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Emperor’s Quirks

A half-hearted attempt at explaining Gianni Versace’s method in his madness

Written by Namrata Zakaria | Published: November 6, 2010 4:02:34 am

House of Versace: The Untold Story of Genius,Murder and Survival

Deborah Ball

Crown Business

Pages: 352

Price: $26

Gianni Versace lived a life that makes for a bacchanalian fashion tale. A poor son from Calabria,a backward region in southern Italy,he rose to fame and riches and hobnobbed with the biggest international celebrities. He died a commoner’s death,shot outside his Miami mansion for no apparent reason by a freak.

His mother was a local seamstress who copied French couture patterns for bridal dresses,making her the village favourite. And Gianni,along with his siblings Santo and Donatella,created a design house that became a symbol of both provocation and opulence.

Gianni’s contribution to the fashion world was immense and dramatic. He seamed the gap between popular culture and fashion; he brought celebrities in droves to his front row and understood well the power of a red-carpet appearance. (The book says Hugh Grant’s lesser known girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley shot to fame when she wore a Versace dress held together by safety pins and prayers to the opening of the movie,Four Weddings and a Funeral.) He created the phenomenon of the supermodel; he paid them $50,000 for a show when they were used to $1,000 and flew them around Concordes and private jets,and set them up in five-star suites.

But Deborah Ball’s House of Versace,arguably the first book in English on the designer,falls short of many expectations. The biography of any designer must capture the spirit of the times. Fashion itself is a chronicler of history and our socio-economic life,and an artist is but a product of his society. Ball conducted 220 interviews for this book and while that may be a good piece of reportage,it lacks the passion and analysis that research or a mind obsessed with the oeuvre brings.

In comparison,Edmonde Charles-Roux’ Chanel is a detailed and highly enjoyable tome,it also inspired the Audrey Tatou movie which pales in comparison with the genius of the book. Alicia Drake’s The Beautiful Fall is as much about the friendship and fallout of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld as it is about Paris of the 1970s. Ball,who is a journalist with The Wall Street Journal,provides a sketchy account of the ebb and flow of finances in the Versace fashion house. But it doesn’t answer the most important question: how did Gianni make so much money selling clothes that bordered on the distasteful?

The book begins with the death of Gianni in Miami in July 1997,while Donatella was conducting a fashion show in Rome,and how the house fell apart after that. Tensions were already rife between the siblings over creative and control issues. When a hastily handwritten will was read,it announced Gianni had left his 50 per cent stake in the business to Donatella’s 11-year-old daughter Allegra.

The best bits are the business bits. Only towards the end does the book pick up pace as Ball chronicles the fashion wars between the Gucci Group under Francois Pinault,and the Louis Vuitton-Moet Hennessy (LVMH) group under Bernard Arnault. In 1997,Domenico De Sole (the CEO of Gucci who turned around its fortunes) pitched a Versace-Gucci merger to compete with LVMH. But Gianni wanted full control. In 2004,after De Sole and Tom Ford left Gucci and when Versace was still bleeding post-Gianni,Ford and De Sole offered to restore Versace to profitability if the drug-addled Donatella would give Ford full control.

The rivalry between Gianni and Giorgio Armani,both internationally acclaimed Italian designers,is also well touched upon. The two were as different as chalk and cheese,in business as well as aesthetics (Armani is still the king of minimalism),and the talk then was that “Armani dressed the wife,and Versace dressed the mistress”. Armani did come for Gianni’s funeral though,as did Princess Diana,Elton John,Sting and a rash of top-rungers.

But House of Versace is more Donatella’s story than Gianni’s. Though she commissioned the book,she’s rarely dealt with softly. The book chronicles her creative struggles with design,her battles with drug addiction and her excessive spending. Interestingly,Gianni’s lover of 16 years,Antonio D’Amico,gets fleeced by the family and is dispensed with very easily (also by the author).

It must be noted the book cannot end where it does. The Versace story is still in motion. Donatella has just announced to W magazine that she’s appointed Brit designer Christopher Kane for their younger line,Versus.

When this reviewer met her five years ago,she had said,“It’s hard to follow in my brother’s footsteps,but I had to do it. It was his dream and now it’s my dream.”

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