The house Gianni built: A look back on the history of Versace as it settles into life as a $2bn part of Michael Kors

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In the window of Versace’s Sloane Street boutique is a black hoodie. On the left shoulder, right side, and both elbows are brightly coloured silk patches featuring Grecian and Etruscan motifs. Surrounding these, and looping around the collar and hood, are thick, furry, brown trims, similar to ones that hang from my grandmother’s sofa.

It is, I think, a hideous piece of clothing. It costs £1,540. Inside the plush but minimalist store, which I had been ushered into by a statuesque, bronzed man who looked like he had just stepped off the catwalk, are pieces that inspire a dizzying range of emotions and sensations – envy, confusion, panic, motion sickness. I feel how my father must feel in a modern art gallery, aware that something brilliant might be happening, but unable to discern exactly what.

Other pieces that grab my attention include a vivid blue, white and gold puffer jacket featuring a pair of leopards fighting above a classical reclining woman (£3,190); a 90s-inspired silk shirt that would have made Jazzy Jeff look normcore (£1,150); and a pair of baroque patterned jeans (£530) that, actually, I think I could pull off if I were feeling my best self.

Not that my reservations will unduly worry Versace. In September the company, which has been run by the family since it was founded 40 years ago, was sold to American fashion giant Michael Kors in a deal valuing it at a shade over $2bn. It prompted outcry from die-hard Versace fans who were terrified their beloved label would be devalued by association.

Analysts I spoke to agreed that Kors is probably attempting to bullet-proof itself against an economic slump. “A downturn can persuade the merely wealthy – rather than the super-wealthy – to pull in their horns,” says Russ Mould, an investment director at AJ Bell. The brand is also keen to strengthen its grip on Europe, as well as expand its luxury portfolio after flooding the market with its core brand in recent years. As one fashion watcher told me: “I was at a wedding in Bolton and three people had Michael Kors handbags, so you can see why it might want to reconnect with the top end of the market.”

The move isn’t without precedent – Kors bought luxury shoe label Jimmy Choo for $900m last year – and many think the company has aspirations to become a fashion conglomerate in the vein of LVMH (Dior, Louis Vuitton, Celine, Kenzo, Givenchy) and Kering (McQueen, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga). “It was interesting to see my wife’s copy of Vogue mention Michael Kors in the same breath as Kering and LVMH,” Mould says, “Even if it said it’s not in their league just yet.”

Versace creative director Donatella has agreed to stay on after the sale – although we’ll have to wait and see how long she sticks it out – and, in the medium term, we’ll probably see more of Versace, with the new management keen to add another 100 stores and push the brand’s footwear and accessory ranges.

The fear is that Versace will lose the fiercely independent streak that’s set it apart from the other grand maisons of Paris and Milan for the last four decades. Even those who know next to nothing about fashion can pick out Versace’s outre creations – Medusa heads in studded crystals and ever-repeating Greek Key designs. There’s a photograph, taken in 1991, of Gianni surrounded by models – including Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Claudia Schiffer – all wearing his latest collection; it doesn’t take a fashion nerd to draw a line between the animal prints and silk shirts and roaring leopards in the picture and the pieces I saw in the boutique 20 years later.

The house Gianni built: A look back on the history of Versace as it settles into life as a $2bn part of Michael Kors verasce1 5be042babe0e8

On the morning of 15 July 1997, Gianni Versace was shot dead outside his art deco Miami villa as he returned from collecting the morning Newspapers.

By this time the 50-year-old had taken his label from a small atelier to a fashion behemoth. He’s often credited with “inventing” the supermodel after marching virtually all of the world’s top models down the same catwalk in 1991. Three years later his safety-pin dress was seared into the public consciousness when Liz Hurley wore it to the premier of Four Weddings and a Funeral. His pieces may have been informed by classical art but they were worn by film stars and musicians, including Elton John, Madonna and Prince.

His death felt like a precursor to that of Princess Diana a month later, prompting an outpouring of grief across the world. The Villa Casa Casuarina, on Miami’s famous Ocean Drive, has become a pilgrimage for followers of fashion – rare are the occasions that a cluster of tourists aren’t gathered around its front steps.

His younger sister Donatella stepped up to become creative director, and a difficult few years followed as she struggled with the loss of her brother and the singular stresses of running a fashion house. But she proved to be the figurehead the brand needed and, after bringing in a team to run the business end of things, she set about creating the crazy, absurd, fabulous fashion her brother had made so iconic. By the time of the sale to Michael Kors, Donatella had run the company for as long as Gianni. Moreover, the fashion press had fallen in love with the brand all over again, with many declaring 2017 the “year of Versace”, with both the company and its leader picking up a clutch of awards.

Then there was American Crime Story. For its big-budget follow-up to The People v OJ Simpson, the anthology TV series dramatised Gianni’s death. And it was huge. With a guaranteed audience following the wildly successful OJ Simpson biopic, the first episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace was watched by more than 4m people in the US, with the series only once dropping below 2.5m viewers (to put this in perspective, the finale of Mad Men drew in 3.3m viewers). It was a wild, stylish adventure through the early 1990s, drenched in neon and full of beautiful people in beautiful clothes. It also reminded the world that one of the most recognisable fashion designers of all time was murdered by a serial killer, Andrew Cunanan, a Walter Mitty-esque prostitute who became obsessed with Gianni (Cunanan eventually wound up on the FBI’s infamous 10 Most Wanted list).

The Versace family had no involvement in the series, and while Donatella can’t have been displeased when Penelope Cruz (who she’s on good terms with) was cast to play her, she had no such praise for the venture as a whole, calling it “a work of fiction” and questioning its accuracy.

The show is based on Maureen Orth’s non-fiction book about the designer and his killer; like that book, it hints that Gianni’s “medical condition” at the time of his death may not have been cancer, as claimed, but HIV – something the family dismisses as “lurid claims” and “gossip and speculation”.

Cunanan is also portrayed as something of an anti-hero, a charismatic charmer who was a product of his circumstances and his times. It must have been difficult to watch for the Versace family, although it certainly did their brand no harm at all, with surveys showing its brand recognition rocketing, especially among younger viewers.

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There are few who see the Michael Kors acquisition as a bad move for the buyer (“Capris Holdings” was created as an umbrella corporation to oversee Kors, Versace and Jimmy Choo).

It also bodes well for the high-end fashion world; if Versace is worth $2bn, brands like Gucci, with its far higher revenue, could be worth as much as $20bn.

And for those in the fashion world, Versace is too strong a brand to seriously tarnish. “I’ve been obsessed with Versace since I was a child,” says Kristine Kilty, a freelance stylist and creative director. “It’s one of my go-to brands, particularly for menswear – it always has a little something for everybody. You can tell a Versace from across the street. The symbolism in its collections – the iconic Medusa head, the Greek Key, Grecian motifs, Etruscan symbols, Italian Baroque and classical references – are all masterfully fused to create something totally unique. Donatella and Gianni were so close, she knew his inspirations and references inside out so she developed the brand with his vision and ideals in mind.”

Photographer and men’s Travel magazine editor Leigh Keily agrees: “Versace adds flair to a shoot. It’s often the boldest, most colourful, most outrageous, and most daring of the clothes I have to choose from. Celebrities will allow themselves to be shot in Versace over, let’s say, another ‘bold’ designer with less clout. Even the crazy leopard print, tassel-fluff… it makes you look. It takes your day and makes it extraordinary. Nothing’s going to change that.”

If Michael Kors succeeds in building a fashion behemoth with Versace as its figurehead, the Italian icon’s fifth decade will no doubt be every bit as fascinating as the ones that have come before. Nothing, though, will convince me about those brown tassels.

Source : CityA.M.

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