The trailer for Ryan Murphy’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, debuting on FX on Wednesday, ironically sparked a flood of gorgeous memories for me about working with Versace. This, despite the fact that the Versace family has issued a press release calling the series—based on Vanity Fair correspondent Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors—“a work of fiction.”
Donatella Versace, sister of Gianni and heir to the brand, has flatly stated that she “will not be watching.” And truly, I can’t imagine—even with the genius casting of Darren Criss from Glee as Versace’s deranged murderer, Andrew Cunanan; singer Ricky Martin as Gianni’s partner; Oscar winner Penelope Cruz playing Donatella; and Edgar Ramirez as Gianni himself—that the series could possibly capture the brilliant life and work of the late designer.
It’s hard to make movies about real magic. That’s exactly what taking part in Versace’s family business was like. With knees trembling, I stepped onto Versace’s Milan runway for the first time in the early ’90s. At the time, I had never before seen clothes up close and personal that screamed sex, drugs, rock and roll, money and L-I-F-E so articulately.
What I loved most about Versace was that he made being ordinary impossible. Every millimeter of his clothes was drenched in color and patterns playfully layered on top of more patterns, then fastened with gold Medusa medallions or gilded bondage buckles shackling plunging necklines, and skirts slit thigh-high onto bodies more than willing to carry his message forth into the world.
That message was: If you’ve got it, flaunt it—and then flaunt it some more.
Working with Versace was a trip through the looking glass, where the boundaries of what it meant to be new money or old money, a slut or a lady, were totally killed, crushed and destroyed. It was like walking the halls of Versailles, or standing at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza, or looking up at the Chrysler Building—all of which are on a such a scale, you can only be overwhelmed, in the best way, and forced to dream of what’s possible.
Versace’s dresses transformed women into beacons of light, painted in celebratory, blazing columns of color. When I wear head-to-toe Versace, the mixture of inspiration and envy coming at me from onlookers feels electric. This is how I felt that Versace—who was, incidentally, a very quiet man—moved through the world, courting both inspiration and envy because he was so unapologetically himself.
“I always thought that Versace was a very, very shy person deep down,” says my great friend André Leon Talley, former creative director of American Vogue, who was also a confidant and collaborator of Versace’s—and my entree into the House of Versace as a model.
Versace made my knees tremble for many reasons back in the early ’90s. When I first saw his clothes, I was overwhelmed, even intimidated, by the fabulousness. Coming to understand that his little sister, Donatella, was his muse and his heart, and that his clothes were his way of giving his heart to her, gave me the courage to make those epic struts down the runway.
And it was a runway like no other before or since; hand-laid with Italian marble brought in specially to every venue for the show, illuminated by the most skillful lighting crews in the business. Each model had her own spotlight trained on her every step.
“[Gianni] instinctively had a sense of the personality of models, casting his shows with fierce editing, and fierce rehearsals the night before a presentation,” Talley says.
And truly, it was always a cliffhanger to see what clothes and which models would make the final cut after rehearsals that could last into the wee hours of the morning—sometimes as long as six hours the night before a show. And yet, whether you made it or you didn’t—one season, I was cut because my hips were one-quarter inch too large for a sheath dress—you still had a sense that you were always welcome into the family.
“Paterfamilias” was a perfect description of Gianni Versace. “In many ways, he created a fashion family through his favorite band of supermodels; not only on his runway but in huge Avedon campaigns that were an extension of his life through fashion. He lived and slept fashion,” says Talley of his friend.
Those who knew him knew his siblings—his brother, Santos, co-chief operating officer of Versace holdings, and sister, Donatella, creative director of the company—as well as their children, who were his lifeblood as much as fashion.
“After his collections, he loved nothing more than taking the flight from Milan to Miami, where, sadly, he ended his life,” Talley recalls.
What I remember most about Versace was that he gave us permission to be rock-star spectacular in everyday life. He threw down the velvet gauntlet, daring you to make the ordinary extraordinary. May he always be remembered for carrying the torch for creating the most spectacular and authentic image of ourselves. That’s real magic.
You can judge for yourself if Ryan Murphy gets it right with Versace’s story when it premieres Wednesday night on FX. But just to prove that #VersaceMagic is still very much alive, I want to leave you with a quick hit of it via Bruno Mars and Zendaya.