When You Think Oscars Fashion, Do You Think Versace?
LOS ANGELES — There was a moment during Versace’s runway show, held on the rooftop of a parking garage that had been glammed beyond recognition, as if the building itself had been Facetuned, that felt like attending service at a fashion megachurch.
The spoken words from Prince and the Revolution’s “Let’s Go Crazy” — “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today” — played over the speakers, remixed into a dramatic track that turned choral as the models walked their encore. During that encore, for about five minutes, most of the 500 or so guests stood up, some clasping their hands in front of them, like congregants showing respect. Smoldering congregants with cinched waists, smoky eyes and gold adornments head-to-toe, as is the Versace way.
It was a fitting start to the series of extravagant, expensive, enthralling days that represent the unholy marriage between Hollywood and fashion: Oscars weekend, with all of the parties and programming leading up to Sunday’s awards ceremony. It is a lucrative moment in the celebrity style economy: Every highly photographed party calls for a highly photographed party frock.
Versace, which hadn’t staged a runway show in California in 25 years, wanted to be part of that moment. It wanted to be part of the moment so badly that on Tuesday, after rain emerged in the forecast, it announced that the show would be moved from Friday night to Thursday. This kind of last-minute change is rare in a world where major fashion brands can spend well over $1 million on a 20-minute-long runway show.
In the end, the change wasn’t noticeable. The stars were convinced to rearrange their schedules. Cher still came. Elton John still came. (The best supporting actor contender Ke Huy Quan was spotted rushing over to shake his hand before the show began.) So did Miley Cyrus, who released an album later that night, and Lil Nas X, Anne Hathaway, Channing Tatum, Pamela Anderson and the Hiltons. Even Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sanchez were there, one of them wearing a minidress wrapped in belts.
A few weeks earlier, sitting in her office in Milan, Donatella Versace had explained her appreciation for the “good vibe” of Los Angeles. There is “more freedom,” she said. “It’s more relaxed, but at the same time glamorous.” Then she laughed. Ms. Versace laughs a lot. She is a charged atom of energy, well-suited to the Beverly Hills blond, bronzed, moneyed image. Her first stop in town is often the Chrome Hearts store. But she also has a deep appreciation for celebrity dressing.
“I remember Madonna,” Ms. Versace said instantly, when asked what she recalled from the last major Versace production in Los Angeles. That was the brand’s “Fire and Ice” ball in 1998, at which Madonna wore a slashed black leather gown, later gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I remember Jack Nicholson at that show,” Ms. Versace said. “He’s one of my favorite actors.”
As an event itself, Ms. Versace can take or leave the Academy Awards ceremony, which she previously attended but found much too long. (She’ll be watching the show this year from Elton John’s party.) But the carpet she could talk about for hours. As a designer, she is driven by the idea of protecting people in moments of vulnerability, she said, when they have to pretend that millions aren’t watching and judging them.
“I die the minute people are looking at me,” she said. “The women nominated did a fantastic job, all of them, but they’re so vulnerable at that moment, even if they’re strong.”
The nominees may have a team of people around them as they get ready — publicists, agents, stylists, hair and makeup artists, assistants — but “at the end, they’re alone there on the stage, facing the world,” Ms. Versace said.
There were only a handful of evening gowns and tuxedos in the men’s and women’s collections shown on Thursday. Most of the looks consisted of precisely cut separates, often in black. Shoulders were padded, either at sharp angles or curved downward. Hips were also accentuated, meaning waists were characteristically snatched. A few men wore skirts, which is a look Ms. Versace loves, “as long as they’re masculine.” (“King Charles is perfect,” she said.)
There were a few denim looks, too, though Ms. Versace ensured they were more tailored (“office jeans”) than slouchy. She wanted to move away from more casual streetwear, she said, “going back to the pure shape of the clothes.”
“That’s fashion — to dress people,” she continued. “What’s a T-shirt? It’s not fashion. It’s fashionable, but it’s not fashion.”
More than anything the collections were inspired by mid-1990s Versace designs, she said — specifically a collection designed by her brother Gianni in 1995, two years before his death. Lately, Versace’s ’90s archive has been pillaged by the stylists of young celebrities looking to wear vintage looks to red-carpet events — women like Bella Hadid, Dua Lipa, Olivia Rodrigo and Zendaya. At Thursday’s show, the comedian Ziwe said that’s what had drawn her to the brand: “the marriage of old meets new,” a nostalgia that feels fresh right now. (Also, she said, “looking really hot.”)
It’s not something Ms. Versace necessarily relates to when dressing herself.
“I lived that time with Gianni,” she said. “They find something new, but I don’t find something new for myself.”
It’s hard to think of any other designer today balancing, in six-inch platform heels, on that tightrope between looking backward and forward. Even when asked about her most memorable past Oscars looks, Ms. Versace said she doesn’t often “look at what I did in the past, because I always think it was not good enough, so the next is going to be better.”
Yet the morning after Versace’s show, the brand had arranged a showcase of a dozen past awards show gowns, exhibited at the eclectically opulent Beverly Hills home of the designer Kelly Wearstler.
The oldest piece shipped from the Milan archive was a beaded dress from 2000, worn by Heather Graham. Two of Versace’s most iconic Oscars dresses — Angelina Jolie’s much memed gown with the high leg slit from 2012 and Cindy Crawford’s plunging tomato-red dress from 1991 — weren’t on display.
What was on display was less about sex appeal and more about craftsmanship: hand-beading and complicated embroidery, the kind of work that takes thousands of hours in the atelier. There were gowns worn by Lady Gaga in 2014 and Lupita Nyong’o in 2018 and Amy Adams in 2019.
Who would wear Versace to the Academy Awards in 2023? The brand wouldn’t say. Often these decisions are made at that last minute, by committee.
“It’s different now — a group of people deciding for you,” Ms. Versace said. But the result, she promised, would be in “homage to all the people of Hollywood who put themselves out there.”
“They’re vulnerable,” she repeated.
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