Byline: Edward Nardoza / Janet Ozzard
NEW YORK — They all came.
The biggest names in American fashion gathered Monday to pay tribute to Gianni Versace — the provocateur, who, as Ingrid Sischy put it, “could turn on the electricity.”
Inspiring, playful, energetic, rebellious, loyal, driven, obsessed with family, art and accomplishment were a few of the descriptions of the man, given in an emotional memorial service at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The evening’s mood flowed readily from sadness to mirth among a crowd that was vintage Versace — a fusion of fashion, rock, pop, society, art and media.
Richard Avedon read a poem by May Sarton, while Madonna read one she wrote herself. Elton John and Whitney Houston sang, as did Jon Bon Jovi, who had one of the evening’s more acute observations: “I’ve got to think that if the angels wore white, they’re not anymore.” Vogue’s Anna Wintour and Franca Sozzani joined Sischy with remembrances of their own.
But the most compelling moment came when Donatella Versace spoke — her first public address since Gianni was murdered on the steps of his South Beach palazzo last July.
“Only a tragic event could have killed a person like my brother,” she said. “His energy was so great that only a gun could have stopped him. But bullets cannot stop a spirit, they cannot stop what he meant of what he did, or how he affected all of us.”
Versace spoke to a front row that included Courtney Love, Lisa Marie Presley and Naomi Campbell alongside her brother Santo Versace, husband Paul Beck and her late brother’s companion, Antonio D’Amico.
The girls were all there too, including Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Amber Valletta and Helena Christensen.
The designers turned out in force: Donna Karan sat next to Ralph Lauren, while Tom Ford, Anna Sui and Marc Jacobs rushed in at the last minute, and Calvin and Kelly Klein sat near the back across the aisle from Jann Wenner.
S.I. Newhouse chatted for a moment with Donald Trump, and Liz Tilberis sat up front, just returned from Saturday’s funeral for the Princess of Wales.
“The only time I felt anything like this before, I have been on a mountain top or by the seaside,” said Donna Karan later. “That’s the only time I felt so connected to God. I really felt that he was over it; especially when I looked out the window and saw the light, I knew that he was there.”
While a soundtrack of music ranging from Luciano Pavarotti to Madonna played, the group gathered in the Temple of Dendur, decked with masses of white flowers by Robert Isabell, and sat looking out at the gathering gray clouds.
But the rain held off as Elton John sat down at the piano. He spoke briefly of Versace as “one of the greatest men I’ve ever known and one of the funniest men I’ve ever known.
“It’s hard for me to believe that I’ll never talk to him on the phone again,” said John. “He used to say, ‘If I die, I want to come back super gay!’ I said to him, ‘What do you think you are now?”‘ His song, “Live Like Horses,” was one that he’d recorded with Pavarotti that Versace particularly liked.
Interview’s Sischy recalled Versace urging her to “let it rip visually” on the pages of the magazine.
In contrast to his overtly sexy clothes, his provocative ad campaigns and often wild runway shows, Versace “lived a highly ordered life,” said Vogue’s Wintour. “He was never late, he never changed an appointment, and he was the quickest eater I know.”
Versace, she recalled, was also a very civilized conversationalist.
“Apart from the occasional hint that he wasn’t getting enough editorial, the conversation was never about fashion,” she said. And after a doctor gave him a clean bill of health after his bout with cancer, Wintour said, he clutched her hand and repeated, “I’m back, I’m back.”
The editor choked up when describing the scrawling handwritten faxes that the designer used to send her, reading, “I love you, I miss you, keep in touch.”
Julian Schnabel, who painted Versace’s portrait twice, said the designer had “a voracious need to be touched by art.”
“When you’re with someone two hours a day, with your face 10 inches from his, you see the curve of the jaw, the thickness of a lip, the chronic crease of a brow, you can see their strength, their weakness, their vulnerability — all of it,” said Schnabel. But one of Versace’s chief characteristics was his generosity, especially toward his family.
“He saw a steel bed I had made, and he wanted one, painted blue,” said Schnabel. “But I painted it gold, because it was a bed for a king. Then he wanted five beds, he wanted beds for everyone, he wanted beds for each house. He wanted everyone in his family to share in his pleasure. He wanted portraits of everyone, he wanted Donatella as Medusa. He sent everyone to the studio.”
“He made me promise: If things he did ever felt old or out of touch, to tell him,” said Sozzani. “But to tell Gianni Versace that he had lost touch would be tantamount to starting the Third World War. And it was never necessary.”
Guests at the service received a black-bound book of essays about Versace by friends ranging from Woody Allen to Elizabeth Taylor.
“My funniest [memory] is remembering him jumping up and down with glee and dragging me over to a TV set when once, on the same news flash, it was announced that I’d renounced the world and gone into a convent, and he, Gianni Versace, was dead. I suppose that’s a little ironic now,” wrote Elizabeth Hurley.
“I thought he was a natural movie star, and I sought to share his magic with the audience,” wrote Woody Allen, noting that he’d cast Versace in an upcoming movie. “Although I knew him only for a short time, his death affected both Soon-Yi and myself much more deeply than others I’d known longer. As with most true stars, I would like to have directed him, because he would have made me look good.”
“He enriched my life and made me feel as vibrant as the colors he used. I loved him,” wrote Elizabeth Taylor.
Each speaker emphasized Versace’s devotion to his family, a powerful connection reaffirmed by his sister’s closing remarks.
“By the time he was calling Santo and myself to be part of his dream, we were already part of it,” Donatella told the crowd. “It wasn’t even an issue whether we would do what he wanted…When you’ve experienced that kind of energy, that kind of belief, that kind of passion, there’s no going for what might have looked like a safe road. Anyway, to me, Gianni was the safe road.
“He did let me do many things that made our mother pale,” she remembered. “By the time I was born, he had assumed his reputation in the family as a rebel. I laugh when I remember the adventures that came with being his little sister. Way back then, he gave me the job as scout. I had to scout out when our parents were coming back, so I could warn him to stop his fun and games. I had to scout out the car keys on the table next to our parents’ bed, so he could go dancing to the latest beats.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that often I was jumping in the front seat right beside him, 11 years old, in my brand new yellow patent miniskirt that he’d made for our big nights out. Of course, I’d also be shaking in my black boots at the thought of what would happen if we were caught.
“Each time Gianni would ask me to do what back then seemed like these impossible things, I’d tell him I couldn’t do it, he’d tell me I could, and I did it. He was always the most exciting person I knew, he was always my best friend, and he always included the family in his dreams.
“Family to Gianni meant everything,” Donatella added. “But it was a big family — not just Santo and myself and our children and Antonio, but you, his friends, and all the people around him.
“Even with the people he’d get excited about dressing, famous or not. It had to do with their stories, their inner light — like the one that made Diana, Princess of Wales, shine so bright…He didn’t just admire her, he respected her for doing what mattered, for not being afraid to break the rules, for being the kind of mother she was and for insisting on being human.
“In spite of his giant personality, it was impossible to feel overshadowed by him, because his special art was to shine the light on others.”