Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Versace, King of Rock 'N' Roll Fashion

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Versace, King of Rock 'N' Roll Fashion

Article excerpt

GIANNI VERSACE is the calm at the eye of a fashion storm - one of his own making.

Season after season, his star-studded extravaganzas in Milan, Paris and New York send the paparazzi into a feeding frenzy.

Celebrities - including Sting, Madonna, Jon Bon Jovi, Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley - fight for their front-row seats, while the runways are backed up with supermodel gridlock.

Versace has made his name with the kind of brash, sexy clothes that some dismiss as vulgar, while others, from Prince to Princess Di, can't get enough of them.

Click! There's Hurley in a safety-pinned, barely there, pink Versace couture dress that jump-started her visibility and unleashed a storm of criticism from English tabloids.

Click! Click! There's Diana, wearing a perfectly proper white silk dress adorned with a pair of the designer's signature Medusa medallions.

Fashion's rock 'n' roll couturier may turn the idea of taste upside down, but he certainly knows how to create a little excitement - and a major business.

Versace SpA generated annual sales of $930 million last year, up 26 percent over 1994, according to brother Santo Versace, who runs the financial side of the house.

With a new fragrance, Blonde, coming out and a flagship on Fifth Avenue slated to open this summer, Gianni seems to leap from one success to another. He rests between accomplishments in spectacular homes in Milan, Lake Como, Miami and New York.

But not everything is picture-perfect in the Versace empire. Last fall, rumors of potential connections between the design house and the Mafia surfaced once again, and the Independent in London published a report to that effect.

Versace sued and won a judgment, including a retraction and apology, as well as $150,000 in damages.

But as if that weren't enough, the fashion world was abuzz with talk of the designer's illness - with some journalists hard at work on premature reports of his death.

The sedate man at the center of all this commotion sat down in his suite at the Ritz to set the record straight.

Q: How did you first get involved in fashion?

A: When I was a child in Reggio Calabria, in the south of Italy, I spent a lot of time in my mother's atelier. She was a designer, with this big atelier with 45 girls serving the aristocracy of the region.

I used to see magazines there with the work of Balenciaga, Chanel and Charles James, but I didn't even think about fashion - it just came naturally to me.

Q: And when did you first start designing?

A: I started working for private clients in my mother's atelier when I was 18. Then I began in 1975-76 to design for other companies, and it went really, really fast - too quickly for me.

Sometimes I was stressed from that, and I had to learn to save myself. I started escaping to places to try to keep a freshness about my work. I'm very shy in my life, but I'm very strong in my work.

Q: Has your work been well-received from the start?

A: At the beginning of my career, everyone was with me. When I did the Complice collection many years ago, it was very revolutionary. People adored it, and the line was everywhere.

Then when I did some controversial collections on my own - like one that was S & M - some people were very much against me. But if you look back today, that collection was very simple.

I think it's the responsibility of a designer to try to break rules and barriers.

Q: What barriers do you feel you've broken?

A: I think I've given more freedom to women. They like my work because I express a sense of liberty, a sense of nonchalance.

Q: Which fashion designers from the past have been important for you?

A: I like designers with personality. Charles James is one of my favorites because he was such an original, Balenciaga for his restraint and Chanel for her craziness. …

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