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
I remember with vivid clarity the day that Giovanni Maria “Gianni” Versace (1946-1997) was shot and killed in front of his home in Miami, Florida. My friends and I were in shock and in the wake of the shooting, we kept hearing the name Andrew Cunanan (1969-1997). None of it made sense but from the news we did learn, Cunanan was a one man crime spree and through fate, he crossed paths with the world-famous fashion designer. Twenty-one years have passed since Versace’s death but the fashion line that bears his name continues to remain strong. Several days after Versace was shot and killed, Cunanan took his own life aboard a houseboat that was eventually seized by the City of Miami. In the days after his death, more information about his erratic and deadly lifestyle came to light and also revealed how law enforcement missed vital clues contributing to what Maureen Orth calls the largest failed manhunt in U.S. history. By all accounts, Cunanan should have been caught long before he walked up to Versace on July 15, 1997. However, miscommunication and in some cases prejudice against homosexuals, resulted in investigations crippled from neglect, allowing Cunanan to remain at large before committing his final murderous act. The world now new the name Andrew Cunanan and it would never be forgotten. But just who was Andrew Cunanan and how did he make the FBI’s Most Wanted List? The list is reserved for the most dangerous of criminals and typically a suspect such as Cunanan would not normally be found on the list. His use of extremedly deadly force rightfully earned him a place among the most deadly killers on the run in America at the time. Maureen Orth, a journalist for Vanity Fair, covered Versace’s murder and was familiar with Cunanan before the final events in Miami. In this chilling account of Cunanan’s path of rage, she recounts his life helping us understand how and why he descended into madness.
Orth takes us back in time to the Cunanan home were Modesto “Pete” Cunanan (1930-2005) and his wife Mary Ann (1938-2012) raise their several children. Andrew quickly becomes his dad’s favorite, but even his charm would not be enough to keep the family together as his father fled to his native Philippines in 1989. The event would have a profound effect on the young child and unbeknownst to many, the seeds of chaos had already been planted. What is evidently clear in the book is that from an early age Cunanan displayed many of the characteristics that would be shown in adulthood and vividly remembered by those he encountered. And as he makes his way to manhood, he becomes more immersed in his homosexuality and it is at this point in the book picks up speed and Orth takes us deep inside the world of gay men. I should point out that Cunanan was not a “gay killer”. While he did commit murder, it was not based off of his orientation nor were his victims targeted because of their orientation. And I also believe that readers uncomfortable with homosexual subject matter should avoid the book altogether. But for those who have been fascinated by the Versace murder and Cunanan’s story, it is necessary to understand this world to understand Cunanan. Further, the misunderstanding of this world is one of the factors behind the failure of authorities to capture Cunanan earlier in their investigations.
If Bret Easton Ellis had not written American Psycho in 1991, he could have easily used Cunanan as the model for the book’s central character Patrick Bateman, but with a few minor tweaks. Every killer has that one moment where something snaps and they begin their rampage. Cunanan was no different and once he began his murder spree that would spread across several states, he left a trial of violence that will undoubtedly shock many readers. At times the book may seem like a Hollywood production but this is not fiction, the events were real and the aftermath devastating. Selfishly, Cunanan chose suicide instead of standing trial for his crimes. He did not leave behind any journals or notes explaining his motives. In fact, it seems that his own goal was to kill. Orth does an incredible job of taking us through the events as we follow him across the U.S. From one city to the next, he adds a new victim leaving law enforcement in the dark as to why and how he was able to keep evading authorities. Tensions ran high and even the FBI, drawn into the case through cross-state crimes, found itself deeply wanting to apprehend the monster. When Cunanan was found dead, authorities and the public breathed a sigh of relief. His death would not bring Versace back but it did mark the end to a path of destruction that surpsisingly did not claim many more victims.
If you want to know the story behind the hunt for Cunanan and the crazy yet glamorous lifestyle he lead, then this is the book for you. It is not a biography of Versace although she does include a good of information on the Versace empire. This is Cuanan’s story and the deadly path he took as he slowly made his way to the home of the world’s most popular fashion icon.