Fashion for an Anti-Fashion Era

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's been several weeks since Gianni Versace was murdered, but a few days ago, I received in the mail the Versace fall catalogue. In the world of high fashion, apparently, designers don't die, they become corporations.In the days immediately after his death, Gianni Versace was described on television and in the newspapers as a "genius" and a "giant" of haute couture. We, the living, owe the dead a certain amount of hyperbole, I supposed, but hyperbole has become such a way of life today, who dared doubt Mr. Versace's genius?He was, certainly, a brilliant marketer for our times. He made a fortune because he understood that the newly rich in Shanghai and Mexico City and Miami constitute a larger market for high fashion than a handful of rich society dames in New York or Paris. After all, the day before Britain returned Hong Kong to China, there were long lines of men and women outside the Versace boutique in Hong Kong, patiently waiting to buy.The old allure of high fashion -- beyond the fineness of fabric and the precision of cut -- was its difference from the way everyone else dressed. Today, the energies of popular culture are coming from the bottom, not the top; from the restless rather than the assured. Not surprisingly, the new rich flirt with downward mobility.Consider, for example, the paradox represented by $300 Versace jeans. Only a few decades ago, denim was a workingman's fabric on which no designer would dare put his name.The question for Gianni Versace was, How do you sell expensive clothes in an era of anti-fashion? How do you even sell clothes when the boldest fashion statement many young people are making today is with their naked bodies? Men and women are painting themselves with indigenous patterns and tattooing their skin or piercing it. Women are wearing hair on their legs; men are shaving their legs. Both are wearing their muscles, like pieces of jewelry.In the Versace fall catalogue there are pictures of models wearing clothes alternating with photographs of naked models. Except for Calvin Klein, Gianni Versace was the most important designer in the world who used nakedness to sell clothes. Whereas once upon a time we could speak of fashion making the man, the naked Versace model promises the compatibility of civilizing clothes and defiant nakedness.In Milan, where his fashion empire was headquartered, Versace's primary rival was Giorgio Armani. They were the yin and yang of Italian high fashion. Armani was cool; Versace hot. Armani diffident beige; Versace carnival orange.When it came time for the twice-yearly fashion shows, however, both designers were serious rivals for the attentions of the season's latest celebrities. It is, today, essential for a designer like Versace or Armani to attract movie and rock stars, to associate fashion with celebrity. For in a way what fashion promises the nouveaux riches of the world is that most cherished of garments -- the velvety cloak of celebrity.The oddest thing about what passes for high fashion today is that the models on the runways, the models themselves have become famous. Millions of Americans recognize the names of Kate Moss or Cindy Crawford. So the triad is complete: A famous designer sells clothes to famous clients that are worn by famous models.A more settled age would understand that elegance is preferable to luxury, refinement to fashion. But if there was a vulgarity to Gianni Versace, if he belonged more to the world of Andy Warhol than Coco Chanel, he understood well the spirit of our wildly democratic age.There attaches to his fashion energies that are bracing, if dangerous as well.After all, Gianni Versace was killed outside his pseudo-palazzo in South Beach, Florida. He was murdered by a man who wanted to be famous -- a genius, his friends insisted -- but a man who had done nothing of any distinction in his life, except run up a $40,000 bill at Nieman Marcus.

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