There are some who say that the City of Miami was never he same after Giovanni Maria “Gianni” Versace (1946-1997) was shot and killed on July 15, 1997 by Andrew Cunanan (1969-1997). The world-famous fashion designer had given the city new life with his bold designs, outlandish parties and mansion called the Casa Casuarina. At the time of his death, the Versace name was a juggernaut in the fashion world, dominating news headlines and magazine covers. Tragically, in less than ten seconds, Cunanan changed all of that in ways that no one could have imagined. After Versace’s death, trials and tribulations nearly brought the company to the brink of extinction but today it is still going strong. And its creator is regarded as one fashion’s greatest minds. The story of his death is well-known having been relived through the FX award-winning series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. But what may not be familiar to viewers is the story behind the public faces of the company; Santo, Gianni and Donatella. The three siblings put their minds and personalities together forming the company that became a legend and a legacy. This is the story of their genius, a murder and the survival of a business.
The Versace story begins in Reggio Calabria, a small coastal town in southern Italy, where Nino and Franca Versace, raised their three children who would go on to achieve world-wide fame. A fourth sister and their oldest child, Fortunata, who was known by her family as Tinuccia, died in her youth. As one would expect from a story about a simple family living in post-war Italy, poverty initially makes itself known, not just for the Versace family but for many in Reggio, who would later immigrate to Milan only to face discrimination from the northerners who viewed their southern neighbors with disdain. But what no one knew then was that Milan, would one day serve as headquarters for the Versace product and a stepping-stone to stardom for Gianni and his siblings. From a young age he begins to lean from his mother Franca, the intricate parts of sewing and fashion design. As he gets older, chance meetings, including one in Paris with Karl Lagerfeld, provided the change of fate Gianni needed and before long, he and his siblings began to set the foundation for the Versace empire.
The book contains a significant amount of information about fashion products, earnings, cat walks and an endless number of celebrities who came into the Versace inner circle. But at its base, the book maintains its focus on the personal story of the three siblings. Their minds were and are still brilliant but even they would not be impervious to the many seductive aspects of quick fame, endless money and an abundant supply of vices, one of which nearly caused the complete self-destruction of Donatella. Marriages, relationships and the Gianni’s sexual orientation play their parts in the book as components to the complex yet tragic story that unfolds. The highs are many but the lows open to the eye to the dangers of excess and the pitfalls that surround the rich and famous. At the top of the command chain was the creative Gianni, backed by the bookkeeper Santo and the publicity worker Donatella. Together they seemed unstoppable as they continued to pull in millions of dollars while spreading the Versace name across the world. But their strengths are also what helped contribute to the dysfunction that existed and increased after Gianni’s untimely death. Both Donatella and Gianni were known to be lavish spenders but what is revealed in the book is nothing short of jaw-dropping. The money nearly went out as fast as it came in.
No one will ever know why Cunanan decided to murder Versace. Ball states that clearly in the book. And while she covers the murder, she does not give it extensive coverage. For those who are interested in Cunanan and the manhunt that followed, I highly recommend Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth in which she tells Cunanan’s story from start to finish. Here, Ball focuses on the aftermath of the murder and how it affected all of those around Gianni, even his niece Allegra who could have imagined the way her late uncle would change her life without her knowledge beforehand. To her credit, she rises to the occasion, providing an interesting turn of events in the story that never lets up from the start. Regrettably, she did not provide an interview for the book and Ball states that she would have provided invaluable insight into the story of the company’s survival. Nevertheless, Ball has clinched it here through interviews with Santo, Donatella and hundreds of other people who work for or personally knew the Versace family. And the result is the definitive account of the House of Versace.
“I want to be a designer for my time” – Gianni Versace