Versace: Not Just a Designer For the Rich and Famous

His form-fitting clothes also influence how ordinary women dress

Gianni Versace built his fashion empire on a heady concoction of sex and celebrity - his body-conscious clothes were modeled by friends like Madonna, Tina Turner, and the Artist formerly known as Prince.

His high-octane appeal is not an image women are likely to identify with or aspire to as they flick through sales racks or get dressed in the morning.

Yet the Italian designer, murdered Tuesday in front of his Miami mansion, had done more to shape the way ordinary women dress than many of his contemporaries, fashion aficionados say. If you open your closet and see something colorful, form-fitting, or just plain fun, they say, chances are Mr. Versace has left his mark.

"Versace influenced not only high fashion, but also what was happening in trends in the more contemporary and moderate markets," says Joe Boitano, the executive director of the tony Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York City.

Current styles often echoed the hard-edged fashions Versace sent down his runways. His novel skirts, including kilts, drew from and inspired street fashion. And his exuberant prints - lush fields of color peppered with gold Medusa heads, fleurs-de-lis, and animal motifs - have been widely imitated. Many credit his splashy color sense with breaking the dreary dominance of black.

"Prints used to be flowers or basic graphics until he came out with those spectacular baroque designs," says Mary Lou Luther, a veteran writer for the International Fashion Syndicate. "A lot of women are wearing colorful, printed clothes because of him."

More form-fitting clothes too. When actress Elizabeth Hurley appeared at the Oscars in 1995 in a skimpy Versace confection of fabric strips and safety pins, her photo and the designer's name were plastered on newspaper broadsheets around the world.

That body-conscious style finds more subtle expression in the feminine, tailored suits many women wear to the office.

"He took skirts and made them slimmer and shorter," says Garland DeVane, a sales associate at Saks Fifth Avenue in Boston. In head-to-toe black, Mr. DeVane is a stark contrast to the rainbow of color on the Versace rack where lime-green jeans hang beside a sky-blue suit. "He took classic things, like suits, and made them fun," he adds.

IN the days since Versace's death, stores like Saks have reported higher purchases of his jackets, jeans, and dresses. Those sales aren't restricted to couture clients. There are nine Versace lines worth more than $800 million that encompass clothes for all budgets as well as fabrics, china, and housewares. The broad reach of his ventures explains much of his influence.

"He's shaped the way ordinary women dress through those lines and through design innovations like his prints," says DeVane.

"Because he had so many lines ... he reached a wider audience than many designers," adds Ms. Luther.

The designer's high-profile friendships helped extend his reach as they brought him more exposure. Sting and his wife married in Versace clothing; Elton John, who has written songs for Versace fashion shows, wears the designer's creations almost exclusively; Woody Allen, once a guest at the Miami villa, had asked him to appear in his next film.

But Versace, who called himself "half royalty and half rock 'n' roll," kept an eye on ordinary women. In his first couture show, he featured blue jeans and had French fashion editors snarling. It reflected Versace's ability to mix and match styles in the same way women wear a fur coat over jeans, says Luther. Not pure couture perhaps, but very much real life.

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