October 1, 2014

Design, Italian Style

One of my major concerns about current-day life involves the rise of the fashion designer. Who cares? That "who are you wearing?" has become the "must-ask" question on red carpets around the world is not a step in the right direction. A beautiful woman should appear as if by magic, not with a list of acknowledgements and credits she must rattle off into a microphone. She should thank her fans and get on with it. And that Fashion Week thing in New York! It makes me blush for my former hometown. Sting is at every show. Shouldn't someone tell him that such an intense interest in women's clothes is unbecoming to male rock stars? They can go once, if dragged by a girlfriend. But when they start showing up at show after show, doing the dragging, then you've got a problem. The world is out of order.

I blame Versace. He was the first designer to put rock stars and other high-profile celebrities in the front row. He was the first one to fathom the symbiotic relationship between clothes and fame. He was the first to use rock music. He invented the supermodel. His clothes-indeed, everything designed under his name-are loud, full of color and weight, not for shrinking violets. Certain of his "looks" are frightening, garish. But every risk he took paid off. Why? He understood the power of vulgarity.

Vulgarity is usually the kiss of death in fashion-it denotes something cheap in both senses of the word. But it has its fans. No less an authority than Diana Vreeland gave it her stamp of approval. "I love vulgarity," she once said. "It livens things up. It's like a dash of paprika."

Versace used vulgarity Italian-style, and he sprinkled it on pretty liberally. To my Presbyterian eyes there has always been something very suspicious about the look of Italy. The references to the classical and the religious are way overdone. The furniture is too ornate and too uncomfortable. The paintings are overblown. Everything seems a little off: handmade, poorly proportioned, shabby. Color is widely applied but with no subtlety. I don't think there is a coffee table in the entire country. Nor a decent reading light. And something's funny about the women-they're either nuns or some version of Versace's sister Donatella, who can say "Where's the party?" in seven different languages.

It was Versace's genius that he took this unpromising mix and turned it into a style that not only conquered the rich and famous- Princess Diana, Elton John, Elizabeth Hurley-but which has struck a chord with poor people all over the world. This is the way they would dress if they could afford it. Versace is their dream designer, the one they would patronize if they won the lottery or saved enough money from their job at the convenience store. I find it revealing that in the movie Showgirls, the first thing Elizabeth Berkley buys when she enters the high-stakes world of Las Vegas dancers and hookers is a Versace dress. (She pronounces it "ver-sayce.") Owning a Versace was something she always dreamed about while growing up in the trailer park.

But wait, it gets worse. I recently saw one of those lesser reality TV shows and the theme was the lives of street prostitutes in Atlanta. Since I was planning a trip to Atlanta myself, I thought it might be interesting. Well, the leading character in the show was a woman who had recently had a sex change operation and was now a man, sort of. She/he had a stable of hookers and he/she would drive around all night in a white Cadillac, checking in with them and demanding money. "These Versaces don't come for free, you know," the pimp bragged, allowing the hookers to admire his/her Versace shirt, Versace sunglasses, Versace cap, and so on.

Every wardrobe should have a Versace or two, just to fit in with the paprika theory. You can get Versace merchandise in many of the better department stores (like Saks) but to really experience the phenomenon I recommend the Versace flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York. It's located in a very large brownstone, six stories high, and the last time I was there there were six other customers. Nevertheless, you are not made to feel intimidated; the sales people are young and beautifully mannered and the merchandise is arranged as if in a museum.

And what merchandise. There are clothes, jewelry, accessories, housewares/wedding gifts, and the occasional wild card -an orange sofa, a pink ring apparently designed for P. Diddy. What is most notable here are the astronomical price tags. If you can find something under a thousand, snap it up. The clothes are a little difficult to pull off if your hooking days are over, but the bedding is quite wonderful, as are the black leather totes, the watches, and the perfume in those amusing little bottles.

I have owned two Versaces in my life. The first was a bathing suit which, I discovered after several wearings, wasn't cut right in the rear. What's with these Italians and their tiny little tushes? It got so bad that I was asked to leave the pool at the Field Club.

And then there was the shirt. This shirt really wasn't a Versace but it wanted desperately to be one. I bought it at a store on 14th Street for $12 and unless you really examined it carefully, it could "pass." It looked like real silk, it had the classic columns and Medusa head, along with swags of grapes and ancient medallions, all printed on a bright blue background with lots of gold trim.

I wore it to Fire Island for the weekend, where I found myself treated with a new respect, as if the word had gotten out that I'd received a big promotion or was now dating Liza. I thought it was me; I was finally maturing, becoming my own man. But on the ferry back, tragedy struck. I was on the windswept upper deck, going through my tote, looking for some moisturizer, as the breeze from the ocean can really be tough on your skin, when a gust of wind suddenly grabbed my shirt, laid carefully on the bench next to me, and billowed it up into the air, where it floated over the stern of the ferry. The men of Fire Island let out a collective shriek and ran to the railing. "Your Versace!" they wailed as it disappeared into the wake. 

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