What Do Zayn Malik, Prince, Michelle Obama, And Tupac All Have In Common?
In true post–boy band Renaissance man fashion, Zayn Malik has announced a spring 2017 capsule collection with Versus Versace. This has been a big month for Versace news: Beyond Malik, Michelle Obama wore a rose-gold chainmail dress to the White House State Dinner. In November, Rizzoli will release a glossy coffee table book celebrating Donatella Versace’s decades at the helm of this illustrious brand, and the third season of American Crime Story will be an unauthorized depiction of Gianni Versace’s 1997 murder.
Pop stars have been wearing the brand since the ’90s, when artists like Madonna, Tupac, and Jennifer Lopez stared right into the Medusa logo and didn’t turn to stone. Last year Rihanna performed her single “Bitch Better Have My Money” at the iHeartRadio Awards in a bright green, fluffy fur Versace coat, paired with matching thigh-high boots and green Versace shades. The whole outfit — literal, excessive, and greedy for attention in the best possible sense — felt like a throwback to the opulence of Bad Boy Records, when The Notorious B.I.G. would create one of the era’s most indelible images in a pair of Versace sunglasses. Madonna has worked with Versace for the last 20 years (most recently, she appeared in advertisements for their S/S 2015 line), and the looks she’s worn have ranged from Old Hollywood glamour to high-powered businesswoman, a current of showy sexuality a common link in all of them. “Iconic” does not even begin to describe the effect a Versace look can have: Jennifer Lopez’s chiffon Versace gown on the 2000 Grammys red carpet, for example, is responsible for the invention of Google Image Search.
Whether on the runway, in artist collaborations, or on advertisements, Versace gets noticed; more to the point, it demands your full fucking attention. Without resorting to words, Versace uses every opportunity to express its opinions on politics, race, and sexuality. Tupac was rap’s mainstream political consciousness when he wore a shimmering gold suit to walk their 1996 runway show. In 1995, Prince was deep into a feud with Warner Bros. Records, fighting to keep a constant flow of his music available to his fans. Even while pushing back against major companies, Prince aligned himself with Versace when he appeared in their ads, showing that he considered them a brand that embraced and respected his artistic choices.
Many of these ongoing relationships are reflective of Gianni Versace’s own ideas. In 1990, he said: “I am not interested in the past, except as the road to the future. I am never nostalgic. I want to understand my time; I want to be a designer for my time. I love the music, the art, the movies of today. I want my clothes to express all of this.”
When Versace decides to get into bed with an artist, it does so strategically. It wants people who are perceived as too bold, too brash, too much. These are the kinds of artists with personalities too big for most brands, and Versace plays on that — the implicit understanding is that these artists are strong enough to speak for themselves, and aren’t leaning on Versace for a look in lieu of an identity. Versace becomes a reflection of the artist’s personal taste, rather than a replacement for it. That’s why in the New York Times announcement of Zayn’s collaboration, the singer is described as having a “bad boy reputation.” Zayn’s career, in contrast to other former Versace collaborators, has been relatively tame. But the idea of working with artists who suggest some kind of danger is a Versace staple.
Zayn’s last notable fashion line was the merch for his tour, which followed the trend of ’80s metal band tees — cute, but by no means a good indicator of what his work with Versace will be like. The metal-plated arms he wore to this year’s Met Gala were Versace, so perhaps that’s what we should expect: accessories of a not-so-distant future. Despite the amount of public spotlight placed on Zayn, he’s revealed little about his personality, choosing instead to focus on qualities such as “mysterious” and “hot face.” His Versus collection could be anything. We went back into the Versace vault to look at previous collaborations as a hint of what might be to come.
Prince was, to put it mildly, selective: Everything he did had to fit his signature high standards. Versace was one of the few brands that met his approval. He appeared in a 1995 Versace advertisement wearing a gold chainmail top, and created a soundtrack for their 1995 Atelier runway show. As of this writing, the rare remaining recordings sell for $4,000. Sexually provocative and aesthetically exacting, Prince’s style was not one easily replicated or imitated, but partnering with such a well-known label made the singer slightly more approachable, even as he remained in his own realm. After he died, Donatella played previously unreleased Prince songs at her F/W 2017 Menswear RTW show, saying, “I wanted to express my love and admiration for my friend who I miss so much. Celebrating him and his music at my menswear show seemed like the best way.”
When Tupac Shakur walked down Versace’s Men’s F/W 1996 RTW runway in a gold suit, he and Gianni were legitimizing rap’s long history of appropriating the high-fashion labels that typically wouldn’t target or seek black youth as customers. Numerous rappers were embracing Versace around this time — like The Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, and Xscape — and by casting Tupac, Versace was showing that it wanted to work with black artists that would traditionally have little place within fashion. In 1998, Puff Daddy would launch Sean John, and in 2004 he would win the CFDA Award for Menswear Designer of the Year; today, Kanye West is aggressively courting the high-end fashion world with Yeezy. This confluence of rappers and high-end ready-to-wear can all be traced back to the moment when Tupac walked a Versace runway.
The dominant trend of the ’90s was at odds with the traditional idea of a glamorous rock star — thanks, post-grunge. But by the late ’90s musicians were returning to champagne tastes in their wardrobes, and one of the decade’s best moments was Courtney Love modeling for Versace in 1998. Love was coming off an awards show campaign for her performance in The People vs. Larry Flynt, and was trying to fit conventional Hollywood ideas of leading-lady beauty on her own terms. Versace offered the perfect balance: sexual rather than sexy, obvious rather than subtle.
In 2013, M.I.A. collaborated with Versus on a line that deliberately referenced knockoffs and imitations of Versace, coyly playing on bootlegs as a source of inspiration. In her work, M.I.A. was also highly referential in her samples — likewise, her influence on Versus was a deliberate dig at the way high fashion and streetwear are seen in opposition rather than reflections of the same ideals. Versace didn’t include its logo on the items, relying instead on the existing knowledge its brand had bought them, and trusted that consumers would recognize a Versace item when they saw it. M.I.A. put her name on them instead.
The Atlanta trio Migos released “Versace” in 2013, and when Drake remixed the song it moved from a Southern hit into a full-fledged pop masterpiece. Proving that Medusa isn’t the only Greek myth Versace likes to reference, the brand looked into the pool of its own reflection when it used the song to close its S/S 2014 runway show.
Narcissistic? Sure. But it wasn’t cynical: Versace recognizes both the connection it has to the rap community, and the impact its very name has when spoken — or sung — by the right person. Versace has always run its fans and supporters right through its runways, and it always will.