’80s + ’90s Redux: What’s Behind the Resurgence Of Versace?
It was Donatella Versace’s tribute to her brother Gianni — the Versace Spring/Summer 2018 collection commemorating the 20th anniversary of his death — that seemed to initiate a chain reaction. The house soon popped up in a fairly unexpected place — television. FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace chronicled the tragedy that many in the fashion industry had mourned firsthand. Vintage Versace next made it to the top of everyone’s Instagram feed courtesy of Kim Kardashian West, a self-admitted Versace obsessive (she’s raided the archives for many classics first seen on supermodel Naomi Campbell). Then came the news that Michael Kors had acquired Versace, followed by the release of the KITH x Versace collaboration, a millennial crash course in the Versace aesthetic.
If you’re surprised that Versace has resurfaced seemingly overnight, don’t be. The current fashion climate has primed it for a comeback. But to understand how we got here, it’s important to go back to the beginning. Read on to learn about the rise of Versace, why it suddenly feels fresher than ever and key authenticity tips for spotting the real deal from our Chief Authenticator Graham Wetzbarger.
The Evolution Of An Icon
A Versace scarf features the Medusa head at top and the Grecian key motif at bottom.
Gianni Versace was introduced to the world of fashion early on in life, though he came from humble beginnings. Born in the small town of Reggio di Calabria, Italy in 1946, he spent his childhood learning the ins and outs of dressmaking at his mother’s shop. After graduating high school, Gianni worked for his mother before moving to Milan in 1972 and cutting his design teeth at several Italian ateliers. Though he never trained formally, in 1978 he founded Gianni Versace SpA and staged his first ready-to-wear show at the Palazzo della Permanente. At his side were his siblings — his brother Santo as the company’s CEO, and his sister Donatella as a designer, the company’s Vice President and Gianni’s unofficial muse.
At the heart of Gianni Versace’s success was a trifecta of decade-defining design, business savvy and marketing genius. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Gianni defined Atelier Versace — his runway collection — with his provocative, decadent and over-the-top creations. It was a stark counter to the minimalism and restrained elegance of his contemporary, Giorgio Armani, but together the designers helped establish Milan as a major fashion destination. Versace’s “Barocco” look was unmistakably Italian, with the Medusa head and the Grecian key as its most notable house codes. Latex, leather, safety pins and other elements of bondage were commonplace in Gianni’s designs, as well as references to pop culture, slinky silhouettes and experimental materials. Versace’s signature Oroton chainmail was once famously worn on the Fall/Winter 1995 runway by a glittering Kate Moss. Her concluding look for the collection was a wedding mini dress, veil and bouquet included.
Bondage was a common theme for Gianni Versace, and this safety pin recalls the iconic dress Elizabeth Hurley wore in 1994 and recently pulled from the archives.
In addition to his jaw-dropping looks, Gianni knew the power of both a star-studded catwalk and a roster of high-profile celebrity clients. The spectacle of the runway revolved around the supermodels as much as it did the clothes, while the paparazzi’s snaps of Princess Diana and Elizabeth Hurley wearing Versace turned the designer into a household name. Gianni manipulated the media to his benefit, and married fashion and celebrity culture in an unprecedented way.
A Transformative Moment
Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe” print was featured in Versace’s Spring 1991 “Pop” collection.
Gianni Versace’s last collection could’ve been a turning point for the designer, if it had not been for his murder. Nine days before that fateful event, the Atelier Versace Fall/Winter 1997 collection showcased something new for Gianni. Instead of an overt vision of Italian glamour, bejeweled Byzantine crosses were subdued with a heavy dose of black. Pinstripes, bold shoulders and asymmetrical touches made floor-length gowns feel like the new power suit. Gold Oroton chainmail was draped like silk and felt more haute couture than cocktail. Contending with the likes of John Galliano’s theatrics at Dior and Alexander McQueen’s dark avant-garde, Versace decided to up the ante while remaining true to his aesthetic.
Unfortunately the future of fashion that Gianni Versace envisioned would never fully materialize. On July 15, 1997, the fifty-year-old designer was murdered in front of his Miami estate, Casa Casuarina. The ensuing frenzy to find the killer and the initial shock of Gianni’s death came and went. After putting her brother to rest in Duomo, Italy, Donatella Versace assumed the design throne of her brother’s company and changed its name from Gianni Versace to Versace.
Donatella Versace immediately got to work assuming the legacy of Gianni, but her aesthetic and his were not quite the same. Critics began to see her designs as copies of her brother’s past innovations. Over the early ‘00s, Donatella decided to do away with the revealing looks and elaborate decoration that defined Gianni’s Versace. She kept the house codes, the Italian glamour and the celebrity-fueled buzz, but injected a newfound sense of femininity and luxury into the brand — just look back to that plunging palm-printed dress Jennifer Lopez wore to the 2000 Grammy Awards as proof.
The 21st Century Return Of Versace
Versace’s Medusa head has changed over the years; newer iterations like this will feature a more cherubic look.
So why the return of Versace, and why now? If there’s anything the fashion world loves, it’s nostalgia, and Donatella Versace’s 2018 tribute collection to Gianni kick-started its comeback. Versace’s original supermodel squad — Carla Bruni, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen — reunited at the show’s finale as a group in true ’90s throwback form. In order for the show to be a complete success, it needed the perfect conditions. Enter Gucci. “Due to Alessandro Michele’s revitalization of Gucci, the pendulum has swung away from minimalism and back to maximalism,” says our Chief Authenticator Graham Wetzbarger. “Donatella’s tribute collection showed both vintage and contemporary dresses, validating Versace as wearable and current. The Assassination of Gianni Versace kept that momentum going, as did Kim Kardashian West.”
It’s no surprise that, in a celebrity and influencer-driven world, Versace has garnered attention again on the backs of Kim Kardashian West, Katy Perry, Kylie Jenner and 2 Chainz. Considering Versace’s rise to the top in tandem with some of the music and film industries’ biggest names, it seems only fitting the house would prosper in a time when anyone can become “someone.”
The Michael Kors acquisition turned heads in the business world, and soon after, the KITH x Versace collaboration gave millennials a hype reintroduction to the Barocco vibe. “Donatella Versace has never stopped dressing celebrities, but the shift from red carpet to full street-style looks has been key,” notes Wetzbarger. The collaboration’s release was celebrated during New York Fashion Week across the city. The style set ordered from KITH x Versace menus at Sadelle’s, sipped matcha lattes with Versace-stenciled designs at Cha Cha Matcha and picked up a rebranded tote bag at Dean & DeLuca. Ronnie Fieg, KITH’s founder and designer, tied the collaboration to some of the most iconic establishments in NYC. Fashion has never just been clothes — it’s always about the experience. And both KITH and Versace re-envisioned what that looks like.
Authenticating Versace, Vintage & New
A pair of 2018 Versace jeans with the Logo Mania print.
As Versace skyrocketed to fame, counterfeiters inevitably came to capitalize on the hunger for the house, its aesthetic and logos. Versace has undergone multiple changes over the years, reflected throughout the clothing’s branding. These details are key to telling real Versace from faux. “The first thing to know is that all garments by Versace are made in Italy by ITTIERRE SpA,” says Wetzbarger. “No matter what iteration of Versace — Gianni Versace or Gianni Versace Couture or Versace, or one of its many offshoots like Versus or Versace Jeans — it will always be manufactured in Italy.” Versace handbags, however, have a variety of different manufacturers.
A vintage Gianni Versace tag, circa the ’70s or ’80s.
Brand tag design has varied over Versace’s forty-year span, but the oldest Gianni Versace tags will say “Gianni Versace Couture” and feature a checkerboard pattern. “From 2004 to 2006, Donatella Versace added her initials, DV, to garment tags,” says Wetzbarger, “and more recent tags will feature a sans-serif Versace, with or without the Medusa head. On tags, look for careful embroidery and even stitching. Any sign of poor quality is a red flag.” If you’re not sure about the authenticity of a 2000s-era and beyond garment, look at the tags on the inner side seam. “Starting in the aughts, Versace added a unique serial number on tags that can be authenticated online, “ says Wetzbarger. When in doubt, go to certilogo.com/brands, find Versace and enter the number to double check its authenticity.”
The Medusa head, a classic Versace motif, is also one of its most counterfeited elements. “The Medusa head was inspired by an architectural feature at Via Gesù 12, Versace’s longtime headquarters, atelier and showroom,” says Wetzbarger. “The head has changed shape over the years — it was once very angular and is now more cherubic. Look for defined, detailed castings of the head. Medusa heads with very indistinct features are very likely to be inauthentic.”
Versace continues to rethink Italian style for today, and Michael Kors’ interest and entrance has left everyone excited about Versace’s future. Though nothing can bring back Gianni Versace, his legacy — a gilded vision of Greco-Roman glamour, innovative fabrications and fashion inextricably linked to the most noteworthy celebrities in the world — will forever live on.
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Please note: Brand standards, logos and other identifying features may have changed since the time of publication.