By Robin Givhan
Tuesday, April 13, 2010; C02
HOUSE OF VERSACE
The Untold Story of Genius, Murder, and Survival
By Deborah Ball
Crown. 343 pp. $26
The story of the Versace family has all the makings of a grand Italian opera. Gianni Versace rose from his modest beginnings in Calabria, a poor region in southern Italy, to become an internationally acclaimed designer. Along with his siblings, Donatella and Santo, he transformed a design house into a symbol of sexual provocation. He brought popular culture into the fashion atelier. He sowed the seeds for the rise of the supermodel. And he catapulted designers themselves into the realm of celebrities. But 20 years after the first Gianni Versace fashion show, it all began to fall apart.
During the height of the Versaces' success, everyone in the fashion industry had an opinion of the family -- from the creative energy that fueled its rise to the hubris and greed that nearly tore it apart. Fashion editors would often scratch their heads trying to figure out how so much money could be made from clothes that often teetered on the edge of distasteful. And visitors to Gianni's many homes marveled at the opulence: the expensive antiques, museum-quality works of art and devoted minions.
In July 1997, when Andrew Cunanan murdered Gianni Versace in front of his lavishly restored palazzo in South Beach, Miami, the designer's story took on the contours of mythology. Reality mixed with rumors about Mafia connections and an organized hit. The Versaces' complicated family dynamics became fodder for gossip columns as well as business stories. The clan had lived large and in full view of the public. And when the empire they had built began to crumble after Gianni's death, it was in front of a spectacular crowd of curious -- and sometimes cruel -- onlookers.
The reading of Gianni's will only stirred more controversy. He bequeathed his 50 percent interest in the company to his 11-year-old niece -- Donatella's daughter Allegra. How could he leave hundreds of millions of dollars to a child and ignore the siblings who'd helped him build his wealth? Why would he leave nothing to Santo's children? What had caused him to make such a rash, and -- as it would turn out -- devastating decision?
The industry watched with curiosity and bewilderment as Santo, the family businessman, tried to save the company from bankruptcy -- a financial meltdown caused, in large part, by Gianni's profligate ways. Retailers and editors saw Donatella sink deeper into drug-addled dysfunction. And no one could tell the story, or even truly understand it, because the company was privately held and the family wasn't talking.
But Deborah Ball got the story. Thanks to an impressive degree of access to both Santo and Donatella, as well as to a host of their friends and family members, this Wall Street Journal writer describes in riveting detail what the siblings were thinking behind their grief-stricken visages. She reveals how the family coped with the innuendo and the chaos. And she explains, with the calm and measured tones of a journalist steeped in the facts, exactly what led to the dramatic intervention that eventually sent Donatella to rehab in the United States and cleared the way for the company to, just maybe, survive.
"House of Versace" begins with Gianni's murder and funeral in Milan. From the opening pages, it's clear that Ball has a discerning eye for details. The reader learns how the funeral was orchestrated. Who sat next to whom. What they wore and why. Giorgio Armani -- whose minimalist style Gianni considered tedious -- settled in behind Princess Diana. The two men were not friends, but rather rivals. For the sober occasion, Armani wore his standard uniform: "long-sleeved, dark stretch sweater, dark pleated pants, and white tennis shoes."
Ball then steps back, exploring the Versaces' roots. She shows how family loyalty reigned supreme for them, even when the consequences could be dire. In the aftermath of Gianni's murder, for instance, Donatella remained at the creative helm even as major retailers shunned the aesthetically adrift brand. Ball analyzes the Versaces' childhood, laying out the dynamics that would shape their relationships: Gianni as the carefree creator, Santo as the disciplined family man and Donatella as the coddled and indulged baby sister. She provides context, too, offering a succinct and helpful tutorial on 20th-century fashion and where Gianni Versace fit in the history of the industry.
Ball's many years as a business reporter in Europe serve her well. She has an ease with financial details, offering them up when relevant but never getting bogged down in an exegesis on Italian tax laws. She explains how the Versaces made their money. (They actually sold clothes!) But just as important to this bacchanalian fashion tale, she explains how they spent it. During one particularly lavish shopping spree in Paris, Gianni swept through antique stores in search of furnishings for his Miami house. His purchases included a "Luigi XIV console and a boiserie with pink marble and gold embellishments." He managed to spend $750,000 in four hours.
Ball also may finally have put to rest the stubborn rumors that the company had Mafia connections. Citing internal financial records, decades of auditing by Italian tax authorities and information from the banks with which the Versaces have done business, Ball writes that -- spoiler alert -- there was no evidence of dirty money.
Her interviews with Santo and Donatella reveal the depths of their devotion to each other as well as the way money and fame ultimately drove a wedge between the siblings. Gianni's talent held them together, Ball explains, but it also fueled all manner of insecurities and resentments. She doesn't sugar-coat the Versaces' story, but she doesn't transform it into a tabloid tell-all, either. It is, after all, dramatic enough on its own. Instead, she brings an all too rare instinct to this book: objectivity.
If there is any missing piece to "House of Versace," it is the insight of Allegra Versace. Despite multiple requests, the now 23-year-old heiress declined to be interviewed. As a result, readers never quite know what gave her the strength to step into the fray, hire her own lawyer and exert control over a company she knew little about as her mother and uncle were floundering. And one can only guess at the anguish Allegra must have endured over the years, the effects of which seem so evident in her frail body as she continues to struggle with anorexia.
If the fashion industry, which traffics in overindulgence, in some ways understood what drove Donatella's drug addiction and Gianni's shopping sprees, it seemed genuinely mystified and pained over Allegra. It may be that the public never gets to know her. But considering what she already has lived through, that may be for the best.
Givhan is the fashion editor of The Washington Post.