Gianni Versace with models including Claudia Schiffer (eighth left), Naomi Campbell (ninth left) and Linda Evangelista (fourth right). Photograph: Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis/Getty Images
Gianni Versace changed fashion. Plenty of designers change fashion – a gamechanging hemline here, a much-copied dress there – but not like him. Versace transformed what fashion meant. He put fashion in the middle of a new celebrity solar system and clothes at the centre of popular culture. This change was already in the air 20 years ago, on the July morning when the 50-year-old designer was shot. But it was his murder that jolted the world into recognising how potent the name Versace had become.
Does that sound exaggerated and overblown? Even a little bit brash, maybe? I hope so, because that is precisely as it should be. That is what Versace did: he rewrote the rules of how we talk about fashion. He blew the cobwebs off haute couture, intensified the colour saturation, cranked up the volume. He turned clothes into pop. In a career that packed famous images back to back like a movie trailer, one of the key scenes was the catwalk show in 1991 in which models Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlingtoncatwalked while lipsyncing to George Michael’s Freedom. Decades before going viral was even a concept, Versace orchestrated a catwalk moment that lives on YouTube to this day. The high waistbands and tissue-layered drapes of their dresses are straight from the classical goddess playbook, but the colours – pillarbox red, sunshine yellow, black – are from a colouring book. There is a cartoonish simplicity to the image, which looks as presciently modern as an emoji-packed WhatsApp bubble.
It is impossible now to separate the horror of Versace’s murder from the bigger Versace story. The tragedy has become as much a part of the house’s origin story as Michael and the models. Versace’s death is seldom written about without the phrase “on the steps of his Miami mansion” sneaking in somewhere, glamour and tragedy intertwined. Even before his death, Versace had brought a frisson of danger into his clothes. He borrowed ideas from subcultures – safety pins from punk, spraypaint neons from urban graffiti – and put them on the red carpet and the catwalk. His Paris fashion week shows, with models in tiny dresses stalking a Perspex catwalk laid over the swimming pool of the Ritz, had become the focus of an increasingly frenzied paparazzi scrum each season.
The image from Versace’s funeral of a beautiful, bereft Princess Diana next to a weeping Elton John captures a moment in which the old establishment was being replaced by a new celebrity world order. Versace was instrumental in this shift in power; he is credited by Anna Wintour as being the first fashion designer to realise the power of having celebrities in the front row. He was among the first to fully recognise the potential of models to become significant players in the industry. He connected fashion to music in a way no designer had done before, with Prince and Jon Bon Jovi posing for ad campaigns. He was partying with Diana, Elton, Madonna, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Springsteen and Campbell many years before Taylor Swift came up with the concept of #SquadGoals. A modus operandi that was derided as vulgar by contemporaries looks now to have been ahead of its time.
From the beginning, Versace challenged snobbery. His dresses did not play by the traditional sartorial rules. There was too much print, too much glitz, too much bare skin, too much raw sexuality. The colours celebrated the raucousness of fashion at street level – and put it on the catwalk for the first time. Yet the taste level was distinctly haute. His designs were ambitious in their construction and fabrication. He pioneered dresses with panels of pliable metal mesh, a kind of glamorous, sparkling, fluid chainmail that is now a red-carpet classic. He was a skilful colourist, creating elegance out of the palette of a southern Italian gelateria. He was adept at flattering the female body, combining drapery that referenced Madame Grès with the bias cutting techniques of Vionnet.
Since Versace’s death, the house has been under the guardianship of his younger sister, Donatella. She has brought her own style, but the brand still stands, as it always did, for sex, for fun, for being at the centre of things. Fashion is entertainment: everyone knows that now. Gianni Versace made sure of it.
How Versace became the last word in glamour
Thanks to its celebrity associations, Versace has become a word that means all things glamour. It features in lyrics from Biggie Smalls to Frank Ocean and is shorthand for the kind of dressing where high heels are mandatory and a red carpet is the preferred backdrop. Here are seven moments when the brand slayed celebrity dressing.
Liz Hurley, 1994
How does someone go from obscurity to stardom in the eyes of the media? Borrow the last dress remaining in the Versace press office and head to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral as the squeeze of Hugh Grant. The dress now has its own wikipedia page.
Princess Diana, 1996
Diana made Versace a key part of her sleek 90s look. She wore this blue, asymmetric gown for one of her first post-divorce outings in 1996 and her posthumous Bazaar cover featured her in a beaded Versace gown. That dress sold for nearly £155,000 in 2015.
Courtney Love, 1997
When you want to go from ripped tights, nighties and smudged lipstick to something more suitable for the red carpet, Versace is the label. Love rebranded herself in the mid-90s with the help of Versace, briefly turning into the decade’s answer to Jean Harlow. She later starred in Versace ad campaigns.
Jennifer Lopez, 2000
Jennifer Lopez and the artist then known as P Diddy were the power couple of the early 00s. This dress summed up J-Lo’s high-octane glamour. It was also the dress that launched image search on Google. “It was the most popular search query we had ever seen,” said the company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, in 2015. “But we had no surefire way of getting users exactly what they wanted: J-Lo wearing that dress. Google Image Search was born.”
Beyoncé is now a regular on red-carpet best-dressed lists – but 2005 was pre-Sasha Fierce, pre-Mrs Carter, pre-Met Ball, pre-Lemonade, when Bey was more about the dance moves than the fashion moments. Going Marilyn Monroe in black-velvet vintage Versace was a signpost of what was to come. She then collaborated with the brand on stagewear in 2014.
Kanye West, 2011
It’s well known that West loves fashion. Before he had his own label, Yeezy, he did things that other fashion geeks do – he interned at Fendi and wore the high-street collabs from big brands. Here he is performing at a Victoria’s Secret fashion show in a jacket from Versace’s H&M collection.
Zayn Malik, 2017
Harry Styles gets to wear loads of Gucci, but fellow One Directioner Malik has arguably beaten him in fashion terms, by collaborating with Versace on a Versus collection. The designs, released in May, look like posh band merch. That is no doubt how Donatella, with her penchant for rock’n’roll, likes it.