La Dolce Vita di Versace

Just when stars were beginning to look like oddly ravishing diplomats, thanks to Armani, along came Gianni Versace. Here the master of Hollywood pizzazz mentally dresses Gwyneth and Uma for the Oscars, praises Leonardo, Christian and Brad, and explains why he won't make a movie like Mizrahi's Unzipped until Terry Gilliam is ready.


Remember the black safety-pin bondage dress that Elizabeth Hurley wore to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral, the one that catapulted her to worldwide fame? It was the creation of Gianni Versace. Remember when Madonna cleaned up her act after the failed hoopla of Erotica? It was Versace she turned to. Of the top three Italian couturiers currently obsessing over Hollywood stars--Armani, Valentino and Versace--Versace is by far the most daring, the most likely to create media moments. When Elizabeth Hurley gave Gucci designer Tom Ford an award at the VH1 Fashion Awards, she showed up wearing not Gucci, but a silver, whistle-inspiring Versace number. Unlike Armani, whose classic, subtle women's designs are favored by Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster because they whisper "good taste," or Valentino, whose elegantly glamorous look has long had a mutual admiration thing going with Sharon Stone, Versace's body-hugging sequin, lace and silk numbers scream "sex," exude flash and edge.

Versace stands out in the fashion industry because he has consistently thumbed his nose at the old, staid notion of haute couture in favor of what he calls "young couture." With the help of his younger sister, Donatella, who oversees advertising and imaging for the House of Versace, and is his design partner on Versus, the edgiest of his collection, Versace has managed to succeed in steering celebrity fashion sense away from the sobriety of the early nineties. His designs hark back to the Golden Age of movies, but add in some South Beach chic and end up brighter, tighter, strappier, slittier--in short, more flamboyant.

A growing number of stars have been won over by his notoriously expensive fashion--Nicole Kidman, Vanessa Williams, Salma Hayek, Kelly Preston, Cher, Mira Sorvino, Kim Basinger, Molly Ringwald. His equally popular designs for men are favored by Wesley Snipes, Sylvester Stallone, Hugh Grant and a host of others who rely on a Versace shirt or Versace jacket to bring off whatever else they're wearing.

I met up with Versace at his neoclassical home on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The palatial townhouse is just one of his four dwellings (the others are in Miami, Milan and Lake Como). It is the beginning of New York's Spring '97 "Fashion Week," an incredibly frenetic time for Versace, but he is unfailingly polite and relentlessly cheerful. Armed with some strong opinions on the demise of true glamour in Tinseltown, the 50-year-old designer settles in to make his pronouncements on which Young Hollywood stars look fabulous and which, most definitely, do not.

DIANE CLEHANE: I know that you're a self-confessed "media addict," so tell me about your earliest recollections of fashion in film.

GIANNI VERSACE: When I was in school, my teachers called my mother and said, "Your son is obsessed with sexual things." I used to draw Sophia Loren's tits all the time [laughs] and Gina Lollobrigida's waist. The tits and the waist in the '50s and '60s were very extreme--that was the fashion. There were so many beautiful women--Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Silvana Mangano. I always had a fascination with beauty, and of course, in the movies beauty was at the maximum. Regalness, fantasy and fashion are what I think stood out in movies. I adore the films of Fellini and Antonioni. The sexiness of Monica Vitti, the sweetness of Claudia Cardinale.

Q: We're coming up on the Oscars--I assume you watch the show?

A: I adore them. They are so typically American. We organize a little dinner and watch them with many of my friends. We had tickets to go a few years ago and we got so bored sitting there. It's more fun to stay home, order pizza and talk to the television. Last year I watched them in New York with Woody Allen. He was so funny to watch when he saw Claudia Schiffer on the screen and his eyes [makes a startled expression] opened wide.

Q: What would you put on, say, Gwyneth Paltrow or Unia Thurman for this year's Oscars?

A: I think Gwyneth Paltrow is divine--she's so fresh. She can really become something if she cares. I would put her in one of my dresses with a fishtail--a little sexy and not too romantic.

Q: And Uma?

A: She can only wear Versace, I promise you. [Laughs] She looks dead in other clothing. She must wear Versace. She's beautiful and she deserves Versace. I don't deserve Uma, but she deserves me. That lilac dress she wore a few years ago was close to one of my designs. She can have the original. She doesn't need to go for the copy.

Q: Who else would you love to see in Versace?

A: I like Drew Barrymore a lot. She's crazy, she's nuts. She should never be overdone. She's already hyper. And I like Courtney Love. I think she has such a presence. In Basquiat, she just appeared for two minutes and you saw the fire. She has a presence. To me, even with a minor part in a movie, it's very important to underline the way you move, the way you express the personality of the movie by the way you dress.

Q: Let's talk about which of today's young actors you think is having an impact on fashion.

A: I don't think there's a young actor today who has had an influence on fashion. There is less and less magic. There is no Audrey Hepburn, and that's sad. Audrey influenced fashion. Now the people that influence fashion come from music. Madonna. What was that movie she made when she was just starting out?

Q: Desperately Seeking Susan?

A: Yes. That movie epitomized how young teenagers wanted to dress, how they wanted to feel. There's no movie today that does that. That is the fault of the directors. They don't underline personalities with clothes. They do it with attitude.

Q: Why do you think stars have less influence on fashion than before?

A: Stars today seem to move from one designer to another. They don't care enough to focus on one style. Every day they want to be another personality. A cowboy one day, sophisticated another day. In the movies you can change, but in your life you have to be yourself. Audrey Hepburn had a liaison with Givenchy, who helped her. She and Givenchy epitomized the elegance of the '60s. I think _Breakfast at Tiffany'_s was the perfect combination of fashion and a movie star. There's nothing like that today.

Q: And why do you think that is?

A: The big studios used to care about the way the old stars dressed. I understand that's demode, but there is always a modern way to be glamorous. Today, stars jump from Todd Oldham to Calvin Klein. From Calvin Klein to Versace. This is OK for normal life, but when you are a star you have to have a style. To jump from one designer to another all the time means you don't have any idea about how you want to look.

Q: Elizabeth Hurley must have known how she wanted to look when she appeared in your bondage dress at the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral.

A: There are times when fashion helps a lot to express the underlying personality of an actress. It was the right moment, the right girl, the right dress. That dress really made a statement. It was breathless, the publicity from that for her and for me.

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