NEW YORK — How could a fashion designer so excite society as to be a murderer's target and the object of our collective recognition and grief? After all, a fashion designer does not enter the public sphere the way politicians or artists and musicians do. As they say, it's not brain surgery. But Gianni Versace, who was killed last Tuesday, made fashion culturally important.
Versace mixed vulgarity with style--always a menacing combination. He embraced rock and the superficial worlds of celebrity, but he set himself the task of making couture garments as well as his renowned ready-to-wear. He lived the contemporary social contradictions with panache--creating clothing that outraged as much as it pleased; letting all his life be seen in a spectacle of houses that appeared like stage sets for "Sunset Boulevard," and presenting an exuberant personality that proclaimed sexuality as the basis of our lives.
Versace was the first post-Freudian fashion designer, unencumbered by any reticence or guilt about sexuality. He created the sexiest clothes of the 1980s and 1990s because of his own fundamental disposition to unashamed sexuality.
He died the death of an influential man because he was one. He was a lightning rod of sensual aspirations and yearnings for security and opulence far beyond the clothes themselves.
In 1989, Versace launched his collection addressed to young people under the name "Versus." In that designation, the already successful designer made it clear that his cultural position would always be dissonant and anti-establishment. Not status quo, but antagonistic.
Fashion is often about decorum or propriety, negotiating the seemly positioning that we might want in society. Versace cared not at all for decorum; he created clothing for desire: the sensuous kind in unadulterated sexuality (for both men and women) and in unabashed luxury and sumptuousness of materials. From the beginning work he did under the Complice and Genny labels in the 1970s, he loved the richest materials of fashion and made garments that spoke of the inherent opulence of materials and the egotism of the body within.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, fashion designers have been famous for merging the "street" and high fashion--high fashion was no longer a phenomenon of the elite and their courtly tastes. Yves Saint Laurent in the 1960s and Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons in the 1970s and '80s took ideas from their boulevardier observations of real people and rendered them in a high-fashion idiom. By the 1980s and '90s, there was one figure standing untouched in the street: the streetwalker. And she became the heroine of Versace's brilliant designs.
The shock of Versace 1980s' dresses--with their slinky revelations of the body, pronounced busts and flamboyant colors--was that they looked like prostitutes' working clothes. Versace transformed the sleazy into fashion. What Toulouse-Lautrec had done for the demimonde in the 1880s and 1890s, Versace created in fashion in the 1980s and 1990s.
Versace seized the seamy side and made it style. In 1992, his so-called "bondage" dresses looked like something inspired by S&M clubs--and perhaps they were. They were highly controversial, but by 1997, they are viewed as the forerunners for Versace's streamlined modernism, the engineering elements that strut across the body, not the mere trappings of a fetishistic life. Similarly, the golden safety pins that Versace derived from punk were transformed into high style in a manner different from any other designer. In a sense, these basic elements taken from the ordinary were a metaphor for Versace's life, which took him from humble origins in Reggio Calabria to his four homes where he lived like a Medici prince.
This unashamed sexuality pertained not only to great entrance-making dresses for Madonna, Elizabeth Hurley and Courtney Love, but also to Versace's menswear collection, begun in 1979. Versace, as he demonstrated in his book "Men without Ties," looked for a menswear ideal, and a physical ideal, that was sensuous and distant from office wear. Versace's open homosexuality, not the silence or grudging admission of per diem bisexuality of other designers, enabled him to create a man of overt sexuality--a revolution in menswear akin to that of Versace's strong women.
Versace was a designer of encyclopedic knowledge. He prided himself on owning a great library and employing a full-time professional librarian. He spent countless hours studying fashion history. I once chanced upon Gianni and his companion, Antonio D'Amico, when they were visiting an exhibition in the Costume Institute. We said hello, and I then walked into my office. An hour later, I walked back into the gallery and discovered the two were still studying the small exhibition. Versace loved good times and grand partying, but he was also a kind and unobserved scholar, one who dwelt in history in the midst of the contemporary maelstrom.