LONDON — Gianni Versace is back in the land of rock and royalty — and he’s getting a legend’s welcome.
Monday night, the Victoria and Albert Museum will unveil “The Art and Craft of Gianni Versace,” a retrospective of the late designer’s work and the biggest single fashion exhibition ever staged by the V&A. The exhibition, which officially opens Thursday, will run through Jan. 12.
“We have never done a designer exhibition on this scale — and we rarely ever focus on a single designer — but Versace is among the most significant of the 20th century,” said Claire Wilcox, curator of the museum’s department of textiles and fashion who put together the exhibition. “He made a singular contribution to fashion, and everywhere in the world, people know the Versace name.”
The show features 130 of Versace’s designs from the stage and runway — as well as some key looks from Donatella Versace’s collections. It’s organized, said Wilcox, according to Gianni’s obsessions, which included prints, leather, Baroque, jewels and embroidery, and — of course — the theater.
It will be the V&A’s and Versace’s second dance together. In 1985, the museum mounted a small show of the designer’s work, while some of his outfits are featured in its permanent international fashion display.
Donatella, who took over her brother’s design reins after his murder in 1997, said she has no problem with the new focus on Gianni.
“It was his dream — his aspiration —to do a big show at the V&A, a museum that he loved and which fascinated him,” she told WWD. “I am proud and honored that the V&A wanted to do the show. And to be honest, Gianni was the genius, the master. I just make nice things — and I don’t mean that with false humility.”
Older brother and company president and chief executive officer Santo Versace agreed. “Gianni was a genius and he represents Versace’s past. Donatella still has her whole life ahead of her. She is Versace’s future,” he said in an interview.
Santo, who will attend Monday’s opening night party with Donatella, said his brother considered London as much a home as Milan or Miami. “In the spring before he died, he told me he was ready to sell the house in Miami and buy one in London. He loved London’s freedom and the fact that everyone can be themselves.”
The show begins with Gianni’s blockbusters — the safety pin dress that put Elizabeth Hurley on the “It” girl map, the pale blue gold-studded evening gown worn by Princess Diana and, of course, an embroidered gold metal mesh evening gown. It ends with Donatella’s latest hits, including the Jennifer Lopez green dress with the deep-dish V neck and a black napa leather corset dress.
In between, Gianni’s colorful, explosive world unfolds. There are the prints — palm tress, motorbikes, gorillas, overripe roses, Medusa heads, Baroque motifs, animal skins, graphics, and Pop Art — and the leather: studded, sculpted, puffed and quilted, adorned with buckles and fringes and shiny buttons.
And who could forget the ballgowns? There are silk and taffeta confections, ones that sparkle with Lurex glitter or glow with silver sequins, gold embroidery or a rainbow of bugle beads. A closer look at them reveals Versace’s fashion education — not only are there references to Charles Worth, Madeleine Vionnet, Christian Dior and Balmain, but also the sort of decorative techniques used for 19th-century ballgowns.
Dresses inspired by classical drapery, pieces inspired by Byzantine art and eye-popping Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein-inspired designs are all on show. Versace’s costumes from the 1991 production of “Capriccio” at the Royal Opera House in London and the 1987 production of “Salome” at La Scala in Milan are part of the exhibition, including the sinister, stiff black-and-white Alice in Wonderland dress.
The show allows viewers to indulge their sense of touch. Donatella and Santo both agreed to hand over 10 garments that visitors can feel. “The tactile element is so important with Versace’s fashion,” said Wilcox. “It’s quite special to touch the pneumatic leather coat and feel the coldness and weight of the metal mesh.”
Wilcox said she built the exhibition on the groundwork laid by the late Richard Martin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who organized a retrospective just after Versace was killed in Miami.
She spent a year traveling back and forth between London and the northern Italian town of Novara, where the Versace archive is located. “It was a pleasure choosing the clothes and accessories, but it wasn’t easy. The clothes just resonate energy. You could do a whole exhibition on his catsuits alone,” said Wilcox. “I came away feeling exhilarated, excited and respectful for this person who lived life fearlessly, 110 percent.”
The exhibition ends with a shop window showcasing a handful of dresses by Donatella. As Wilcox said, “We wanted to get the point across that Versace’s fashion is alive and well.”