges by individual journalists are almost always squashed by the power of the industrial groups that control the media, and the result is a kind of omerta, or willing silence, that is not necessarily suspicious (after all, heroic public figures do exist) but always ends up looking that way.

In reaction to allegations in the foreign media about some murky practices in the Versace business empire, the Corriere della Sera immediately wheeled out the old, tired complaint that foreigners always associate Italians with the Mafia as though the two were the same thing. And it went on: "One senses what is probably a little resentment for the success that Italy's image has in the world."

This typically house-proud analysis misses the point that in many ways Gianni Versace was a global phenomenon, for the media particularly. A decade ago, mainstream newspapers and television news broadcasts in most countries would have given only the most cursory attention to the fashion world, as they did with other big showbiz events such as the Oscars, which usually merited just a few paragraphs on the arts pages. Versace was one of the people instrumental in changing all that. Brought up with an Italian media that, more than any other, has a weakness for big glossy events and famous people, he pursued a lavish marketing policy whereby he draped himself in celebrities and finery. By linking up with the worlds of film and rock music, he took fashion off the fashion pages and transformed it from a superior form of clothing business into a full-blown media event.

In a way, the rest of the world has been following in the footsteps of Italy, which in turn has become more and more celebrity-conscious. Once, stories about Versace and his like would be categorised under Spettacoli, the section of most papers dealing with television, film and show business. In the past few years, though, the main news pages have been filled with analyses of Versace's rivalry with Armani, with the story of Versace's coming out as a homosexual to the New York Times, with news of his latest property acquisitions. Even the foreign pages, once dedicated to serious analysis of politics around the world, are filling with titbits about fashion models, celebrity relationships and break-ups, and so on.

By the time of his death, Versace had succeeded in turning his star-studded world into big news, and newspapers in Britain and the United States have become almost as show-business oriented as their Italian counterparts. Perhaps the most striking thing about the coverage of Gianni Versace's killing was, ultimately, how similarly it was tackled across the world. Front-page splashes, big graphics showing the layout of South Beach in Miami, lengthy speculations on the future of the Versace business - these were not things confined to Italian newspapers. Versace's legacy may be to have made us all more image-conscious, and perhaps also a tad more superficialn

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