GIANNI'S AMERICAN DREAM

Byline: Barry Van Lenten

NEW YORK--"I'm into America completely," says Gianni Versace, sprawling on a sofa in the St. Regis here, dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and baby blue V-neck pullover.
"I was everywhere you could go," says the designer, reflecting on his recent two-month trip from Albuquerque to the Baja. "But Monument Valley is my favorite place--the Painted Desert, the beautiful Petrified Forest, all the lakes...so beautiful, so pure. I'm really in love with America."
To an American interviewer, it sounds odd to hear this Italian praise the U.S. so highly, considering the long rich history of his native land.
"Yes, we have the sense of history," he admits, "but the sense of freedom and space, we don't have that," he says. "I've been to China, India, Vietnam, which was very fascinating, and for the last 20 years I have taken one- or two-month trips everywhere, but America is grand, grand. You go distances without seeing anybody."
Yet with all that relative purity, he settles not in America's wide- open spaces near the bleached rocks of Taos, N.M., or rust-red Sidona, Ariz., but among the sooty canyons of New York City. Versace says part of him craves the crowds and he needs to feel the pulse of Manhattan, Hollywood, South Beach. Fitting that his first private home is to be a limestone mansion on East 64th Street he purchased last month. "My first house," he says excitedly. Not possible. "Yes, the others [in Como, Milan and Miami] are of the family: Me, [brother] Santo and [sister] Donatella own them together. This one is mine." Then he chuckles, saying facetiously, "I hope I won't get lonely."
The Miami palazzo, one of the last private, but corroded fossils of the city's age of elegance in the Thirties, was purchased by Versace in late 1992 and flawlessly renovated. For his fidelity to the Mediterranean structure, Versace won a historic residential preservation award from the board of trustees of the Florida Trust, even as the local Cuban population was out demonstrating over the leveling of an adjacent concrete flop hotel to create space for the pool and gardens. Versace says the Cubans were only trying to make a political point. "We saved a treasure, renovated by regional people. Now they're calling it the Vizcaya of South Beach," he says proudly, referring to John Deere's fantasy castle keep and tourist attraction further south in Dade County. One can only imagine what they'll call the New York mansion once he's done with that.
Born in Reggio, Calabria, to a dressmaker mother whom he remembers watching snip, fit and drape from his vantage point on the kitchen floor, Versace moved north to Milan at age 25, drawing his first ready-to-wear collections for Genny, Complice and Callaghan. By 1978 he felt strong enough to present his first women's collection under his own name and began to grow.
The House of Versace is today the same private, family firm begun back then by Versace (now 48), his brother Santo, chairman and chief executive officer, and sister Donatella, creative director, though it is significantly--some might say surprisingly--larger. Annual growth has jumped 30-35 percent in the last five years, and the company claims 1994 should turn over close to $650 million (1,175 billion lire) derived from men's and women's collections, accessories, fragrance, licensed products, a company-controlled factory and a string of retail shops--138 Versace stores, plus the freestanding secondary line shops: 52 Versus and 17 Istante units, and 10 Versace Jeans Couture boutiques. But the largest, slated to open in the fall at 647 Fifth Ave., is his five-story, 25,000-square-foot American flagship, showcasing everything to wear, plus the Versace Home collection. The current shop on Madison will remain Versace's, housing the secondary collections.
While Versace says he's "more into New York, it's very energetic," the designer lately has recoiled from much of the frenzied fashion business wheel-spinning, and he has become less and less accessible.
He has erected a wall of publicists to shield him, particularly from journalists he has learned to regard as either dangerous or stupid, constantly comparing him to Giorgio Armani, the stylistic yang to his yin. In the Eighties, it was great fun to goad the two creatori in the Milanese arena: Armani as God, Versace as the anti-Christ; white bishop to black knight; serenity to flamboyance. It made good copy; it also annoyed Versace no end.
"They gave me so many names, I don't know what my name is anymore. They say I am vulgar, a genius, a talent, a no-talent--all the things they say to me, who cares. I learned to live."
Does the media understand him at all? "More and more, yes. I focus better in the last 10 years than in the past. There was a barrier before that was too direct, too instinctive. I'm more in control now--I can be sado-maso, as I was, and I can be very chic, as I was in the last collection. There are many instruments I can play, and I think [the media] understands that now."
In truth, Versace has too many edges to be neatly compared to anyone. In the Nineties, the word he most prefers is freedom, and it is evidenced in his latest hypersensual hardcover coffee table book, "Men Without Ties," which is being released in America by Abbeville Press in June after an Italian launch ("Uomo Senza Cravatta"), which Versace says pleased his Italian publishers very much.
"Four thousand copies sold already--at Christmas it was selling like crazy! Fashion books don't sell like that," Versace says. Though he says his readers are "men, women, art students" and cites a great review in La Repubblica calling the book "beauty translated into art," "Men Without Ties" more often seems like Men Without Clothes.
This is no "Martha Stewart Sensible Separates." This is flesh and cloth and muscle and attitude. "I had a completely different idea when I started," Versace says. "It was supposed to be about fashion, but more and more I discovered I didn't pick any fashion, but style, a moment, a way of life. Pictures about fashion look all the same, and when I picked the photos for this book, it was more about attitude: One relaxed, one of Jeremy Irons that was very handsome, another one crazy like Elton [John]."
In this fourth of his Vanitas series (Signatures, South Beach Stories, Designs) Versace used model and celebrity photos to convey the freedom Men Without Ties should connote. He created a witty context where personalities position the mood, such as one sly photo of k.d. lang with Versace's sister Donatella.
Versace thinks he is the only designer with five libraries; a personal assistant, Tatiana, who works only on his books, and a computerized system of image entry and retrieval.
The book, while concentrating on the designer's men's wear, does a similar balancing act. "I try to test many areas in my work. Maybe in the future I will be completely one look, I don't know that yet, but more and more my fashion is about freedom," he says.
"But even in freedom, you have control if you have style, if you respect people. I respect the boys with ties, I respect the little boys in Miami with the very loose shirts. Fashion, you know, is dead; style is inside. It's why I wear Versace or why I wear horse meat."
Does he only wear Versace? "Maybe 90 percent. I like quality. If it's a pullover, it's cashmere; if it's underwear, I want good ones," he says. "And for myself, in this moment, I'm crazy for pastels: baby blue, lilac. If you could see my closet now, it is a party of color, like a garden--so full of color. Positive. Energetic.
"And I keep changing, I like to experiment. In my first collection, or in the last, there's always something in the attitude. That's come out in this book more than fashion."
As does a great deal of almost balletic posing that included frontal male nudity in the Italian edition.
"That was a scare for the American market, that the nudity would turn off some of the customers. I understand, but I don't find even the nudes in this book are vulgar," he says, referring to an explicit palehorse/tanned rider cameo that was lopped from the U.S. edition.
The book's tie reference came out of an incident after the fall 1990 men's show, when this reporter asked why there were no ties in the show. "Tie is dead," Versace boomed into the ears of the daily newspaper reporters gathered around him. "Tie is over, finito!"
Santo Versace, who, among other duties, is in charge of Versace's formidable neckwear business, was apoplectic. "Don't listen to him! I do the neckwear. We have plenty of neckwear." But it was too late. The next day La Repubblica, Corriere della Sera and others ran the headline: VERSACE SAYS TIES ARE FINISHED. The next season, of course, they ran other headlines.
"You remember the scandal!" Versace howls with glee. "Men who have no legami, no restraints, free. And that's fashion: born every day, change every day. You cannot trust any one design: What's out today is in tomorrow. I remember my mother worked hard to wear all kinds of things to hide the bra and the strap, and now if the bra is not out, it is not fashion. The change is in attitude."
For his next book, Versace is "crazy about the home signature now," the pieces he designs for the home. Here again, it's not the What but the How, an attitude of living in a certain style.
Working with photographers like Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon and Bruce Weber and many artists, the designer wants to depict how differently one could live in the Versaces' Villa Fontinella on Lago di Como, in Casa Casuarina in SoBe, his Mongiardino-designed palazzo on Milan's via Gesu, and whatever New York turns out to be. "Always it's about quality, never about rushing to get things done," he says. "If the book is ready next year, next Christmas, or the next, it's OK."
Versace says he's planning a photographic collaboration with Richard Avedon on their 20-year association. It's due from Random House--in "two years, three," he says. "It's not so important when; just that we do it."
The designer is next asked his fantasy of the best of all possible lives? "There are so many lives I want to live. I want to be 16 and Louis XVI, I want to be a different person each time I wake up--even a woman, to understand the other position. I am so curious and so busy with my work, I want to experiment, to see everything. I want to be an artist, a writer, a painter."

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