You could count on one hand the number of fashion houses that enjoy the mass name recognition that Versace does across the globe. Today, under the leadership of Donatella Versace—just as in the eighties and nineties when the brand was run by her brother, Gianni—it is a universal symbol of all that is glamorous and decadent. Versace doesn’t make clothes that are avant-garde, arty, or untouchably elegant; it makes clothes for red-carpet photo calls in Cannes and parties aboard a rap mogul’s mega-yacht at anchor in Monaco.
Gianni Versace, who founded the company in 1978, was a fashion rock star. He played to his public with grandiose gestures and a genius for marketing. “He was the first to realize the value of the celebrity in the front row, and the value of the supermodel, and put fashion on an international media platform,” Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor, said in 1997. “He relished media attention and masterminded it, and everybody followed in his footsteps.”
Bold as brass, supersexy, and celebrity-focused, the house found its perfect representative in the high-nineties supermodel. In fact, some have even credited Gianni and Donatella with creating the breed when they eschewed runway models—generally anonymous at the time—and instead chose well-known print models to make star turns on the runway. Before the Versaces started using the soon-to-be “supers” on the runway, Christy Turlington toldVogue, “fashion shows were boring and undramatic.” In a history-making moment in 1991, the Versaces sent Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Linda Evangelista, down the runway lip-synching the George Michael song “Freedom! ’90.” (Michael, who had cast them in the song’s video, was, of course, watching from the front row.) “We don’t want only to present the fashion,” the producer Sergio Salerni said, “but to re-create the atmosphere of a rock concert.”
“I scream for quality and fantasy,” Versace told The New York Times soon after showing his controversial S&M-bar-inspired bondage collection of fall 1992. “But I understand if these straps of leather are not to everyone’s liking. I don’t mind if people say I’m vulgar.”
The house that Gianni built expanded its reach in the nineties. Billing his clothes as “modern couture,” Versace turned the industry’s trickle-down cycle on its head. “For him,” WWD observed, “couture has finally come full circle: Rather than starting trends, Versace’s couture clothes are deluxe takes on his other collections.”
Since Versace’s sudden death in 1997, at the hands of a spree killer, all of the attention—and responsibility for design—has fallen on Donatella. She carries on the traditions of the brand but also, as she told Vogue in 2006, is “open to new interpretations of the Versace silhouette.”