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Giovanni Maria "Gianni" Versace (2 December 1946 – 15 July 1997) was an Italian fashion designer and founder of Versace, an international fashion house that produces accessories, fragrances, make-up, home furnishings, and clothes. He also designed costumes for theatre and films. As a friend of Eric Clapton, Diana, Princess of Wales, Naomi Campbell, Duran Duran, Madonna, Elton John, Cher, Sting, and many other celebrities, he was one of the first designers to link fashion to the music world. He and his partner Antonio D'Amico were regulars on the international party scene. On 15 July 1997, Versace was murdered outside his home at the age of 50 by spree killer Andrew Cunanan.
Giovanni Maria Versace was born in the city of Reggio Calabria, Italy on 2 December 1946, and grew up with his elder brother Santo Versace and younger sister Donatella Versace, along with their father and dressmaker mother, Francesca. An older sister, Tina, died at age 12 due to an improperly treated tetanus infection.
Versace was strongly influenced by ancient Greek history, which dominates the historical landscape of his birthplace. He attended Liceo Classico Tommaso Campanella, where he studied Latin and ancient Greek, without completing the course. He was also influenced by Andy Warhol.
Versace began his apprenticeship at a young age, at his mother's sewing business, which employed up to a dozen seamstresses. He became interested in architecture before moving to Milan at the age of 26 to work in fashion design.
In 1973, he became the designer of "Byblos", a successful Genny's youthful line, and in 1977, he designed Complice, another, more experimental, line for Genny. A few years later, encouraged by his success, Versace presented his first signature collection for women at the Palazzo della Permanente Art Museum of Milan. His first fashion show followed in September of the same year. His first boutique was opened in Milan's Via della Spiga in 1978.
After opening his Milan boutique in 1978, Versace quickly became a sensation on the international fashion scene. His designs employed vivid colors, bold prints, and sexy cuts, which were a refreshing contrast to the prevailing taste for muted colors and simplicity. His aesthetic "combined luxurious classicism with overt sexuality", attracting much criticism in addition to praise. He is quoted as saying, "I don't believe in good taste", which was reflected in his "brazen defiance of the rules of fashion." A saying became current referencing Versace's famous rivalry with Giorgio Armani: "Armani dresses the wife, Versace dresses the mistress."
From 1978, Versace built the company with the support of his family, employing his sister Donatella as Vice President and his brother Santo as President of the company. Donatella's purview extended to creative oversight, where she acted as a key consultant to Versace. Gianni would also come to employ Donatella's husband, Paul Beck, as menswear director.
Among Versace's most famous innovations was his 1982 invention of a type of super-light chainmail called 'Oroton', which became a signature material in his outfits. His suits were inspired more by his experience in female tailoring, departing from masculine Savile Row models by crafting suits which accentuated the male form and "insisted on men as sex objects."
Versace was very proud of his southern Italian heritage and infused his designs with motifs inspired by historical fashion and art movements, especially Graeco-Roman art. This is evident in the company's logo, the Medusa Head, and reoccurring motifs like the Greek key. He also allowed his love for contemporary art to inspire his work, creating graphic prints based on the art of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.
In 1982, Versace expanded the business into jewelry and houseware, designing luxury furnishings, china, and textiles for the home. He was unusual in retaining complete creative control over all aspects of his company. In 1989, the firm expanded into haute couture with the launch of Atelier Versace. Versace became known for employing celebrities in his marketing campaigns and seating them in the front rows of his fashion shows, the first to do so. He is also credited with inventing the supermodel vogue of the 1990s, by discovering and featuring major supermodels like Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista, all of whom he featured both on the runway and in his ad campaigns.
At the time of his death, Versace's empire was valued at $807 million and included 130 boutiques across the world.
Throughout his career, Versace was a prolific costume designer for stage productions and performing artists. He claimed, "for me the theatre is liberation", and his designs were well served by his penchant for bold colors, drapery, embellishment, and an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history. He was a collaborator at the La Scala Theatre Ballet in Milan, and designed the costumes for the Strauss ballet Josephslegende in 1982 and Donizetti's Don Pasquale. He also designed the costumes for five Béjart Ballet productions: Dionysos (1984), Leda and the Swan (1987), Malraux ou la Métamorphoses des Dieux (1986), Chaka Zulu (1989), and the Ballet du XXme Siècle. In 1990, he designed the costumes for the San Francisco Opera's production of Capriccio. Versace designed Elton John's costumes for his 1992 world tour.
Versace met his partner Antonio D'Amico, a model, in 1982. Their relationship lasted until Versace's murder. Before his death, Versace was diagnosed with cancer of the ear. During that time, D'Amico worked as a designer for the company, having become head designer for Istante and Versus Sport. Versace's will left D'Amico with a lifelong pension of 50 million lire (about US$26,000) per month, and the right to live in any of Versace's homes in Italy and the United States. However, due to the Versace family's interference he only obtained a fraction of these allowances. D'Amico now runs his own fashion company.
Versace was known for doting on his nieces and nephews: Santo's two children, Francesca and Antonio, and Donatella's two children, Allegra and Daniel.
Versace was shot and killed on 15 July 1997, at the age of 50, on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion as he returned from a morning walk on Ocean Drive. He was subsequently pronounced dead at Jackson Memorial Hospital, at 9:21 a.m. Usually, Versace would have an assistant walk from his home to the coffee shop to get his morning papers, but on this occasion he decided to go in person.
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Versace was murdered by spree killer Andrew Cunanan, who used the same gun to commit suicide on a houseboat eight days later. Cunanan was obsessed with the designer, and often bragged about his close "friendship" with Versace, although this was symptomatic of Cunanan's delusions of grandeur; he often falsely claimed to have met celebrities. However, FBI agents believe that Versace and Cunanan had previously met in San Francisco, although what their relationship entailed is still a mystery. Reporter Maureen Orth published a 2008 article in Vanity Fair claiming that Cunanan and Versace had met briefly at a San Francisco night club in 1990 (based on several eyewitness claims), and might possibly have interacted on further occasions, because both were involved in sex-for-hire circles in Miami and San Francisco. However, Versace's family has always steadfastly denied that the two ever met.
Versace was Cunanan's fifth and final victim. Police have said they do not know why Versace was killed. "I don't know that we are ever going to know the answers," said Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto.
Versace's body was cremated and his ashes returned to the family's estate near Cernobbio, Italy, and buried in the family vault at Moltrasio cemetery near Lake Como. Versace's funeral service, held at Milan Cathedral, was attended by over 2,000 people, including Diana, Princess of Wales, who would be killed in a car accident just over a month later.
In September 1997, the media announced that Versace's brother, Santo, would serve as the new CEO of Gianni Versace S.p.A. while Versace's sister, Donatella, had become the new head of design.
In his will, Versace left 50% of his fashion empire to his niece, Allegra Versace. She and her younger brother, Daniel, inherited Versace's rare artwork collection. Allegra inherited her stake, worth approximately $500 million, when she turned 18 years old, in 2004.
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