Versace's famously rebellious spirit comes to Central Saint Martins this month, as gilded rock gods & goddesses march into King's Cross, playground of the original party-people. By Katie Baron.

Posted: Thursday 14th September 2017

Versace is arguably the most rock-n-roll luxury brand in the world. Its leading lady, the indomitable Donatella, epitomises a luminescent, vital breed of fashion; the kind hinged on powerfully sound-tracked performances that are at their most impressive when turned up to full volume and primed to unnerve the (more conservative) neighbours.

In Versace-world, big is always better, its consumers acutely aware how wearing the brand will make them the star of their personal show. It’s an attitude enjoying a major renaissance. In an era where the threat of being dethroned within a season by corporate stakeholders demanding instant return-on-investment has made many head designers fear the anti-bland, brands anchored in ‘good taste’ and with an aversion to surprise leave pulses flatlining.

Music and pop culture have always catalysed success for Versace and are the key to setting those pulses racing. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Gianni Versace, the original game-changer, made not only the brand but also high fashion itself, household-relevant by placing it firmly in the raging hot crucible of celebrity culture – reinvigorating its relationship with pop stars and turning models super in the process. The pivotal moment was in 1991 when the famous four – Linda, Cindy, Naomi and Christy – cat-walked while lip-syncing to George Michael’s Freedom. The show happened just months after the four had also appeared in the track’s video, which was played almost continuously on MTV, taking the fabulously synergetic relationship full circle. As fashion journalist Tim Blanks said at the time, “You could feel there was something kind of orgasmic coming. That was a fashion moment of almost biblical proportions”.

The wheels were in full motion. Prince and Bon Jovi graced Versace’s ad campaigns and Madonna rarely missed a show. In 2000, Jennifer Lopez’ infamously naval-bearing plungefront, tropical print chiffon Versace dress that she wore to that year’s Grammy Awards ceremony (styled by Andrea Lieberman – also Gwen Stefani’s long-running image consultant) caused such a monumental stir, it actually triggered Google to launch its now-ubiquitous image search tool.

Those pop-fashion roots weren’t hard to keep growing. Gianni’s successor, his platinum-haired, leather-sheathed sister Donatella, has always been enamoured with the sexually charged allure of rock-n-roll rebellion. It was she who, in 1994, introduced her own personal slice of “neo-punk” to the brand by immortalising Elizabeth Hurley in that safety -pin dress for the premier of the film Four Weddings and A Funeral, recounting later that, “for me the safety pin is about rebellion, and I’m punk in the soul”.

It was the 2013 re-launch of Versace’s Versus line that sealed the brand’s place as a contemporary fire-starter. While the Freedom moment of the 1990s epitomised the era’s glamour-clamouring excess-loving zeitgeist, the new Versus line, created with the edgy, androgynous, ultra conceptual approach of Irish designer, J.W. Anderson, underlined the brand’s shrewd acknowledgement
of a post noughties world. One of mixed media communications, tech-revolutionised retail and audiences hungrily questioning representations of gender and sexual identity.

Versus’ genesis (it was originally launched in the nineties as the younger, clubbier sister brand to Versace – its current design team having a reputed average age of 23) was as much a club night as a catwalk show – livestreamed and available to buy instantly, of course. Pop pioneer Lady Gaga, who notably also wore archive Versace in the video to her 2012 song, Edge of Glory, created an exclusive track just for the event, mixed with live sets from American female rapper Angel Haze, Los Angeles-based hard rock band Dead Sara and Canadian provocateur Grimes – all acts notably fronted by fearless women. Of course, neither the live streaming nor the See Now, Buy Now of internet-streamed catwalk was new (thank you, Alexander McQueen and Burberry respectively for those initiations) but beyond them and the man-baiting, squarely mainstream world of Victoria’s Secret pageantesque shows, the all-out homage to fashion as arena-filling spectacle was something of a first. It wasn’t until 2016 that Kanye West attempted his own version of “democratising fashion” with his beguilingly megalomaniacal Yeezy Season three show at New York’s Madison Square Garden – simultaneously launching his fashion line and advance-release chunks of his new album, The Life Of Pablo, to a reported 20 million viewers.

Indeed, it is rare that Versace isn’t on the money, and perhaps more sensitively so than other, newer contenders. Thanks to relationships built, as much based, on characteristically Italian, familial-like relationships as they are on marketing savvy, for its 2016 menswear presentation Donatella surfaced an eleven minute track of as-yet unreleased music from the recently-deceased Prince’s vault. It was a collection pulled from an archive of songs that had been sent to her personally by the artist, a long-time friend and collaborator.

This month will see Versace’s taste for rulebreaking brought to London once more as Donatella’s gilded interpretation of rock gods and goddesses will march into King’s Cross – an area so robustly changed, that in 2018 it’ll receive a state-of-the-art Thomas Heatherwick-designed shopping area, armed with a legion of hip brands. Attaching itself to the gleam of that newness, Versace’s SS18 show will be housed in and around the Central Saint Martins Granary Complex; an awe-inspiring space in a reimagined Grade II listed building featuring a cavernous central atrium conceived as a venue for cross disciplinary happenings.

In many ways the college is the ideal host, bearing in mind it’s renown for fostering prodigious talent with an intensely passionate link to musical subcultures (John Galliano, Malcolm McLaren). In the book Stylists: New Fashion Visionaries, super stylist Simon Foxton recalls how its original Soho location, just a short tube trip away from the new King’s Cross venue, had put it at the epicentre of London’s incendiary club scene: “I remember we had to get in at 9:30am to sign the register, and there were people turning up in completely blue make-up and full-length wolf-skin coats. The college was an extension of the clubs, that was where everything was happening”.

King’s Cross and its glorious, sometimes nefarious, nocturnal cultural history make ideal bedfellows for Versace’s newest show venue and the district’s rebirth as one of London’s most important creative nerve centres. Its own club scene has always been a magnet for the capital’s creativity-fuelling party scene. The Canvas (formerly Bagley’s) in particular hosted a ten-song set by the Rolling Stones in 1996 and was later immortalised in Madonna’s 2009 roller anthem, Sorry – the roller-disco-meets-cage-fighting-dance-off that took the Queen of Pop back to her urban club roots and perfectly framed King’s Cross as London’s answer to New York’s Meat-Packing District. In 1993 Prince played a now-legendary secret after-party there, the culmination of his Act II tour in which he’d metaphorically killed himself off at his final Wembley date and was carried off-stage covered in a shroud. It was the start of a new incarnation of using not a name, but
a symbol.

That sense of rebirth, bravado and, above all, a night to be remembered can absolutely be expected when Versace comes to town. As the lady of the house has said before, “I always look forward, I never look back.

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