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Versace's Muses@donatellaversace

Lessons from the legendary life of Gianni Versace

Read books, take in art, find a balance and don’t be afraid to be extra

In the two decades following the launch of his namesake fashion house in 1977, Gianni Versace revolutionised the runway as we once knew it. His was a new vision of couture that comprised vivid fine art and pop-culture-inspired prints, sensual gowns, and stand-out garments in the form of chain-mail mini-dresses, in addition to bondage-esque corsets and, of course, that cashmere sweater and metallic mini-skirt combo. Each collection was as desirable as it was provocative, as the House of Versace gave rise to the supermodel and blazed a trail for the designers that followed in his footsteps.

Though Gianni was tragically killed over 20 years ago, his legacy is as strong as it ever was. Aside from the current airing of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace on FX, the designer is also the subject of a new retrospective opening at Berlin’s Kronprinzenpalais today. Having held his debut exhibition in Berlin in 1994, the Kronprinzenpalais exhibition is set to be the biggest celebration of Gianni’s work to date. Ahead of the event, we chart the lessons we’ve learnt from Gianni Versace, including the benefits of having a group of supermodel friends, and the importance of being extra.


Forget a single signature: Versace associated a triptych of symbols with his house. His name aside, he introduced the golden Medusa head and the Grecian frieze inspired by the Italian coastal town of Reggio Calabria, once a colony of Magna Grecia. This branding was seen everywhere; from the gold-hardware adorned pieces on runway and Versace’s super-tight men’s underwear, to the floor tiles of the swimming pool in his Miami home. Aside from the branding, another of Versace’s most iconic trademarks was Oroton, a self-invented metal chain-mail that had silk-like draping properties when crafted into a dress, which first debuted as part of his AW82 collection.


Having famously said “I don’t believe in good taste”, it’s safe to say Versace didn’t shy away from making an (over)statement via vivid colourways, head-to-toe prints, bondage-like fastenings and suction-tight figure-hugging silhouettes. Versace was one of the first designers to put desire, sex-appeal and a sense of raunchiness at the forefront of his designs, all to rave reviews. Think Liz Hurley at the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994 wearing that black and gold safety-pinned dress. So iconic, it even has its own Wikipedia page.


Gianni was an avid collector of 20th century art, amassing a collection that was sold by Sotheby’s for over £10m in 2009. Through his collections, Versace chose to pay homage to the artists associated with the pop art movement – including Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. His SS91 Pop collection reimagined Warhol’s screen-prints of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean and presented them as dresses, alongside audacious gowns crafted from fabric bearing Vogue covers shot by Irving Penn – Versace’s personal interpretation of pop art.


While many of Gianni’s tropes wouldn’t stand out as subversive today, in the early 90s the designer’s contemporaries – Martin Margiela, Calvin KleinJil Sander and Ann Demeulemeester – favoured androgynous silhouettes and deconstructed cuts with minimalistic sensibilities. These pared-back pieces were worlds away from Gianni’s maximalist approach and far more accessible, yet despite such austerity Gianni didn’t once compromise his vision that brought the house continued worldwide success during his reign. The lesson? Do you.


Versace’s network of A-listers was as extensive as his back catalogue of designs. Credited by Anna Wintour for realising the power of a celebrity front row, at any given show you’d be certain to find the likes of Elton JohnMadonna, and Sting in the golden seats; but it was his AW91 show that birthed ‘The Supers’. Enlisting Cindy CrawfordNaomi CampbellClaudia SchifferHelena Christensen, and Carla Bruni to walk the runway arm-in-arm, lip-syncing to George Michael’s “Freedom” – the song for which they had all starred in the David Fincher-directed video – Versace positioned his designs at the epicentre of pop-culture. Assemble your crew.


Despite the designer’s aforementioned quote about “good taste” Gianni clearly had it, along with a healthy appetite for the more refined things in life. "For reading Proust I have my house on Lake Como, Here, in Miami Beach, I don’t want another monastery to live in. I want a place to read Truman Capote,” Gianni famously told Time, outlining his varied lifestyle and his appreciation for both high and pop culture – as both elements were seamlessly intertwined into his designs. It’s almost unsurprising that he employed a full-time librarian to organize his five libraries spread between his four homes – of epic proportions – in Milan, New York, Miami and Italy's Lake Como.

The Gianni Versace Retrospective runs from 31st January to 13th April at Berlin's Kronprinzenpalais.