Fits, egos, and a propensity for excess are the currency of many luxury fashion houses as they struggle to stay on the right side of Heidi Klum’s oft-repeated maxim from Project Runway. To remain “in” in fashion requires tremendous genius and business savvy. But it also means currying celebrity favor and wooing fashion editors starving for newness and excitement. Gianni Versace was a virtuoso at both, though his house has suffered an inexorable decline in the 13 years since he was murdered on the steps of his South Beach mansion by gay spree killer Andrew Cunanan.

In House of Versace (Crown Publishers), the first book on Gianni Versace that the fashion label has cooperated with, Deborah Ball, a European correspondent for TheWall Street Journal, writes about the travails of a fashion house driven to the brink by drug abuse and lavish spending. Ball recently spoke with The Advocate about Gianni, his partner, his sister Donatella’s sincere demeanor despite her camp appearance, and the future viability of a company that turned celebrity obsession with high fashion into an all-consuming art form.

The Advocate: How did you manage to get the Versace family to cooperate in the writing of this book? Was it a difficult sell for the brand?
Deborah Ball: I had been the Wall Street Journal reporter covering European fashion between 1999 and 2002, so I had had some contact with the house during that time. However, during that time, the house was in serious distress — heading to near-bankruptcy by 2004 — and Donatella's drug habit was quite severe. By the time I approached them in January 2008 with the idea of collaborating with a book, they were in a better place. The company was stabilized, and Donatella was clean for four years and apparently feeling more confident with herself and her design direction for the house. They trusted that I would do a credible, thorough job of telling their story.

How did Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace approach their own sexuality in the public sphere differently?
Armani has always been much more private about his sexuality than Gianni. With the exception of Sergio Galeotti, the partner who helped him launch his house in the 1970s, his partners over the years were never public figures. He has only very rarely spoken of his sexuality in interviews, whereas Gianni was happy to do joint interviews with Antonio very early on. While Armani ordered his PR people to tell the press that Galeotti died of a heart condition in 1981 (he instead died of AIDS), Gianni even tried to provide (unsuccessfully) for Antonio in his will. Gianni was 10 years younger than Armani, so that probably made a difference in how comfortable they felt in talking about their sexuality.

Donatella's persona is one of exquisite high camp. Does she deliver the same in person? What's been your experience with her?
She surprised me in how down to earth and warm she is. I interviewed many friends and colleagues — including her college roommate — who all told stories of a woman who is extraordinarily generous, funny, self-deprecating, and warm. Yes, she is over-the-top and believes in “more is more.” Of course, she has her demons, and her drug habit exacerbated the downsides of her personality. But she is a much more nuanced person than her public persona would suggest.

Tags: Books