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'Versace broke the traditional male-female image' - exhibition on fashion designer and 'kitsch king' Gianni Versace at Groninger Museum 

Why is the largest retrospective on Italian designer Gianni Versace yet on show in Groningen? "Why not?" jokes Andreas Blühm, general director of the Groninger Museum. Indeed, it seems a bizarre choice, but if you look a little closer, you will discover a few common ground between the museum in the down-to-earth north and the maximalism of Gianni Versace, who would have turned 76 on 2 December (Versace was murdered in 1997).

The Groninger Museum, for instance, which stands out for its brightly coloured tiles on the outside and mosaics at the entrance, was designed by Italian designer Alessandro Mendini (1931-2019). Like Versace, he took a postmodernist approach to his designs, drawing inspiration from a variety of sources, experimenting with shapes, colours and objects from everyday life. In their own way, both Versace and Mendini contributed to a new aesthetic in Italian design. Moreover, Versace is known to have owned a pair of Mendini's glass vases, which were auctioned in New York in 2005.

Eye-catching fashion exhibitions

The Groninger Museum focuses particularly on design with a raw edge and has previously presented successful fashion exhibitions by designers such as Viktor&Rolf, Alaïa and Vivienne Westwood. So is this going to be a 'blockbuster exhibition', attracting a large audience, with entertainment taking precedence and the transmission of knowledge being secondary?

Nothing could be further from the truth, according to German guest curator and curator Karl von der Ahé: "Cooperation with a museum is primarily not based on commercial aspects. Of course, the costs of our work and the services of the lenders of the original works have to be covered, but the quality of the cooperating museum and its team is always at the centre."

"We found this quality at the Groninger Museum and are very happy with the successful cooperation," von der Ahé emphasises. "We have also added work from the museum's own collection here and there in the exhibition, including contemporary design pieces, paintings, books and magazines," adds Fabienne Chang, curator at the Groninger Museum. "This puts Gianni Versace's work in a broader artistic context."

Supermodels and amazons

Versace capitalised on our need to stand out. He liked strong 'amazons', such as his sister Donatella, whom he liked to show off in his provocative clothes. Versace's creations sometimes caused controversy. In particular, his 'bondage collection', in which he contrasted hard elements in the form of buckles, belts and XL safety pins with soft leather, was initially widely criticised by the press. The latter responded with cries like: 'chic or cruel?' Yet for Versace, this raw sexuality was actually a symbol of strength.

Versace broke the traditional male-female image by designing seductive clothes for both sexes, and also allowed men to show their breasts more often than women. His open homosexuality made him an important figure within the LGBTQ movement.

Smart marketer

Versace was also a clever marketer, surrounding himself with celebrities to promote his brand. These were all included in his so-called 'famiglia'. Today's influencers owe a lot to Versace, according to Chang: "If we look at Gianni Versace's influence on today's influencer phenomenon, we have to start with Versace's close association with celebrities and supermodels like Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Linda Evangelista, who became 'ambassadors' for his brand."

"The supermodels, in particular, with whom he often worked for years, dressing them on and off the catwalk and featuring them in his advertising campaigns, provide an early example of the influencer. They went to fashion shows and parties, all decked out in Versace, and then it was the paparazzi and press who 'shared' the photos of their outfits, and what they had to say. So although the mode of production (taking photos, sharing content, creating ads) has shifted to the influencers themselves today, the attention economy has basically remained the same."

That dress

Liz Hurley's Dress. Source: Groninger Museum

When British actress Liz Hurley accompanied actor Hugh Grant on the red carpet of the premiere of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994, her black silk Versace dress, with large gold safety pins on both sides, caused media hype.

According to Von der Ahé, this is the garment that illustrates Versace's impact as a designer. The dress, aptly named That Dress, is a loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Another iconic dress, also seen in Groningen, is the glittering dress worn by Princess Diana on the cover of Harper's Bazaar in November 1997. Diana more often wore Versace designs to make a statement.


Besides couture, Gianni Versace Retrospective also showcases campaign images, books and other objects that demonstrate the impact and versatility of the Italian designer. These include a room dedicated to the American pop culture of the 1990s (including a dress studded with Andy Warhol's portraits of Marilyn Monroe), and a room with clothes inspired by the so-called 'Italodisco' era.

Why does Versace's maximalism fit so well with these troubled times and today's younger generations? According to Chang, Versace's 'self-medialisation' (he regularly donated to museums), firstly, could be one of the reasons why, of all the successful designers of his time, many still think he is one of the most important. Moreover, after his murderous death, filmed in the Netflix series The Assasination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, everyone, including younger generations, suddenly knew who he was.

Family business

According to Chang, Versace is now so popular with young people partly because of the nostalgia factor and references to the nineties; Versace was very popular with rappers in the 1990s. According to Von der Ahé and German guest curator and curator Saskia Lubnow, the love for the 80s and 90s is also partly due to the high-quality fashion made in these decades. This fashion was still based on craftsmanship, with all its attendant qualities.

"Many fashion companies were family businesses with a know-how that was part of this tradition," says Von der Ahé. This is different nowadays among many global fashion brands, which use the old family names for their marketing, but no longer have "authentic roots", according to the conservators. Finally, the distinctive nature of Versace's clothing now comes in handy on social media, and Versace's designs also fit seamlessly with the phenomenon of 'dopamine dressing'. This involves using clothes to boost mood during chaotic times.


After Versace's death at the age of 50 in 1997, his sister Donatella took over from him. Her work is not featured in the exhibition. The curators have a simple explanation for this: "Our work ended with the death of Gianni Versace in 1997 and the collections he had developed until then. It is about looking back at him as a person and as a fashion designer."

Yet Gianni's influence is still clearly visible today in the label's provocative and powerful designs, where bondage elements, striking colours and 'hypersexy' looks still make an appearance.

Good to know Good to know
Versace retrospective in Groningen. Expo until 7 May 2023. Information.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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