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A Birthday Tribute to Gianni Versace: Fashion's Renaissance Man

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DONATELLA GIANNI VERSACE

Today would have been Gianni Versace's 65th birthday.

For a man who had dedicated his life to family, friends and making wonderful clothes, he met a bloody and brutally unnecessary end, shot dead outside his Florida home just over 14 years ago.

I had the pleasure of not only knowing him but working with him. I would like to think that, had he still been alive, the pace of his life would not have slowed at an age when many are thinking only of retirement and relaxation.

He would have kept working with the same eye for detail, sheer love of his work and little sense of mischief. To think of his not being here, there is not only the personal loss from the death of someone I knew both as a professional and a private individual but a real sense of what the world of fashion lost when he died.

As I consider the anniversary of his birth, I believe that comparison with another Italian currently being garlanded with praise - Leonardo da Vinci - is in order.

Like da Vinci, Gianni Versace was a true visionary who was well ahead of his time. Even though he came from more humble beginnings than Leonardo and they were born almost the full length of the Italian mainland and nearly 500 years apart, both were brimming with ideas - and not just in those disciplines for which they ultimately became best-known.

Gianni Versace had, in my opinion, an almost unique approach to women's fashion. He told me that, as a boy, he had dreamt not of designing clothes but designing buildings. I don't think that understanding of perspective, of form and of structure ever left him. He was a sartorial architect, constructing beautiful, balanced garments in a way which few stylists have ever been able to match.

Leonardo, although arguably most familiar around the world for his painting, was also accomplished in architecture and design, something which the journals he left behind spell out clearly. Just like da Vinci, I never saw Versace without a notebook, constantly jotting down his thoughts on composition, not just of the glamorous costumes which he created but the ways in which they were to be given a platform.

On one occasion, I recall him - the perfectionist that he was - personally overseeing the construction of a new stage set the day before a show in Munich. His architectural sensibilities appreciated how the addition of a single extra step for his models to walk down would heighten the drama when combined with the right blend of light, music and couture.

He knew how to mix the right models with the right outfits, going to great lengths and great expense to secure the services of Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Yasmeen Ghauri and others. Partly thanks to his patronage, at the very least, the 'model' became the 'supermodel'.

As well as the elements of staging a show to complement his outfits, Gianni Versace also recognised the value of photography in creating the correct image. He loved working with true giants behind the lens like Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, Steven Meisel and Richard Avedon. I remember him talking an assistant through the fine detail behind the composition of one print - the light, the facial expressions, the clothes, the aura, the props. The captured moment. Nothing escaped his attention.

Although hugely successful, he was not a commodity or a brand but an artist, composing sensuous, striking outfits using the female form as his canvas.

With all due respect to great fashion designers past and present, Gianni Versace maintained a personal involvement in generating collections and cultivating relationships with his customers in a way that is sometimes hard to relate to today but would have been familiar to the great Renaissance artists like da Vinci, Michelangelo or Raphael. He was focused and ambitious but he wasn't insular, intense or blinkered in the same way that some other designers are regarded.

Just as Leonardo and Raphael became painters at the court of the rich and powerful in 15th and 16th-century Europe, it is still amazing how so many famous people paid court to Gianni Versace. The appearance by his friend, Diana, the Princess of Wales, at Gianni's funeral in late July 1997 was one of the last times she was seen in public before her own death the following month.

I believe that the secret was not only that Gianni Versace was fabulous fun to be around and truly inspiring, in much the way that Leonardo da Vinci was to his peers. Even though he had his own menswear label, Gianni Versace was a designer who principally had the ability to make women appear truly glamorous, sexy, but never vulgar. I recall that he used to love the smell of patchouli mingling with the warm, natural scent of female skin. It used to fire his imagination, he said, inspiring him to more audacious flights of fashionable fantasy.

His family name, of course, lives on in the designs of his sister, Donatella, whose collection caused such a sensation recently when it arrived in H&M stores around the world. That news caused me to think back to Gianni's Spring/Summer collection in 1991 and designs which were so modern and vibrant then that they might easily go on sale now without looking at all out of place.

It is another reason why I believe there may be other great designers but we will sadly never see Gianni Versace's like again.

Around the Web

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