On March 6, 1991, Gianni Versace forever changed the fashion world after showing his Fall Winter collection, appropriately dubbed “The Freedom Collection”. He is often credited with creating the ‘supermodel' after causing a global sensation when he sent sent four models, Cindy (Crawford), Linda (Evangelista), Christy (Turlington) and Naomi (Campbell), down the runway miming to George Michael’s song Freedom. Those models (along with Tatjana Patitz) had starred in a video which was on heavy rotation on MTV, so the image of them at Versace's show singing along to Freedom not only captured the imagination of the fashion industry but also came to define an era.
I first met Gianni Versace in the late 1980s in Rome when I was doing the bi-annual Valentino Haute Couture show on the Spanish Steps. He was there with his sister Donatella, herself a petite, striking blonde bombshell. They were both warm, very Italian and passionate about Gianni’s craft. Soon after that meeting, I shot a Versace campaign with then actress Talisa Soto and famed photographer Bruce Weber. Versace was passionate about quality and so he always used the industry’s best. The best photographers like Bruce, Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, the best hair and makeup like Oribe and of course the best models. Gianni is often credited as one of the architects that created the supermodel but it’s actually his sister Donatella who urged Gianni to start booking booking big print models to walk his shows. His shows were the most fun, always vibrant, energetic, and of course sexy. While Giorgio Armani wanted you to glide down the runway, Versace encouraged you to stride down like a racehorse! His clothing would fit impeccably and scoop you in all the right places. And the hair and makeup was always sexy: big hair, strong brows, eyeliner, and a nude lip was the Versace look. Gianni made you feel super glamorous as though you were the most beautiful woman in the world. Gianni wanted to see your personality come across on the runway. He encouraged it and wanted you to shine as it brought his clothes to life. I actually think the way shows look now suit the times, but back then, we smiled, turned, got the audience’s attention and had so much fun (but also worked bloody hard!).
I would be remiss if wrote about a Versace show without mentioning the other element which was the rock stars. His shows in fact were much like a rock concert. While most fashion show front rows were typically editors and buyers, Gianni’s front row was a mix of rock stars and actors. It wasn’t uncommon to walk down the runway and see Prince, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Bono, Michael Hutchence, and Eric Clapton sitting front row. Some of the models were also dating them so it was quite normal for us to get invited to rock concerts or hang out with the band. It didn’t feel particularly special or extravagant, we went to their shows and they came to ours. This was our lives at the time (however glamorous).
I was booked to do Gianni’s Fall/Winter 1991 show assuming it would another in a string of fabulous Versace shows. But this one would be different. There was already a lot of press on this show because Gianni didn’t want any of us to do any other shows that day so he paid us for the exclusivity of only doing his show. Hence the $10,000 fee the “supers" got paid that day which at the time broke modeling fee records. Soon other designers like Calvin and Ralph followed suit. (Apparently Linda stopped getting out of bed for anything less—love you Linda!). Because it was an evening show, it was all the more energetic and more sexy. You could feel the energy backstage. The world’s biggest models (many of which were just my good friends) all gathered looking more beautiful than ever; the press equally excited about the models and famous guests like George Michael in the audience. That’s probably why there were double the number of photographers and television crews from around the world covering the show.
Pre-show, champagne started to flow to celebrate and get everybody prepared for the night’s event. When the lights went down, Linda opened the show to the backdrop of Joan Jet’s “I Love Rock N' Roll” looking very much like a rock star with her platinum blonde hair. I felt equally glamorous as I walked down the runway in my patent leather knee high boots and dress that hugged every curve. As the show progressed, you could just tell something special was happening. Then George Michael’s Freedom cued on the speakers and Linda was back on the runway this time miming to the song, followed by Christy, Naomi and finally Cindy, all miming along to the track as well. After their individuals walks, they all joined together and arm in arm and walked down the runway singing along to Freedom. It was unlike any show I’ve ever done! At that moment, fashion, music and MTV had all intersected and it sent the the press and audience into a frenzy. I was standing backstage with Carla Bruni, Yasmeen Ghauri, and Karen Mulder waiting to walk the show’s finale and all of us were glued to the video monitor, witness to something spectacular that had just happened in front of us. I looked over to Gianni and Donatella, who were thrilled, hugging and crying tears of joy. I was soon back on the runway for the finale with the other models and Gianni whom the audience received with a standing ovation. It was an incredible moment in fashion history.
Gianni Versace continued a successful streak in the 90s and Versace grew to become one of the world’s biggest brands. His sister Donatella would take over when he passed and is now one of the most celebrated designers working today. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have not only worked with the Versace’s but to develop a friendship where I was able to spend personal time with them whether at their homes in the mountains or in Italy and Miami. I will forever remember Gianni as a generous man who loved dressing women beautifully and celebrating their individuality. And whenever I hear George Michael’s Freedom, I will always think of Gianni.