A barrage of paparazzi-style flashlights greets you as you enter. Almost the first thing you clap eyes on is the infamous Liz Hurley safety pin dress. Alongside it is that other creation most often associated with the great Italian designer – the white satin sheath with diamanté and gold studs worn by Princess Diana in a memorable 1991 portrait by Patrick Demarchelier.
Victoria & Albert Museum curator Claire Wilcox felt it was a good idea to put Versace’s best known icons up front to save visitors crowding round them in another part of the display. Although it only takes up two adjoining rooms, The Art and Craft of Gianni Versace amply demonstrates the breadth of Versace’s imagination and originality.
He was, apparently, a frequent visitor to the V&A, in search of inspiration from the past. Magpie-like, he took away exotic fabric and graphic ideas from different eras and cultures and recreated them in his own image.
That image could be sexy, sumptuous, elegant, sinister, kitsch or just completely hideous. But to judge from the work on show here and in the more extensive catalogue, Versace’s designs were never boring. Presumably that’s why he was in such demand with the likes of Elton John, Madonna, Courtney Love and others not known for their sartorial reticence and understatement.
These celebrities knew they could always rely on their flamboyant friend to come up with something weird and wonderful. But it is equally clear from this exhibition that Versace was more than a gifted and idiosyncratic ideas man. He pioneered fabric printing and weaving techniques, and experimented endlessly with new materials.
He involved himself in the production of fabrics in order to achieve original effects. He subverted such design classics as the pinstripe, using linen instead of wool so that it appeared crumpled rather than immaculately smooth in the time-honoured tradition.
Mischievously he yoked unlikely materials together, such as rubber and vinyl, outraging purists, thrilling the more open-minded. He delighted in these odd combinations – vinyl and diamanté, leather and silk, Oroton (his own patented metal mesh material) and wool.
In his final collections, he began accentuating these wacky juxtapositions through colour – purple leather and black lace; silver mesh and green python skin. Clearly he loved breaking the rules. You could say that it didn’t always work, but since Versace believed there was no such thing as bad taste, you would be wasting your breath.
It is the ludicrously extravagant evening wear that takes your breath away here. Only Versace would have dared to mix and match a shimmering silk leopard skin skirt with a clingy zebra skin top. And I
was hard put to come up with any woman of my acquaintance who would be brave enough to venture out in the full-length, silk sheath dress bestrewn with multi-coloured images of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. Who would even notice the person inside it?
In his homeland Versace was also an acclaimed theatre costume designer, a fact which clearly had a strong bearing on his attitude to the catwalk. For him there was little distinction between art and life. His mission was to enliven and inform one with the other.
The Art and Craft of Gianni Versace opens tomorrow (Thursday) at the V&A, and runs until 12 January. The show catalogue costs £24.95
Black & gold evening. Versace 1992