Classy clothing this is not. Daring, dangerous, downright trashy -- vulgar even. Revealing slinky gowns made of gold and silver mesh. Skintight, multicolored sequined hip-huggers covered with Marilyn Monroe faces. A form-fitting black dress precariously held together by a series of silver- and gold-tone Medusa-headed clothespins.
Too many studs, beads, or sequins were never enough for Gianni Versace, the son of a seamstress who became the acclaimed costume designer and clothier to the rich and famous. Excess was key. He created dresses from metal mesh; directly appropriated from or "paid tribute" to artists Gustav Klimt, Alexander Calder, and Andy Warhol; and deconstructed fashion classics such as Coco Chanel's black sheath, rendering them unrecognizable from their previous incarnations. A sanguine man, he successfully marketed himself by catering to his own wild muse and the caprices of fashion.
Eventually, though, Versace's boldness and optimism were his undoing. An international celebrity around the world who tried to live as a humble Everyman in his Miami Beach home, he died at his Ocean Drive doorstep at the hand of a maniac. His legacy: the clothes. Gianni Versace: The Reinvention of Material, the exhibition currently at North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art, displays 100 pieces from the designer's oeuvre housed in a series of rooms with multiple gold-framed mirrors hanging on faux frescoed walls. Alongside the images by famed photographers Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber, and Helmut Newton are fragments of fabrics and outlandish accessories. But all eyes inevitably gravitate toward the garments.
There is the demure designer: Created for the ballet Souvenir de Leningrad, three ecru linen tutus accentuated with pleats and decorated with diamond pins at their cinched waists. The obsequious yet mocking designer: A colorful, long, silk halter dress covered with prints of Vogue magazine covers that pay respect to the magazine as the maker and breaker of fashion careers while allowing the wearer the pleasure of literally sitting on the bible of fashion. The reverent designer: A brown wool tweed Chanel-like suit flecked with gold threads and festooned with buttons bearing the Medusa heads Versace adopted from classical Greece. Other outfits reflect his enthusiasm for the belle epoque, the Byzantine era, and the Jazz Age. According to Versace's sister Donatella, the designer looked at his work "not as a re-creation of the past but as inspiration for the future."
What the future seems to hold is more retrospectives of this sort. Not that they haven't been happening all along. Chiara Buss (who originally put the exhibition together for the Fondazione Antonio Ratti, where she is curator of the textile museum) has been organizing explorations of the designer's work over the past ten years. For Buss the significance of Versace's career has never been an open-ended question: "He'll stay in history as someone who understood that art and fashion, culture and fashion, cannot be kept separate," she claims. Buss touchingly recalls that Versace often found himself puzzled at the ideas fashion historians would attribute to his work. But the ever affable designer always remained more amused than alarmed at their discoveries. "He wanted his work analyzed, verbalized, and understood," notes Buss. And so it is.