“Gleen, Gleen, I have a great idea!”
It was Gianni Versace, the late fashion designer, talking to me in his southern Italian accent. Like many of his countrymen, he had difficulty pronouncing my Welsh name, so he simply called me “Gleen.”
Still, his English was light years ahead of my weak command of Italian. Fresh off the plane from Los Angeles, I had only been in Milan a few months as the new Italian Bureau Chief for W Magazine and WWD and I could barely pronounce cappuccino.
But there I was, a California, Gap-wearing wearing twenty-something-year-old, sitting in the atelier of a man on the verge of becoming a design superstar. We were in his sewing room and I was interviewing him about his upcoming spring collection while my then fiancé, (now husband) photographer Art Streiber, took photos of models in Versace's colorful capes and mini dresses as they struck poses amid the design tables.
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Full of life and passion, He lived for spontaneity and the creative spark. He was uncensored, provocative and imminently quotable. I assumed he was going to tell me about some idea he had for Art's next shot or a plan for his upcoming fashion show—perhaps Linda, Christy and Naomi, in micro minis and thigh high boots would appear on the runway atop an elephant! You just never knew with Gianni.
But instead he declared, “Gleen! You are here and my seamstresses are here, so let’s measure you for your wedding dress!” I didn’t know how to respond. I looked at Art for help but he simply gave me a half shrug, half nod. “Guarda,” Gianni continued “You strike me as more modern than old fashioned, no?” He grabbed my reporters notebook and started sketching gowns. “And yet, you are romantic too!”
“This can't be happening,” I thought. But out loud I think I murmured a feeble, “si, certo.” Suddenly, a swarm of signorinas in white frocks and holding tape measurers started clamoring around me, muttering words like “vita” and “braccia” in Italian. Did I even want a Versace wedding dress? I thought to myself. Versace was known for his “chic shock.” His sexy silhouettes sizzled on the supermodels who strutted down his catwalk in gravity defying skirts, low cut gowns and vibrant colors. He made clothes for rocker pals like Sting, David Bowie and Eric Clapton as well as extravagant costumes for the opera.
While exciting, and certainly fun to write about, his signature look wasn’t exactly what I was envisioning for my nuptials. Would it be fuchsia? Would it be trimmed with leopard print? Would it be cut too high or too low? And how could I afford it? What was I getting myself into? My head was spinning.
The rest of that afternoon is a blur.
“What am I going to do?" I moaned to Art when we got back to our cramped magazine offices in Piazza Cavour. “This is an amazing offer but what if I don’t love it? I can't insult him," I went on. “And I can’t pay for a Versace Couture wedding gown, but I can’t accept it if he tries to give it to me for free.” That night, over linguini and chianti, Art and I hatched a plan. The next day I called Versace’s atelier and reached his sister and muse, the now-famous Donatella. I told her that I already had a friend back in Los Angeles making my dress and asked her if perhaps I could buy something from Versace’s (more affordable) ready- to-wear collection as a reception dress instead.
“Oh no, no, no, no, no!” she cried. “Gianni will be so upset! And the seamstresses have already started cutting the fabric!”
I tried to explain my predicament but she would have none of it. Gianni was making my wedding gown and that was that! Then she added, “The dress is a gift! The next day I relayed the situation to one of my bosses in our New York office, a note of panic in my voice. “You can’t tell him you won’t accept it” she said with a laugh. “He’ll be insulted. Why don’t you just offer to pay for the cost of the fabric?” A few days later, I went back to the atelier for my first fitting.
Any anxieties I had about not liking the dress melted away. Made of the finest, eggshell Italian silk, it was soft and the silhouette was almost art deco in feel. Form-fitting but still demure. Modern yet retro. It was divine. I made a few tweaks to Gianni’s original design—the shoulders were a bit dramatic for my taste (very pointy and exaggerated)—so I nicely asked Donatella if they could be toned down a bit and she obliged. Other than that it was surprisingly simple—and perfect.
But there was still the matter of the payment.
I told Donatella’s then husband, former Versace model Paul Beck, that I couldn’t accept it for free and needed to pay something. I thought he would understand my discomfort about potential conflicts of interest. He laughed and said it was not necessary but I insisted, so he finally agreed to let me write a check for the cost of the fabric—$2,500—a bargain for a Versace couture wedding gown, but still a stretch for a young journalist.
Gianni and Donatella insisted on adding a dramatic 30 foot long veil and included a pair of cream satin pumps. Meanwhile, my designer friend back home admitted he was relieved because it was too stressful to design and do fittings long distance. Crisis averted. A few months later on my wedding day in Malibu, when I slipped into that gown, I felt for the first and only time in my life, like a supermodel. Thank God I hadn’t eaten too much pasta as there was not an inch to spare. It took two of my bridesmaids to help me slither into the form-fitting work of art so it didn’t tear.
After years of covering designer fashion, I finally understood what made couture so special. It was as if this gown was made especially for me by a master Italian designer. Wait! It was! Forget the idea of changing into a cocktail dress for dancing at the reception. I was going to rock the night away in my custom Versace gown, damn it! And I did! Long after my rendition of Bob Marley’s “Jammin’” with our reggae band, way past the time my shoes were off and there were holes in my stockings, it still clung to me like a badge of glamour.
I even still had it on when hit up the Jack in the Box drive-through at 1:00 a.m. Neither of us had gotten around to eating dinner, and both of us had had a bit too much champagne.
But the story doesn’t stop there.
Upon returning to Italy after our honeymoon in St. Martin, I found a note from Gianni on my office desk. “Since you came to Milan I have had good luck,” it said. "I cannot accept your money. The dress is my gift to you. Love, Gianni” At the bottom of the envelope was my check, ripped into tiny pieces. “Not again!” I thought. But then I came up with an idea.
Among the many exquisite items that Gianni collected were antique globes. He had them all over his private library along with tomes on history, art, fashion and photography. I made it my mission to find a beautiful globe that was equal in value to $2,500 in lire (this was before the Euro) and that would be my payment and he couldn’t rip up a globe!
Sure enough, I found the perfect specimen in a tiny shop on the Villa Della Spiga. I waited to give it to him until a party one evening at his villa. It was a classic Versace gathering—handsome young playboys, gorgeous European socialites, a count here, a duchess there, musicians, (Elton John) actresses (I think a young Liv Tyler was in attendance that night), plenty of slinky supermodels, perhaps an artist or two—all mingling to create a glam, exotic social soup.
We sipped champagne and nibbled on risotto balls served by white-gloved waiters as we listened to the latest music and soaked up Gianni’s wonderful stories and laughed at phis layful imitations (a favorite was of his friend Prince). When he finally opened my gift, his face lit up. “Grazie, grazie!” he cried. “Lo Adoro. I love it.”
“Thank you for the most beautiful dress I will ever wear,” I replied, kissing him on both cheeks. As the night began to wane, I asked him about a melancholy song that had played at his last runway show. He asked me to sing a few bars to help him figure out which one I was referring to. As I started singing, “Every time we say good bye I die a little…” Elton John chimed in. “Oh, that’s an old Ella Fitzgerald tune,” he said and started singing with me.
“Every time we say goodbye I wonder why a little. Why the Gods above me who must be in the know, think so little of me, they allow you to go…” It was surreal—like most nights at Versace's villa.
Little did we all know that we would be saying goodbye to the talented designer only a few years later—and much too soon.