House of Versace: The Untold Story of Genius, Murder, and Survival
Many things come to mind at the mention of Gianni Versace—over-the-top glamour; his sister, Donatella; sexiness; and his untimely death—but Deborah Ball has given us deep background into much more than just the designer’s life, accomplishments, and roots. She takes us inside the circumstances that made him famous.
As to be expected, we are taken through the family history, with their regional customs and very typical Italian heritage. But there is a difference here: the prodigal middle child is not the one who was doted on and spoiled as much as the youngest: Donatella. Santo, the eldest, was the most stable of the triumvirate, and therefore was the one who took the managerial reins of the business, while Gianni created and took his vision to market; but then there was Donatella, who was the spoiled little sister to both but ultimately became Gianni’s muse and his alter ego. The family dynamic plays a huge role in the ascent of the business as well as its eventual descent after Gianni’s death. While Gianni remained the creative force from which all else radiated, Santo made all the business decisions, while Donatella became responsible for the ancillary projects such as photo shoots, fashion shows, and press. Her most important role was to be the last word with her seal of approval or disapproval of Gianni’s designs. This final position was perhaps her most crucial as even she admitted she had no talent for design. As fame and fortune came to the family via Gianni’s designs, each of the triumvirate assumed expanded duties within their realms. Gianni became compulsive about seeing and having final approval of every product that carried his name; and Santo continued to grow the business empire via boutiques, licenses, and even courting department store buyers; but it was Donatella who gave the brand an identity through her choices for advertising and runway presentations. Ultimately it was she who fostered the celebrity connection, which is somewhat unique within the fashion community. During the boom times of the company, there was profligate spending by Gianni and Donatella. He started to collect trophy real estate in Milan, Miami, Lake Como, and New York City, as well as an extensive art collection—all of which was bought on the company dime. As is usually the case for the namesake designer of his company, he was denied nothing. On the other hand, there was the “spoiled little sister” who was also denied nothing, including private jets, spending tens of millions of dollars on free clothes for celebrities and advertising, and lavish homes—again all on the company dime. For Santo, he managed to assume all of the expenses within the company and never ever denied anything to his brother, but these profligate familial habits are part and parcel of what drove the company into dire straits after Gianni’s death. There is no question that the sudden death of Gianni was the major cause of problems within the company, but certainly not the only one. There was a question of design direction, which eluded his sister, not to mention that her spending went unabated. Then came the events of September 11 and curtailed spending in the fashion sector, which became the last straw for the business. For many years after Gianni’s death, Versace, the company, suffered greatly. But finally, with the greatest of perseverance, Santo and the rehabbed Donatella were able to revive the company, albeit in a much more reduced set of circumstances. Author Deborah Bell offers up great detail into all the stages and development of each of the keys players and was granted full access to them, so there is no question that one could call this a definitive history of the Versaces. The reader just needs to keep in mind that all of what is read is only what the Versaces wanted known. Reviewer Jeffrey Felner is a columnist in Woman 2 Woman Magazine: Fashion by the Rules, and continues a long and successful career in jewelry and fashion design and merchandising.