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Gianni Versace: Flamboyant designer reigned over fashion empire

July 15, 1997

ROME (AP) _ Gianni Versace, who flew the banner of ``Made in Italy″ with Mediterranean brio and flashy style, built a fashion empire through his knack for making women look and feel glamorous.

When Versace first appeared on the staid Milan fashion scene in the late 1970s, the young designer from Italy’s deep south made some wince with his bright colors and hip-hugging designs.

But the son of a seamstress soon became a favorite with rock and film stars, who loved his ritzy, glitzy clothes.

Elton John and Prince were frequent guests at the designer’s house on Lake Como, lavishly decorated in gilt and red brocade. Versace also had homes in New York’s Upper East Side and in South Beach, Fla., where he was shot and killed Tuesday in an attack that stunned the fashion world.

Versace turned the runway into a stage and his models into superstars. First on the list: Naomi Campbell. But Claudia Schiffer, Carla Bruni and Linda Evangelisti all owe a big ``Grazie″ to Versace for turning them into fashion divas.

``His dresses made women look incredibly sexy,″ said Cindy Weber-Cleary, fashion director for Glamour magazine in New York.

``It’s absolutely impossible to think of fashion without him,″ said designer Carla Fendi, summing up the tributes of the world’s leading fasion figures.

Versace loved the limelight, coming out triumphantly with hands raised high at the end of a season’s show, often to a standing ovation.

``Welcome to the Versace experience,″ was his motto.

Born Dec. 2, 1946, in Reggio Calabria, Versace began designing ready-to-wear for other firms in 1972 in Milan. He launched the Gianni Versace label with an autumn-winter collection in 1978.

His first big hit was the use of clingy, chain-mail material. In the next decade, he was largely responsible for the rebirth in Italy of the miniskirt _ making it so short that some called it the ``Band-Aid.″ He was a major force in creating the black-leather look and the glittery sequined jackets so loved by pop singers.

He was one of a handful of designers who influenced the whole fashion community.

Sometimes using bright prints and hardware, like gold links, in his creations, Versace had a look that often sharply contrasted with the understatement of his Milan rival, Giorgio Armani.

Versace embraced ``life with energy and a tremendous desire to accomplish things,″ Armani said.

At the debut of his winter collection in Milan this March, Versace toned down his style. He took his models off the runway and let them walk close to the audience. Celebrities in attendance included Andie MacDowell, Elizabeth Hurley, Hugh Grant and pop star Boy George.

``I’m moving more into the reality of things,″ Versace said of his new subdued look. ``It’s time to step back and show clothes.″

In true southern style, Versace was a family man, taking his brother Santo and sister Donatella into the business. Santo was president of the company and Donatella helped develop the Versus line. Each reportedly owned a stake in the company, with 45 percent controlled by Gianni Versace, according to the financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore.

Versace’s fashion empire was privately held, so it’s not known just how rich it was. But fashion consultant Emmanuele Pedrotti estimated last year’s revenues at $500 million, with pretax earnings of $100 million.

Versace planned a public stock offering next year to fuel the growth of the company, which branched out into manufacturing and has interests in some of the small companies that make its clothes.

Analysts were divided over how the company would weather Versace’s loss.

It has a presence in manufacturing and retailing, has solid management, is in good financial health and will have the continued presence of Santo and Donatella, said fashion consultant Emmanuele Pedrotti. Other labels have survived their designers.

The next collection, which will be previewed in October, will be largely the work of Gianni Versace. The reception of next March’s showing will demonstrate how strong the Versace label will be without the genius behind it.

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