Devoted followers of fashion who are clutching their faux pearls over the Michael Kors purchase of Versace for US$2.12-billion should keep in mind that it’s an acquisition, not a merger. It’s the second major company added to portfolio of parent company Michael Kors Holdings (now renamed Capri Holdings); the company bought upscale footwear brand Jimmy Choo last year. While Michael Kors fans might see this move as a way for the company to diversify its luxury holdings, the reaction from the Versace camp has been more emotional.
When he died, Gianni Versace left his 50-per-cent stake in the company in trust to his then-11-year-old niece Allegra Versace Beck, daughter of Donatella. (As co-founders, Donatella and her brother Santo already own 30 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively.) The siblings had to push through mourning and go ahead with business as usual, under prolonged and very public scrutiny, including rehab and Allegra’s struggle with anorexia nervosa. Throughout it all, they’ve run the company as they see fit and stayed true to its founder’s vision.
It’s already been a big 40th-anniversary year for Versace, and a bit of a renaissance. The reasons are bittersweet, as it comes on the heels of many 2017 retrospectives, think pieces and fashion tributes that observed the 20th anniversary of the designer’s death and put the label back into visibility. The brand itself crafted a tribute collection in his memory, reviving Gianni’s designs, such as the Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe “Pop” collection and baroque leopard-print sheaths from the archives, and sending versions down the Spring 2018 runway last fall. It also staged a triumphant runway reunion of Gianni’s legendary 1990s model posse – Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer and Helena Christensen – all wearing versions of Gianni’s slinky signature Oroton chainmail dresses as a celebration of legacy and survival.
Off the runway, Versace was the lead sponsor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Roman Catholic Imagination, and Donatella the co-host of the star-studded Met Gala. And this year, Gianni was titular subject of Ryan Murphy’s critically acclaimed series American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace that, although unauthorized by the family, nevertheless put him back in the spotlight.
Over the years, Donatella in particular has transcended her design role and become a celebrity in her own right. She remains the artistic director and vice-president of the Milan-based fashion group, and has been name-checked in lyrics by Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga, played herself in Zoolander and played, variously, by Gina Gershon on both Ugly Betty and House of Versace, and Penelope Cruz in the Ryan Murphy series, although none more memorably capture an affectionate lampoon of the nonplussed diva than Maya Rudolph’s long-running SNL sketches. (Donatella and her husky laugh got in on the joke when she gave the comedien impersonation pointers on The View and appeared alongside her in skits and at awards shows.)
There are understandable concerns that, under the new regime and structure, Versace’s fashion culture will be “dehumanized,” as many other independents have been when they’ve become part of a portfolio. That’s how Nicolas Ghesquière, the former creative head at Kering’s Balenciaga, who resigned after 15 years, described the state of the industry when he quit. He and other designers, including Alber Elbaz, have talked about the physical and creative burnout that stems from the unreasonable demands of an accelerated schedule and the enormous responsibilities conglomerates put on its artistic directors to deliver shareholder value season after season.
But Versace occupies a special place in the fashion industry. It was the first clothing brand to fuse models, fashion and celebrity into the world of red-carpet celebrity marketing as we know it, and then emerged, phoenix-like, with fabulousness in the face of tragedy. There’s nothing fashion loves more than its own mythology.
Unlike other fashion acquisitions, such as Tapestry, the other New York-based would-be conglomerate anchored by Coach, which owns American brands Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman, Michael Kors has an advantage because luxury fashion will always be associated with Europe.
Although it’s relatively young, the Milan-based Versace is one of the last available independent, family-run businesses worth having.