A major retrospective of the work of fashion designer Gianni Versace (1946 –1997) featuring the most comprehensive collection of originals ever exhibited from the Versace archives, a house renowned for its style and luxury.
Versace at the V&A will explore the designer's great originality, versatility and imagination, as well as the craft-based and innovative technical developments he pursued in his search for beauty. With more than 130 designs on display, the exhibition illustrates the diversity of Versace's work over 30 years.
Gianni Versace was famous for dressing the most glamorous celebrities and this must-see exhibition includes high-profile works worn by Madonna, Diana, Princess of Wales, Elton John and the unforgettable safety pin dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley.
See stunning theatrical pieces, jewelled and embroidered couture garments, classical evening wear, leather creations, tailoring and printed fabrics and designs reflecting Versace's passion for historical artefacts and contemporary art. There is also the rare opportunity to handle select original examples of clothing and fabric and see moving images from the career of one of the most colourful and talented designers of the late twentieth century.
The show concludes with several dresses from Donatella Versace's recent collections and includes the jungle print dress worn by Jennifer Lopez.
This exhibition celebrates the career of Gianni Versace (1946–1997), one of the most colourful and talented designers of the late 20th-century. Versace was born in Reggio Calabria in Southern Italy. His first independent collection was launched in Milan in 1978 and subsequently, aided by the talents of his brother Santo and sister Donatella, he forged the vastly successful Versace empire.
Versace became internationally renowned for ultra-glamorous creations, and many of these ‘celebrity' styles are on show, including Elizabeth Hurley's black safety-pin dress, worn at the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Other works reveal Versace as the creator of spectacular theatrical costumes and as an innovative menswear designer.
Versace's style combined luxurious classicism with overt sexuality. His sensational advertising campaigns featured supermodels such as Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell. Eclectic and impudent, Versace inspired both respect and outrage. He said, ‘I don't believe in good taste.'
Versace was determined to enliven daywear. He added risqué factors such as bondage-like fastenings or seductive pleats to superbly crafted suits, created tantalisingly tactile leather garments, and dressed men and women in ebullient prints from head to toe. The late Richard Martin, of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote: 'His menswear was genuinely revolutionary, insisting on men as sex objects. He became the standard-bearer of gay men's fashion because he eschewed decorum and designed for desire.' Combining skilful tailoring with innovative materials, Versace produced clothing that could not be ignored.
Versace's fitted, sexy ‘celebrity' gowns are well known, but he also enjoyed composing traditional full-skirted ballgowns fit for a debutante. He created many evening styles in Oroton, the unique metal mesh ‘fabric' which he devised in the early 1980s, and manipulated its weight and fluidity to create shimmering carapaces whose liquidity recalls classical draperies.
Versace's ‘Atelier' haute couture collection, launched in 1989, was fuelled by his delight in the overstatement. Micro-dresses and tight jumpsuits were painstakingly embroidered in a wealth of sequins, diamantés and metal threads. In contrast, Versace investigated structure and drama in a series of severe black dresses with dual personalities. Plain at the front, they had wickedly plunging necklines and slit skirts at the back.
Versace was a man of inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm. He delighted in all forms of creativity and loved museums, including the V&A. His passion for the historical and the contemporary is indicated in the sections devoted to ‘History' and ‘Art'.
Versace had a deep feeling for his heritage and the role of dress, commenting, ‘I come from a land with a rich history . . . its roots are old, ancient roots, that knew the aristocracy of sculptural draperies.'
Versace's encyclopaedic knowledge and respect for the past liberated him. He achieved an equilibrium between the historical and the modern which, though audacious, was never disrespectful.
Versace was an avid collector of 20th-century art, from Picasso to Jasper Johns. He paid tribute to the graphic power of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and appropriated Andy Warhol's celebrity portraits for his printed dress fabrics. In a playful twist, he adorned a gown with the covers of Vogue magazine demonstrating that his clothing, while it may not have been fine art, could certainly be ‘artful'.
Versace's catwalk collections were invariably spectacular and theatrical, and he found commissions (the first in 1982) to create costumes for theatre and ballet irresistible. These in turn clearly influenced his fashion.
Some of Versace's most notable works were designed for the choreographer Maurice Béjart. The creations met stringent practical requirements and enhanced the dancer's movements while offering a dynamic visual narrative.
Versace looked to the grand masters of fashion drama, Christian Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga and Schiaparelli, for inspiration for his larger than life theatre costumes. Acknowledging his allegiance to the performance arts he said, ‘For me the theatre is liberation.'
This area features garments which you are allowed to touch. They have been selected for their tactile qualities. Gianni Versace was intrigued by the possibilities of materials and worked closely with textile manufacturers to develop new fabrics and introduce new textile finishes.
The garments are constructed in materials that Versace particularly enjoyed. They include a metal ‘Oroton' mesh dress, a textured and padded ‘pneumatic' fine leather coat, a printed and a permanently ‘crumpled' silk dress, and examples of woven and embroidered couture fabrics.
Donatella Versace has been described as Gianni Versace's muse, and he referred to his sister as his ‘perfect woman'. Her critical and artistic contribution to the Versace label cannot be underestimated. Donatella joined the family company in the early 1980s and became responsible for accessories and ‘Versus', the youth-orientated diffusion line. She became artistic director after Gianni Versace's death in 1997.
Donatella brought a younger, harder edge to Versace which complemented Gianni's classicism. She said, ‘I like to play with power when I do clothes – to play with power and with fun.'
At the time of his death in 1997, Gianni Versace was one of the most famous fashion designers in the world. In less than twenty years he had created an international company that put Italy on the fashion map and forged an unrivalled reputation for luxury and glamour.
Versace's immense drive and singular commitment to fashion resulted in significant achievements. Eclectic and profligate, he showered his clothes with references, forged unlikely alliances of materials and concepts. He combined exquisite dressmaking with a brazen defiance of the rules of fashion.
Versace's couture designs were created for the super rich but his impact was felt across a wider section of society through diffusion lines. Stylistically accessible and instantly recognisable, Versace's fearless designs came to epitomise the 1980s and 1990s.