Gianni Versace once said, “I don't understand those who are professionally cultured. I like pop culture, the culture that doesn't need to show off.” Of course, this sentiment comes has no surprise. Versace has always warmly embraced pop culture in its designs and campaigns and pop culture has always reciprocated this embrace (think Elizabeth Berkley as the naive Nomi Malone professing her love for her new “Versayce” dress in Showgirls. Versace campaigns usually follow a consistent formula––larger-than-life supermodels in Versace’s latest club-ready miniskirts and glove-like dresses, swathed in pops of color and metallics. If not that, the campaigns usually feature the blonde bombshell/songstress du jour––Madonna in 1995 and 2005, Christina Aguillera in 2004, and most recently Lady Gaga.
Given the consistency, any sort of departure from this general formula comes as a surprise, as it did with the Versace campaign of autumn/winter 1998 shot by Steven Meisel. It was Donatella’s second collection after the death of her brother and a new direction seemed palpable. Gianni’s previously mentioned contempt for high culture seems to have gone out the window in this campaign, which seems to reference the brooding and moody narratives and imagery of European myth and art history. The cast of models are unusual choices considering the house’s penchant for classic beauty––Audrey Marnay, Maggie Rizer, and Guinevere van Seenus are more unconventional beauties, atypical to Versace’s image. The craggy and desolate landscape set against a murky sky set the stage for a very somber unfolding of drama. Makeup artist Pat McGrath (brilliant, as always) transformed the girls with hues of iridescent gray and copper into visions of restrained beauty. The high cultural references abound––the statuesque gaze of Mona Lisa, the pensive stiffness of Northern Renaissance portraiture, the dramatic tone akin to tales of Medici-ruled Florence, the medieval imagery of King Arthur and his sword, the models likeness to the Sirens of Homer’s Odyssey. The clothes themselves are a bit more moody, but just as club-ready as the Versace of seasons past (if a gold lamé jumpsuit with a neckline that plunges to the bellybutton isn’t club attire, nothing is). This moment of cultural sophistication was more of an outlier rather than a consistent direction for Donatella, who has returned to her brother’s tried and true design formula in recent years. Certainly a rarity for the House of Versace, this campaign’s solemnity is memorable nonetheless.
All photos by Steven Meisel for Versace Autumn/Winter 1998. (Models: SAudrey Marnay, Carolyn Murphy, Jade Parfitt, Maggie Rizer, Guinevere van Seenus and Sunniva Stordahl)