Gianni Versace Retrospective
Marpessa Hennink
August 07, 2023
Marpessa Hennink
Exclusive photo shooting & interview

Marpessa Hennink

She was called “The Catwalk Contessa” for many catwalk appearances in the 1980s and 1990s. And she was the darling of fashion designer Gianni Versace, to whom she owes “eighty per cent of her top model status.” Former top model Marpessa Hennink looks back with pleasure and gratitude on her long-term collaboration and special bond with one of the most groundbreaking couturiers ever.



Marpessa Hennink was sixteen years old when she rolled into the modelling business. By chance, like most girls. After six months, the born and bred Amsterdam woman gave up in the Netherlands. She wanted to go to Italy, the homeland of her greatidol Gianni Versace! Her dream came true too. “I first met Gianni at a casting. I was just eighteen. And I got booked.”


She remembers the photo shoot, for which she was very nervous, as intimidating. “Together with Gianni, I had to take a picture for the cover of a prominent newspaper. He was very nice, and I got beautiful clothes. But it felt likea rush job. I didn’t speak Italian yet, but I noticed he was urging the team to hurry up. Moments later, the photographer asked me to pull my top down to expose my chest. Even serious newspapers at that time often used topless models for the cover, which sold better. I refused. And was sent home.”

For a moment, she feared the end of her modelling career. But that turned out not to be the case. It took a few years before she was allowed to walk ‘the big shows’ in Paris and Milan in 1985. “Until then, I mainly had experience with print and advertising. Fashion modelling for the catwalk was a different profession in those days,” she explains. “The first time in Milan, I was completely rejected because I couldn’t walk. But the following season, it suddenly went very well.”


One of the first designers to book her for his show was… Gianni Versace. And the incident with the cover photo? Laughing: “He had already forgotten that. So I started it myself. Later on, he repeated that anecdote regularly: remember, Marpessina? His pet name is for me. We worked together intensively for eleven years; he was incredibly loyal.” During that period, Marpessa walked dozens of shows for Versace, contributed to lookbooks and folders, acted in a commercial and travelled abroad for events.

Looking back on that time, Marpessa realizes it was extraordinary to experience how his style changed. “I’ve been following Gianni Versace since I was thirteen. As he rose to prominence, his shows became more and more extravagant. He could afford the luxury of doing what he was interested in. He more and more pushed his limits. His collections arose from his vast knowledge of visual culture and art history. Numerous movements passed in review: from Greek antiquity to flower power, pop art, bondage and SM. He mixed all those influences like an alchemist. And then gave it a new twist by making it sexy. But without becoming vulgar, and always with great respect for women.”


According to Marpessa, Versace liked women “with a strong personality”. “As a model, you always felt treated with respect by him. In addition, Gianni was among the first to realize how important the right models are to translate your vision as a designer to the catwalk. He loved women who were hungry to portray his ideas.” Women of all colours walked in his shows. Marpessa, daughter of a Dutch mother and a half-Surinamese father, still remembers being called ‘too exotic’ by a modelling agent as a sixteen-year-old girl. Painful. For Gianni Versace, that was not an issue. “When the debate about more diversity in fashion arose a few years ago, I thought: I don’t know Gianni any other way. At least half of his models were African American, Asian or African. Not because this was politically correct, but because it fit his ideal image.”

Marpessa was one of the first ‘crossover’ top models, shining in campaigns and on the catwalk. At the Gianni Versace shows, she often wore six different outfits, whereas other girls only showed two looks. “When I asked about that once, Gianni said that you sell them best. It was then that I realized how valuable a good model is. And that it is a profession in itself to show the clothes to buyers correctly. Not static, but by showing the lining of a jacket, for example. With that, you can make a difference in the sales figures of a fashion house.”


Versace’s shows were groundbreaking spectacles. It was also innovative that he involved the showbiz world. Pop stars like Prince, Lenny Kravitz, and even Princess Diana sat in the front row. Afterwards, they also came to the designer’s house, where he then gave a dinner for a select group. His favourite models were, of course, also invited. By far, Gianni Versace’s most memorable show was the Fall/Winter 1991 show when he sent supermodels Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington, all four on the catwalk at the same time, singing to George Michael’s hit Freedom. Marpessa: “Backstage, I had goosebumps all over my body. When I showed up shortly afterwards, I noticed the audience was enraptured. Nothing like this had ever been seen before! Playful and chic at the same time, fashion meets rock. In a word: wow.”

In 1987, Marpessa received an Oscar de la Mode for best catwalk model in Paris. As a result, the British fashion journalist Jackie Modlinger promptly dubbed her ‘Marpessa the Catwalk Contessa’ (Contessa is Italian for countess) in a newspaper article. A name that has stuck with her. She retired from modelling in 1994 but remained involved in the fashion world. And not just as a consumer and enthusiast. She set up the couture line Alta Moda for Dolce & Gabbana for ten years. “Now I’m taking a step back from that. I’m going to focus more on interior design, a passion I’ve never been able to fully focus on,” she says. “I will also remain active as a freelance consultant focusing on connecting people from different disciplines such as fashion, design, culture and education.”

Twenty-five years after the murder of Gianni Versace, his work comes to life in the Groninger Museum. For Marpessa, the designer always has a special place in her heart. “His birthday and death anniversary, those are emotional moments. On those days, I always exchange messages with Naomi (Campbell, ed.) and other friends. Just to show support for each other. And to reflect on the man who means so much to us.”


Interview: Natasja Admiral
Model: Marpessa Hennink
Photo: Tim Verhallen
Collection: Antonio Caravano
Curators: Saskia Lubnow & Karl von der Ahé
Styling: Roel Schagen
Hair: Ilham Mestour
Makeup: Pernell Kusmus
#groningermuseum #marpessahennink #gianniversace #gianniversaceretrospective #timverhallen

One thought on “Marpessa Hennink
  1. top site

    What interesting idea..

    November 14, 2023 Reply
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