One of the most defining figures in fashion during the 1990s, Gianni Versace was responsible for the supermodels, most notably with his Fall 1991 show. Not only that, but he also brought fashion and music together—having gained multiple muses throughout the years such as Madonna, Prince, George Michael, and Elton John. Versace was considered the designer of the time. With a profound influence on fashion, music, and celebrities, he was on top of the food chain. But no one expected what would happen to him 25 years ago today.
25 years ago, Gianni Versace was murdered in front of his Casa Casuarina, creating a dark void in the fashion industry. In honor of his life and work, we’re looking back at the legendary designer’s final show — Atelier Versace F/W 1997
The fashion of the early 1990s was fun, bold, and free. Designers of the time such as Karl Lagerfeld and Calvin Klein led the mood of the time with their acquainted knowledge of the culture. Sex, camp, and glamour were what the people craved. From the alluring supermodels to the influence of music on style, there’s one designer that has mastered it all—the great Gianni Versace.
Fashion’s king of rock and roll, as well as Italian excess, Gianni knew the power that fashion, music, and celebrity culture could do together. For his Fall 1991 show, he made a special segment where all the female supermodels (minus Tatjana Patitz) from George Michael’s video for “Freedom! ’90” was walking and lip-syncing the song together. This was the moment when fashion changed forever. Its influence is even still present today.
Then, Gianni continued on collaborating with other notable people outside of fashion. Music legends such as Madonna and Prince became the faces of the brand for multiple advertising campaigns.
And who could forget Elizabeth Hurley in THAT dress? For the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral in London on May 1994, she accompanied then-boyfriend Hugh Grant wearing a Versace S/S 1994 dress held up by only safety pins. Highly controversial at the time, it propelled the then 29-year-old actress into superstardom. In just one moment, Hurley and Versace managed to encapsulate everything about the ’90s.
Change in Course
Entering the mid-1990s, the industry changed drastically in just a few years. For instance, from the voluptuous, Amazonian-like supermodels of previous seasons, fashion picked and preferred a new, lankier batch of girls—ushering in the ‘heroin chic’ era. Considered the “waifs”, models such as Amber Valletta and Stella Tennant dominated the industry, diminishing the power and influence of those bombastic supermodels from past years. And the leading face of it all was Kate Moss.
Change did not only affect the world of modeling but also the fashion design world. New, fresher, and more daring names like John Galliano and Alexander McQueen were making huge waves in the industry. From the fun and sexy mood of the early 90s, these designers presented a more provocative and avant-garde approach to the playing field. The almost (if not all the time) unattainable glamour of the time is now being replaced by a harsher, more serious grasp on history and culture. So with Gianni Versace as one of the leading forces of fashion, how did he keep up with the new ones?
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A New Direction
Always striving for innovation, Gianni set out in a new, more simplistic direction for his legendary Italian house. With grunge taking over the scene and outlandish eccentricity ruling the runways, the designer still stuck to his guns. Sex, body, and glamour were ever-present in his shows during this time. But, these had a much more distinct emphasis on structure and simplicity. Gianni put more focus on silhouettes and materials rather than gaudy embellishments, with his Atelier Versace shows exemplifying this the best. Maybe these were influenced by the works of fashion’s new faces, or maybe he wanted to rival them through evolution?
Haute Couture itself is not necessarily for experimenting with modernity, especially if we’re talking about its clientele. Yves Saint Laurent was arguably the best example of this at the time. But Gianni wanted to evolve and innovate the format of fashion. In his own words during a backstage interview at his Atelier Versace F/W 1996 show:
We are close to the end of this millennium, and we must move.
Bold olympiad-like silhouettes with beautiful Grecian touches were the new direction of Versace.
A Byzantine Finale
July 6, 1997, Gianni Versace showcased his Atelier Versace show for Fall at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris. The collection was inspired by his visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “The Glory Of Byzantium” exhibition. The show began with incredible structured designs primarily in black. Impeccably constructed suits, leather mini dresses, and exaggeratedly padded tops were highlighted by religious embroidery and exposed shoulder pads.
The collection continued with asymmetric dresses fit for any Greek goddess. Glitter mini dresses in different colors and variations cut through all the black looks on the runway.
Coming to its finale, gold metal mesh dresses—a material Gianni reintroduced and popularized—were sent out on the catwalk adorned with multiple gold crosses. The cut and draping of the looks were packed with an eroticism that juxtapose its religious detailing.
For every Haute Couture show, it’s crucial to end with a bride. Originally supposed to be then-newbie Karen Elson, as suggested by his sister Donatella Versace, she was then replaced last minute with supermodel and muse Naomi Campbell during the rehearsal the night before the presentation.
Also, initially, the veil covered the face of the model, but Gianni decided to pull it back. In his own words:
A bride, in a silver dress, with a veil pulled back behind her head, not covering her face. Not a virgin bride, a Versace bride. She will be a woman who’s loved many men before. A woman who’s finally found her equal, a match for her passions. She won’t be dainty, she won’t be timid. She will be proud and strong. And that’s how I will end my show.
Naomi ended the show wearing a silver metal mesh mini dress encrusted with silver crosses. From Byzantine art fused with Grecian form, this was Gianni taking Versace into a new age in fashion.
Though proving his continuous evolution and innovation, this show would only serve as a glimpse of what Gianni would’ve done. Nine days later, the designer tragically died in the hands of Andre Cunanan. Everyone from fashion, film and music were in shock of his death, especially his sister Donatella, who would have the massive task of taking over as head designer of Versace.
The Legacy of Gianni, and Versace
On October 9, 1997, almost three months after her brother’s untimely passing, Donatella presented her first Versace show for Spring 1998 with a triumphant ovation. Continuing on Gianni’s simplistic Grecian direction for the house, the designs were inspired by the heavens and cosmos. Silk, leather, cashmere, and, of course, metal mesh became the materials used to showcase Donatella’s unique vision for Versace.
This was a great effort from the late designer’s sister, considering it’s her first for the label. She would continue to hone her skills through the years, though taking a tumultuous road during the early 2000s. But with all of the events that had happened, one thing is for sure—Donatella is a survivor, and so is her house. With how massive Versace is now is a living, breathing example of her strength and passion in keeping her brother’s name alive.
Fashion still mourns the death of Gianni Versace. But with Donatella’s never-ending exploration for innovation, just like her brother, the legendary house and Gianni’s legacy will continue to live on.
A fourth-year fine arts college student in the University of Santo Tomas, majoring in advertising. Nathan usually does extensive research on fashion and runway history, film, music and pop culture, with a strong eagerness to learn more.