Versace’s Logo

Inspired by an ancient ruin, Medusa's head
is among the strangest marks in fashion. By Robert Klara

Contemporary marketing wisdom holds that the best brand logos are clever, clean and easy to recognize— simplicity working all the better to serve as instant visual cue to a brand’s identity. How, then, to explain the logo that stomps on these articles of branding faith—or, in this case, turns them to stone? 

When Michael Kors announced last week that it would pay $2 billion to acquire Versace, fashion mavens and nancial hawks fell to picking apart not just the rationale of the deal, but the consequences for the 40-year-old Italian fashion brand. And while many things may change for the Milan-based label, one piece of the company is bound to remain as immutable and omnipresent as it’s always been: that head. 

You know the one. It’s the Gorgon, better known as Medusa: the lady whose hideous face, circumscribed by a Greek fretwork border, xes her deadly stare at all comers, petrifying them with the snakes she has instead of hair. Yeah, that logo. Who ever thought such a complicated and thematically bizarre emblem would be a good idea? Well, Gianni Versace did. But why he did, and why it works, remains something of a mystery. 

Born in 1946, Gianni Versace grew up in the southern Italian town of Reggio di Calabria. As the story goes, little Gianni and his sister, Donatella, used to play in the city’s ancient ruins. In the mosaic oor of one of them, they spotted a head of Medusa worked into the tiled motif. After moving to Milan in his 20s and working for a number of designers, Versace started his own label in 1978, almost immediately gaining attention for his ashy, risqué designs. For years, Versace used his own name as his logo—until 1993, when he appropriated the Medusa head that he recalled from his childhood. 

Great story, right? And yet ... “This slice of personal nostalgia isn’t really enough to make this logo meaningful to others, and frankly, I think there mightbe more to the story,” said Michael Ventura, founderand CEO of strategy and design consultancy Sub Rosa. “I’m not a fashion designer, but I have always found Versace’s work to be ‘sexy ugly’—using garish patterns and loud, borderline obnoxious color combinations to make something of beauty. In a way, he played right into the myth, creating something that some might consider ‘ugly’ but causing many to be captivated with it. Was he thinking that deeply about his overall approach to design when he chose this symbol as his logo? I kinda hope so.” 

Actually, we do know a little bit about what Versace was thinking. No doubt, he understood the mythos: how the once-beautiful Medusa, cursed by Athena after sleeping with Poseidon, lured and killed her male prey with a single glance. That dichotomy—the fatal attraction—seemed to please the designer. “When I asked Gianni why he chose Medusa’s head,” Donatella Versace once explained, “he told me he thought that whoever falls in love with Medusa can’t ee from her.” 

Pleasing as the symbolic juxtaposition might have been, though, the logo remains a busy one. But Ryan Jordan says it works for the fashion realm. “Althougha complicated mark like this is not what immediately comes to mind when considering modern branding and logo design,” said Jordan, svp and creative director of agency imre, “this classic symbol is perfect for a modern luxury brand navigating the high-touch, visual-centric nature of branding in a social media world. It’s because the symbol of the Gorgon is not just a design choice, it’s in itself a story and a promise to carry through Versace’s sexy, often brash view of the modern woman.” 

And, as Versace fans hope, a promise that will be kept by Michael Kors—whose corporate logo is simply his initials. How boring. 

A well-known figure in Greek mythology, Medusa could turn men to stone with a glance. After being slain by Perseus, the Gorgon appeared in ancient mosaics.

Conn Smythe named his team the Maple Leafs, then built the Maple Leaf Gardens for them to play in.

By 1978, a young Gianni Versace chose it as the logo for his burgeoning fashion brand.

By 1978, a young Gianni Versace chose it as the logo for his burgeoning fashion brand.

In the ensuing years, the fashion house has pressed Medusa’s head into many a service, from handbag medallions to gilded barrettes to oversized backdrops at runway shows.

In the ensuing years, the fashion house has pressed Medusa’s head into many a service, from handbag medallions to gilded barrettes to oversized backdrops at runway shows.

Kors goes shopping The fashion world gasped on Sept. 25 when Michael Kors, a Long Island, N.Y.-born designer who found fame as a Project Runway host, dug into his corporate pockets to pay just over $2 billion for Versace. Some devoted Versace fans fretted what the mass-luxe American brand might do to its new charge.

Kors goes shopping The fashion world gasped on Sept. 25 when Michael Kors, a Long Island, N.Y.-born designer who found fame as a Project Runway host, dug into his corporate pockets to pay just over $2 billion for Versace. Some devoted Versace fans fretted what the mass-luxe American brand might do to its new charge.