July 15 marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Gianni Versace, the internationally renowned fashion designer who was murdered outside his Miami home.
Today, young fashion fans might be more likely to recognize his sister, Donatella, with her platinum blond hair and smoky black-lined eyes, who doesn’t shy away from red carpet appearances with pop stars like Lady Gaga.
But it is Gianni who is credited with creating some of the 1990s’ most iconic fashion moments as well as pioneering high-impact celebrity marketing. That is, Gianni Versace created the supermodel.
While Olivier Rousteing may stack his Balmain fashion shows today with “it” girls like Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner and Joan Smalls, Gianni Versace did it more than two decades prior, immortalizing fashion’s first supermodel super-pack: Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington.
Gianni Versace’s legacy, of course, is about more than smart marketing and celebrity, even if millennials — many of whom were born after the designer’s death in 1997 — only know Versace as part of a Migos song or for a Zayn Malik collaboration.
After Gianni Versace’s murder in 1997, Donatella took control of the brand’s creative direction. The 20-year anniversary of her brother’s death isn’t lost on her; she told the New York Times’ Style section that her most recent runway show was an homage to Gianni’s legacy.
But what legacy is that, exactly?
It’s not just about the Medusa head that Gianni Versace is credited with popularizing, emblazoned on the brand’s universally recognizable logo. (Despite his Italian heritage, Gianni was enthralled by stories of seduction in Greek mythology, as chronicled by a new Versace fashion exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, which runs through September.)
To be sure, there are plenty of unknown designers who might’ve stood for the same, but Versace managed a perfect trifecta of celebrity, media, and sexuality. Vogue’s Anna Wintour said as much in a Nightline interview following his death: “Gianni stands for glamour and the Oscars and sexiness and power, and … something a little wicked. He didn’t believe in being boring.”
If Versace was repulsed by things you were obliged to wear, as he told Charlie Rose in a 1994 interview, he was certainly attracted to that which you were not supposed to wear, at least not in public. Indeed, the designer’s most impactful show, perhaps, was the Fall 1992 collection that “knocked down some fashion shibboleths and established some guides for the future. But the shimmering surface only lightly veiled a disturbing undertone,” according to the New York Times’ review. It was called Miss S&M, and as the name suggests, there was a lot of leather and bondage.
When Versace wasn’t busy challenging sartorial dictates, he was dressing Hollywood royalty and actual royalty. There was the iconic safety pin dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley (pictured as the lead image in this story) to the 1994 premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral, solidifying her Hollywood A-lister status. But Hurley remained a fan of Versace beyond that, wearing the brand again to the 1995 Oscars.
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Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style + Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.