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.
Why was Antonio D’Amico, Gianni Versace’s partner, pushed out of the company, and where is he now?
I found Antonio through a publicist who was working with him on his own autobiography a few years ago. He was pushed out of the family because he never got along with Donatella when Gianni was alive. He says he doesn't know exactly why Donatella froze him out. He wonders whether the family blamed him somehow for exposing Gianni to danger in Miami Beach. But he told me that he never understood the family's reaction. Antonio has tried to do many things since Gianni's death. He attempted unsuccessfully to launch his own fashion line. After that he left Milan to live in the countryside in Northern Italy and opened a restaurant there. He has written a book about his experiences and now he is working with aspiring designers to help them get off the ground.
What was unique about Elton John and Gianni Versace’s friendship?
What was unique was probably how genuine it was. Gianni cultivated and entertained celebrities because he knew it was good for his house, but he was not good friends with many of them. Elton was an exception. They each admired the creative restlessness in the other. Gianni quizzed Elton about music and the pop culture world, while Elton soaked up Gianni's love of art and design. Gianni supported Elton when he kicked his drug habit. Elton was genuinely devastated by Gianni's death and was extraordinarily loyal to Gianni's partner, Antonio D'Amico, after Gianni's death — calling Antonio several times a day early on and inviting him to spend holidays with him and David Furnish for a long time after Gianni's death. It was a rare example of true friendship in the celebrity world.
Even today, there is conjecture surrounding Andrew Cunanan's connection to Gianni Versace before his 1997 murder. What have you been able to clarify in your reporting?
Much of the conjecture centered on the idea that Cunanan had been part of a Mafia hit to kill Gianni. I reviewed the 1,000-page police file of the FBI and the Miami Beach police, who together conducted 1,000 interviews during the course of investigating all of Cunanan’s murders. I also spoke with Italian magistrates, tax police, former executives of the house, and their auditors. No one has ever found any connection between the Versace family/house and the Mafia. In the end, we will never know exactly what drove Cunanan to kill Gianni. To be sure, it was a time when celebrities still moved freely: Gianni had no security, and his morning trip down to the News Cafe [in South Beach] to get his newspapers was well known. I personally believe that Cunanan had simply lost his mind during the course of his killing spree and decided to go out in a blaze of glory by killing a man who was his icon.
You write that Donatella felt like a fraud after it was decided she would take the reins of the company. Why?
She was always Gianni's muse, inspiration, and best sounding board, but she had never had anything like the responsibility for entire collections as Gianni did. She was the creative director of Versus — a younger, secondary line within the house — but much of the heavy lifting was done by a staff of young designers. Her great talent was as an editor for Gianni's work — telling him which of his designs worked or not, assembling the clothes into outfits that had the greatest impact on the runway, channeling new trends that she saw in the clubs and the street to Gianni — but she rarely had original ideas of her own. When Gianni died, she knew she didn't have the talent, the vision, and the extraordinary stamina to drive a fashion house, but she felt she had little choice but to step into her brother's shoes.
How bad did Donatella's cocaine use become? What other excesses mounted as she took the company into the 21st century?
In 2004, when she hit bottom, she has admitted to using coke every day and mixing it with sedatives. She became paranoid and barely able to function — a situation that paralyzed the entire company. As her drug use worsened, her spending also became out of control. She spent a fortune on everything, from her hair extensions to private jets to a massive refurbishment of her Milan apartment — all on the company's dime.
How did the once-gaudy Versace aesthetic evolve with Donatella at the helm?
After she kicked her drug habit in 2004 and new management took over control of the house, she toned down the collections quite a bit. They became more tailored and quiet. But just last fall she decided to turn up the volume again on her designs, and they are much closer again to the sexy, ultraglamorous look of her brother's era.
What do you think of the viability of the brand now?
I think that Versace is now living on borrowed time. They missed the incredible growth of the late 1990s, when rivals such as Gucci, Prada, and Armani took off like rockets. Today, Gucci is 19 times the size of Versace and Armani is six times, while both companies were about the same size of Versace when Gianni died. That gap is extremely hard to close now, particularly at a time when it takes tens of millions of dollars just to open a flagship store. As long as the family remains the controlling shareholder, the company will tend to be starved of the investment it needs to compete with bigger groups. As a result, I think it is destined to remain a niche brand — with a huge image — unless they decide to bring in a deep-pocketed investor, such as Gucci and LVMH. However, they have made it clear that they have no intention of doing so.