The Italian designer Gianni Versace -- a bearded, vivacious Calabrian who lives and works by the credo MORE IS MORE -- was sitting in his baroque atelier on the Via Gesu in Milan almost two years ago, talking about how he bought a palatial home on Ocean Drive in that mecca of Florida hip, South Beach.
I will never forget that conversation.
"I was on the way to Cuba," he said, "and I stopped just for 10 hours in Miami. I said to the driver, don't bring me to anything boring, just bring me to where the action is, where the young people go. He dropped me at News Cafe. After five minutes -- five minutes! -- I said to my boyfriend, Antonio, 'You can go to Cuba!' I stayed 15 days and bought the house right away."
Such a multimillion-dollar impulse purchase is nothing in fashion -- a world rife with impulses of every stripe. But a designer of Mr. Versace's international stature speaking openly about having a boyfriend . . . well, that's something that doesn't happen every day. Although it is the worst-kept secret in the world that the fashion industry is dominated by gay men, few designers talk to the press about their homosexuality or their relationships. And, when they do take a journalist into their confidence, they usually turn the microcassette recorder off.
Speculation about who is gay and who isn't gay in fashion is as old as gossip itself. But the talk reached a fever pitch last week with the publication of "Obsession," the unauthorized biography of Calvin Klein by Steven Gaines and Sharon Churcher.
The authors, one of whom muckraked Halston before setting his sights on Calvin, suggest that Mr. Klein, who is married to his "muse," the former Kelly Rector, and has a daughter from a previous marriage, is bisexual. They say he had an affair with the late designer Perry Ellis, often fell in love with straight men, summered in the Fire Island Pines on Long Island and paid for sex with men, including porn stars. Published reports say Mr. Klein -- through a channel of friendly entertainment moguls derisively called the Velvet Mafia -- tried to have the book quashed for $5 million. The New York Post dedicated an entire column to the tawdriest of the "allegations" last week.
Fashion insiders just gave it one big yawn. Really, how shocking is it to learn that someone who designs dresses, sells cologne and plasters a skinny nude white girl and a white boy rapper in his underwear on bus shelters all over town may be bisexual? As revelations go, this is not a J. Edgar Hoover seismic whoop-de-doo.
Sadly, Mr. Klein's sexuality -- whatever it truly is -- is being reported as an "allegation," right alongside tales of drug abuse, plastic surgery and '70s-era good-time debauchery. You'd think the "Obsession" book revealed Mr. Klein to be an ax murderer instead of someone who may have been caught doing the nasty in a hallway during Roy Cohn's 1978 New Year's Eve party at Studio 54. At worst, such revelations suggest that someone known for good taste may have done some tasteless things in the past. As of last week, Mr. Klein was not commenting on any of it.
He has never been a tell-all type. When it comes to details about his personal life, Mr. Klein is as spare in interviews as he is in his design philosophy. Pared-down clothes are what he has built his empire upon.
Not Mr. Versace. He has always been as colorful as his clothes and just as raucous. "I don't think a gay person has to be afraid," Mr. Versace said that day in Milan. "You don't have to go with a flag and say 'I'm this' or 'I'm that,' but I cannot be a liar. I'm more interested to know the real personality of a gay man or a straight man, not to know a gay man who wants to be straight or a 'straight' man who's gay. We are what we are. And, I don't think we're in bad company [with] all the creative persons who are gay."
Certainly, there are some very high-profile "out" gays in fashion. Isaac Mizrahi, Todd Oldham, John Bartlett, Marc Jacobs and Jean-Paul Gaultier are among the few big names who have spoken freely in recent years. But for every star designer who is frank about his gayness, there are many more gay and lesbian designers who don't say a word about their orientation.
Mr. Klein has a right to privacy, I guess. And, he has never hidden the fact that many of his closest friends -- most notably David Geffen -- are openly gay. But out gays find it puzzling and aggravating that a fashion industry that prides itself on being on the vanguard of pop culture is lagging behind when it comes to the gay rights agenda in 1994.
Designer Marc Jacobs, a young man who has always been more openly gay than many of his colleagues, said several years ago during his tenure designing for the Perry Ellis company, "I'm not kidding myself about who fashion people are. Women love gay men. That's not an issue. I'm not selling to a bunch of redneck guys who drink beer and hate fags. I can't imagine that a person who would say 'I'm not going to buy clothes from a designer who's gay' would want to buy my clothes."
Being out, Mr. Jacobs said, is "really about educating people. People can't really hate someone they know." Still, he does not believe that out gays are "better homosexuals because we live our lives openly and they don't." For some designers, being out does not come so naturally. "I was very fortunate to grow up with people who encouraged whatever I did," Mr. Jacobs said. "I didn't grow up with rules. It was never about . . . this sexual preference is right and that sexual preference is wrong."
Mr. Jacobs continued, "It was just not something that was discussed in polite society. People put on that facade of being married or being straight or whatever. I just think it's a different time. The times have become more accepting of honesty. There are still many people left who come from a previous generation. But then there's this whole crop of people who wouldn't think of discussing it -- not because they don't want to talk about it, but because it's just the way it is. It's a non-issue to them."
Whether this controversy is a non-issue to Mr. Klein's customers remains to be seen.