15 Years without Gianni Versace

Museo del Traje, Madrid

Discover the aesthetic world of Versace and breathe in the art of Magna Graecia that imbues the creations of this fashion genius

Looking to Art
How do you sum up the artistic influences brought together in Versace’s style? Broadly speaking, this great fashion designer’s collections reveal his passion for Greco-Roman culture, Byzantine art, the Renaissance, the Baroque, Neoclassicism, Art Deco and all modern art, including, of course, popular American culture. Besides that, there is the designer’s close relationship with the performing arts – theatre, dance and opera – in which he was involved as a costume designer throughout his career.


Born in Reggio Calabria, Italy, on 2 December.
His mother is a seamstress, and from an early age, he helps her with her craft, collecting precious stones and gold threads to create decorative embroidery.

He moves to Milan – the Italian fashion capital
at that time. There, he studies architecture and creates his first prêt-à-porter collections for the brands Genny, Complice and Callaghan.

He presents his first leather collection for the company Complice.

He creates the company that bears his name, supported by his brother Santo’s business know-how. On 28 March 1978, is first collection takes to the catwalk in the Palazzo della Permanente in Milan.

He wins the L’Occhio d’Oro award for best designer for his Autumn/Winter collection, which features his metallic mesh fabrics for the first time. This year, he undertakes his first collaboration with the theatre world, designing the costumes for Richard Strauss’s ballet Josephs legende (The Legend of Joseph) for La Scala in Milan. He does this once again for Gustav Mahler’s Lieb und Leid (Love and Sorrow).

His collections this year tell of the influence of Chanel and Madame Grès. Their styles are transformed by the violent contrasts of materials and prints, although some of his designs also preempt the minimalism of the 1990s.

Exhibition of international artists in Paris, based around the work of Versace. In October, he receives a call from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to talk about the Arts & Fashion exhibition. He shows a collection with the catwalk centred around one of the museum’s own Hellenistic sculptures for the occasion.

The Spring/Summer collection from this year is crucial to the designer’s career. Embroidery with precious stones begins to play an important part and there are a greater number of cultural references, with big volumes inspired by 19th-century bustles and crinolines. Meanwhile, he also develops cuts with cleaner lines, preempting the tastes of the following decade and taking a particular interest in colourful, sporty styles.

January sees the release of the film Le Bonheur de l’Amitié (The Happiness of Friendship), about his relationship with Béjart, and the opening of Atelier Versace as a laboratory of high fashion. In April, the exhibition L’Abito per Pensare (Fashion for Thought) opens at the Sforza Castle in Milan.

First Atelier Versace catwalk show at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Costumes for Strauss’s Capriccio at the San Francisco Opera. Fluorescent colours overrun the Spring/Summer catwalk this year.

Versace Theatre Exhibition at the Royal College of Art
in London. He creates Signature – a classic cut clothing line. The exhibition L’Abito per Pensare (Fashion for Thought) is shown in the Kobe City Museum in Japan.
Versace’s 1991 collections are a defining moment in his glorious career. Overflowing with creativity and imagination, the Italian produces spectacular catwalk shows starring the top models of the day.

His work continues along the same lines as the year before, but takes a wider frame of reference. Bomber jackets following the same cut as 16th-century men’s fashion, influences from the American cowboy aesthetic, the use and abuse of denim, combined
with Baroque prints, swimsuits and skirts with bustles.

Council of Fashion Designers of America’s best designer award, considered to be the Oscar of fashion. New collaboration with Béjart on Sissi, the Anarchist Empress. Versace’s style softens a little, with a particular interest in 18th-century fashion, and especially neoclassicism, which can be seen in the delicate necklines and empire waists.

The first model to tread the catwalk in this year’s
Spring/Summer catwalk show is Kate Moss which, in itself, already defines the change that can be seen in his designs. More minimalist, without ever actually being minimalist, they are heavily influenced by the rocker aesthetic.

Opening of the Richard Avedon 1944–1994 exhibition, sponsored by Versace. His designs this year include new print motifs that are combined with a return to classical origins, embodied by dresses reminiscent of Greek Vestals.

Takes part in the first Florence Biennale, dedicated to the theme of Time and Fashion. This year’s collections are less Baroque, opting for surprisingly nuanced tones, especially in his classic metallic fabrics.

Performance of Béjart’s Barroco-Bel Canto ballet in Florence, with costumes by Versace. He dies on 15 July in Miami. Franco Zeffirelli dedicates the following words to him: ‘With Versace’s death, Italy and the world lose the designer who liberated fashion from conformity, giving it imagination and creativity.

For years, I have also been exploring the new territory of a possible collaboration, convinced as I am that our craft, integrated with art, would gain the value and credibility of artistic expression and could produce surprising results, even in technology.

Gianni Versace

Reggio is the kingdom where the story of my life began: my mother’s dressmaking shop, the high fashion boutique. The place where, as a small child, I began to appreciate the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid; where I first breathed in the art of the Magna Graecia.

Gianni Versace

Folds and Drapes

From his earliest collections, the shapes of classical Greco-Roman art are present in his designs. One of the defining characteristics of sculpture in this period in the history of art, particularly the Hellenistic style, is the treatment of clothing. The folds and drapes characteristic of cloaks and tunics play a prominent role, often melting into the body in an attempt to show the physiognomy of the figures without undressing them.

This art of controlling the way that the cloth falls over the female body (mastered by both Phidias, the great Classical Athenian sculptor, and Vionnet, the first fashion designer to use the bias cut in a dress) was revitalised by Versace in his tireless search for new draping effects. For example, he used metallic fabrics to achieve a dynamic tension never before seen in fashion.

Byzantine Mosaic Art Inspiration

The decorative richness and dazzling lustre of Byzantine mosaic art were another of the designer’s other sources of inspiration. It has been said that, in the same way that Ravenna’s mosaics visually lighten the architectural heaviness of Byzantine temples, the designer’s metallic fabrics, which are made from small plates similar to tiles, display this visual paradox between the heaviness of the metal and the lightness of the visual effect.

Both the previous design and this one are reminiscent of the metallic fabrics worn by gladiators.

Cocktail Tunic Dress

The Influence of Art Deco

The influence of Art Deco and 1920s fashion is also evident in this dress, featuring geometric figures and crystals covering the surface.

Cocktail dress with Swarovski crystals

In the final stage of Versace’s career, the designer’s work reveals his preference for sinuous lines defined by the natural shape of the female body. As in Hellenistic sculpture, represented here by a sensuous torso of Venus, symmetry and predictability were always to be avoided, which is why materials that could be considered mannerist are often used.

Metal Corsets

In the same way that Venus’ cloak climbs up her back without it being possible to see where it is attached, while achieving the desired effect of the view from the front, the black evening gown accompanying the sculpture suggests an inversion of the curve of the neckline at the back to surprise the onlooker.

This idea, taken from the metal corsets worn by women in the early modern period, was one of the leitmotifs of his mid-1990s’ evening gowns, reinforced with rigid internal structures.

Black cocktail dress

A Taste for Sensationalism

This dress demonstrates a taste for sensationalism, which was undoubtedly one of Versace’s traits, just as it was in Hellenistic sculpture. This is aided greatly by the decorative excess that lent a mysticism, similar to that of religious art, to the Italian designer’s work.

Silk Cocktail dress

Latin Man
Versace attempted to liberate men from the usual constraints of men’s fashion by reinterpreting materials and volumes during the 1980s, to arrive at the joyful and uninhibited decorative style of the 1990s. In this image, the bust of Antinous – a favourite of the Emperor Hadrian who was represented numerous times in Roman sculpture at the Emperor’s request – is synonymous with the sensuality that characterises Versace’s aesthetic.

The Influence of Miami’s South Beach

This jacket is one of the creations imagined by Versace under the influence of Miami’s South Beach. Versace’s move to Miami resulted in the designer entering a world of stimuli that brought about a new twist in his perception of clothing, mainly in terms of colour.

From the relative chromatic sobriety of the 1980s, he threw himself into fluorescent tones and created an unmistakable and eclectic aesthetic with his prints, which combined pop-culture references with classical motifs and animal prints.

American Jacket

In 1984, Versace already enjoyed huge prestige for a company that had only existed for six years. From the start, the fashion designer knew how to promote himself internationally, approaching photographers from the workshops of Richard Avendon and Bruce Weber, who projected the image of the Versace woman across the globe. His 1980s designs lay the foundations for the discourse that would emerge in the following decade, but this decade’s work alone already made him one of the most important designers of contemporary fashion. In this small Hellenistic figure, two women are completely covered, creating the rich play of folds and draping found in Versace’s clothes, in his reimagining of the modern woman.

Comme des Garçons and Versace

It is interesting to compare Versace with another reinventor of fashion at that time, Rei Kawakubo, who was astonishing people in Paris with her brand Comme des Garçons. Kawakubo deconstructed fashion to create a mystical, monastic aesthetic, which formed the basis for minimalism in the 1990s. In contrast, through a reinterpretation of materials and forms, Versace paved the way for glamorous mystique, without closing the door on feminine flirtation.

Brown wool long coat

Strong, Independent Woman

Both the cape in the previous image and this coat reflect the notion of a strong, independent woman dressed in an overabundance of fabric, revisiting the male wardrobe to create pieces that would be as enduring as men’s clothes usually are.

Wool and red cashmere coat

This relief of Orpheus and Eurydice is an example of the “wet drapery” effect – an artistic device used to highlight the shape of the body through fabric. This experimentation with draping and its possibilities is a vital characteristic of Versace’s work. If it was one of the main concerns of artists in classical sculpture, for Versace, it was almost an obsession and was put through a relentless process of trial and error in his workshops in search of the optimum results.

1920s, 30s and 40s Inspiration

When designing his evening gowns, Versace placed a special emphasis on studying materials with the aim being innovative in the way that fabrics fell and reinventing the aesthetics of fashions past, particularly those of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, to which he turned time and time again for inspiration.

This dress showcases Versace’s interest in using contrasting materials and techniques as a tool for revitalising them. The lace sleeve only serves to emphasise the asymmetry of the neckline, whose wide lapel alludes to the draped necklines created by Vionnet and reinterpreted by Versace in his 1989 Spring/Summer collection.

Black Cocktail Dress

A Continuous Experimentation

This design is evidence of Versace’s continued experimentation: once again, the break from symmetry; once again the effect of contrasting materials, here in the shoulder pad on the sleeveless side, in back-stitched leather. This, in turn, emphasises the military style of the 1940s and is a passing reminder of the protective clothing of the Roman gladiators.

Black crepe wool dress

Original Combinations of Print

The contrast that the Italian used as a recurring device in his work can also be seen in the combination of prints. Such is the case in the outfit comprised of this dress…

Printed white silk dress

…and this coat – an haute couture ensemble that maintains a chromatic unity but uses two very different prints with zebra stripes and starfish, which were another motif common in the designer’s work.

Printed white silk coat

Orpheus and Eurydice

This 1993 silk tricot evening gown plays on the Orpheus and Eurydice relief at the beginning of this section; the asymmetrical draping that crosses under the chest is reminiscent of the tunics worn by the relief’s protagonists.

Salmon cocktail dress

Everyday Clothes
This section showcases various pieces designed by Versace for a woman’s day-to-day wardrobe. It includes two types of clothing most often revisited by the designer – trousers and the miniskirt. They were both used by the Calabrian in his search for sensuality. During the early 1990s, his trousers hugged models’ bodies like a second skin. In their absence, extremely short miniskirts incited the desire of millions of spectators.

A Laborious Technical Work

This mini dress was worn on the catwalk in Milan in the spring of 1994 by Naomi Campbell, who managed to attract more attention than the garment itself. Far from the glare created by the media spectacle, it is possible to appreciate the laborious technical work with which this design was created.

Short mini-dress

Flattering the Beauty of Female Body

It is also important to note the designer’s ability to dilute the stridency of his statements when he thought it appropriate, without ever losing sight of the “erotic” style that defined him. This purple suit jacket is a good example of this: classically cut in comfortable fabric, nonetheless, it does not lose the slender lines essentially designed to flatter the sinuous beauty of the female body.

Suit jacket in purple wool

Prints: a Rich Iconography

Prints are possibly the feature most characteristic of Versace’s style in the popular imagination. While the classical gold motifs are remembered most, the many influences that the Italian poured into his work yielded a rich iconography. In this ensemble in particular, the designer opted for abstract motifs.

Ensemble printed with graffiti

Decorative Excess
Metaphorically, it can be said that Versace’s style is a kind of modern Wunderkammer – a “cabinet of curiosities” in which Renaissance princes collected works of art, strange objects and rarities of nature in a compendium that was the origin of collections as we know them today. Standing out among the fragments of history brought back to life by the designer are the Byzantine decorations.

When Popular and High Culture Meet

The gleam of the gilt metal of Athena’s patera bowl, seen on the previous slide, immediately brings to mind the prints on this short denim jacket by Versace. The big difference is that the ornamental exuberance appears on two completely different backgrounds.

While the original patera is silver, Versace has chosen denim – the fabric of cowboys; the quintessential informal, working material – on which to print the most ostentatious of decorations. The Italian thereby harmonises two extremes that were reluctant to meet: popular and high culture. Every time Versace turned to denim, it was to elevate it to the grade of luxury, in the same way that he took the entire history of art and brought it onto the streets. In this instance, the classical motifs that sit alongside shells and starfish have been presented in an original way: in relief, giving them a Baroque appearance.


A Beauty and History Lover

Byzantine art can be singled out among the fragments of history that the designer brought to life. Its most breathtaking manifestation can be found in Ravenna, in the mosaics of the Church of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe, or in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.

The meticulous work in the mosaic does not detract from the splendour of the Byzantine gold work – one of the most ostentatious examples that exists. The consolidation of celestial and earthly power required, then as it does now, a strong propaganda machine in which the display of wealth was one of the greatest tools.

A lover of beauty and history, it was logical for Versace to absorb the forms and ideas of Byzantine gold work.

There is no better example than this embroidered jumpsuit. It seems miraculous that the tulle, cut to fit the body to the millimetre, can take the weight of the jewellery that covers its surface.

Squeezing Claudia Schiffer, the most famous of Versace’s supermodels, into this bejewelled dress is surely one of the most convincing expressions of power imaginable. Yet in this instance, the girl isn’t the prize; the power resides in her mystical sensuality.


Goddesses of the Catwalk
Professors Studniczka and Collignon identified this statue with the one created by Praxiteles for the temple of Artemis Brauronia in the Athenian Acropolis. The air and general tone of the statue is somewhat reminiscent of Versace’s fashion, which is possibly more Praxitelean than any other artistic expression of the 20th century. The women dressed by Versace appeared on stage like true goddesses.

Greek Inspiration

This design is inspired by Praxiteles’ Diana. The designer’s intention was to highlight the brooches of the ancient world in the Medusa straps on his evening gowns.

The folds of the skirt allude to the fluting on the shafts of the columns – a parallel emphasised by the use of white – and the asymmetry of the skirt can be seen as a reinterpretation of the wet drapery effect seen in the relief of Orpheus and Eurydice.

White Pleated Silk Dress

As the goddess of love, beauty and fertility, Venus was, and continues to be, one of the most represented Classical deities in the history of art. The sensuality that characterises all depictions of her makes her an inescapable mythical reference in any detailed study of the cultural echoes in Versace’s work. As it is told, Venus (Aphrodite to the Greeks) was born from the sea after Cronus cut off Uranus’ genitals, causing his sperm to spill into the water, where it was fertilised. The shell covering her sex organs in this representation of the goddess undoubtedly alludes to this event and adds an element of sexual symbolism that appears time and again in Versace’s designs.

A Decorative Style

Shells, corals and starfish, intermingled with plant and animal motifs reminiscent of the prints on Hawaiian shirts, as well as gold acanthus leaves, tritons and caryatids taken from classical iconography, form a tapestry overflowing with imagination. It is typical of the unmistakable decorative style that was one of the hallmarks of the house of Versace in the early 1990s.

Exuberance and cultural eclecticism are closely linked to the atmosphere in Miami, which inspired a decisive turning point in the designer’s work towards fashion characterised by radical confidence.

Printed Blue Silk Shirt

Marine Motifs & Abstract Expressionism

Naomi Campbell wore this top on the catwalk, combining it with red cigarette trousers. The piece alludes indirectly to Versace’s affiliation with marine motifs. In this instance, the abstract style is the first noticeable artistic influence, particularly the abstract expressionism of Pollock or Twombly. However, despite the lack of definition in the motifs, it is not unreasonable to suggest a certain Mediterranean influence in the colours and shape of the long brushstrokes that form the print.

Jacket printed with expressionist motifs

Museo del Traje
Credits: Story

15 years without Gianni

Curator: Juan Gutiérrez

Museo del Traje

Credits: All media
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