LONDON – if de mortuis nil nisi bonum (“Of the dead, say nothing but good”), then Gianni Versace is a case for nil. But it’s too late for that here. His murder dominates the front pages of the broadsheet papers and most of the electronic news too. If a planeload of Nobel prize-winners had crashed into a children’s hospital, it might have made a bigger story — but not, apparently, a greater loss to humanity. Princess Diana pronounced herself “devastated” by the news from Miami. There was no word from the queen, whose appearance in Versace really would have made news.
He was described by the Independent as a “renaissance man,” and the Times of London solemnly reported his “intellectual credentials.” When Hugh Hefner dies, I doubt he will be remembered as a great philosopher or a renaissance man, even if he could suck his pipe and walk at the same time — but then Hefner was far less successful than Versace at what is obviously the most important business in the world: selling newspapers by giving them an excuse to print pictures of beautiful women’s tits. All of the Versace obituaries are of course lavishly illustrated with pictures of his models, on a sliding scale: The less she is wearing, the bigger the picture. This is an old tradition. A few years ago, the conservative Daily Telegraph, traditionally read by retired colonels, decided to rejuvenate its readership: Pictures of Liz Hurley in That Dress, as it is reverently known, were its chosen weapon in the struggle. They appeared somewhere in the paper almost every day, either to attract younger readers or in the hope that the excitement would kill off a few of the older ones.
Only a curmudgeon could object to something that has brought so much simple pleasure to so many people. But why does it have to be dressed up as a tremendously significant cultural moment? The description of Versace as a renaissance man appears to have come from one of the wire services, which based its claim on the fact that he could speak several languages fluently. If that makes you a renaissance man, the entire population of Holland is busy building exquisite palazzos, designing futuristic helicopters and electing its nephews pope.
The Times seemed to regard as evidence of an exciting, original mind the fact that he once said of Uma Thurman, “She can only wear Versace. I promise you! She looks dead in other clothing!” God only knows what the other couturiers are saying if that counts as an example of sparkling wit. It’s like promoting Bill Gates as an iconoclast for announcing that Microsoft makes good software.
Similarly, Versace’s “intellectual credentials” turn out to consist of the fact that he designed some opera costumes. Our friend Sanya designs opera costumes, too; he once greeted my wife in the lobby of the National Theatre wearing a striking ensemble, topped by a hat to which was pinned half a dead bird. He assured her that everyone in Paris was wearing them that year. I wouldn’t, though, describe him as an intellectual. The only reading I have ever known him to discuss are press cuttings about himself. On these he is the world’s greatest expert. He carries a box of them with him wherever in the world he goes — and he has been everywhere. After an engagement in Istanbul, he turned up for supper in our London flat with a sheaf of press cuttings in Turkish, a language none of us speaks or reads, and demanded that we join him in leafing through them looking for his name. His may well be the qualities needed for success as a fashionable designer. But they don’t make him admirable, or even great. They don’t even have anything to do with his artistic abilities and discipline, which are both, as it happens, considerable.
Nothing in the obituaries of Versace suggest that he was famous for the excellence of the clothes he designed. Apart from being famous for being famous, and then becoming still more famous for that, he is remembered for two things. The first was outrage, or excess. His inspiration as a child, he said, was the prostitutes in the local brothel. His genius as an adult was to realize that women in limousines would pay almost anything to dress as if they were walking the streets outside. Perhaps when Hugh Grant went out with Divine Brown, he just wanted to know what a modestly dressed woman was like. But perhaps the secret of Versace’s success lay in a different kind of excess. The fashion correspondents of the British papers remember his friendliness in the most concrete ways. One recalls how the journalists who came to his shows would find $1,500 leather jackets in their hotel rooms and get $800 handbags delivered at Christmas. All that and Liz Hurley’s tits as well. No wonder the media sees him as a titan of the 20th century.