A dark side to fashion's fairytale
WHEN the family of Gianni Versace gathers to mark the seventh anniversary of his death this Thursday, they will do so with a sense of hopethat this turning of the calendar might mark the beginning of the end to the nightmare that his macabre murderignited on the morning ofJuly 15, 1997.
The moment gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan squeezed the trigger that felled the flamboyant 50-year-old Italian designer on the doorstep of his South Beach palazzo in upmarket Miami, a chain of events were set in motion that has kept the surviving Versace siblings and business partners - Donatella, 49, and Santo, 59 - careening from one crisis to the next.
"Seven years of woes," is how Santo recently described their ongoing struggle to regain Gianni's prestigious fashion footing, while coping with the devastation - both personal and financial - left in his wake.
Unlike Gianni's made-for-TV memorial service that broadcast close-ups of a stoic Princess Diana comforting a distraught Elton John (with Naomi Campbell slumped in shock nearby), the focus now promises to stay firmly fixed on Gianni's niece Allegra Beck ("my little princess"), who, amid a blitzkreig of publicity, became the majority shareholder of the privately-held US$485m Versace empire when she turned 18 on June 30 of this year.
On Monday, Allegra attended her first board meeting at Versace's sleek Milan HQ. But Monday's meeting was a milestone in more ways than one. Allegra watched as her mother and Santo signed off on a US$120m bond, financed by a last-minute US$172m loan from Banca Intesa that will help restructure debt and keep the vulnerable House of Versace in family hands, at least for now.
Most media outlets, turned on by the Learjet and limousine lifestyle aspect of Allegra's life story, are going with the fairy tale angle. The winsome eldest daughter of Gianni's volatile sister Donatella, Allegra was just 11 when the cartoon she was watching on TV was interrupted by a newsflash, announcing the bloody murder of her beloved uncle. Just one year before, Gianni who was recovering from a scare from bone cancer in the cheek, talked poignantly about his fear of not living to see Allegra and her younger brother - Daniel, who is now 13 - grow up.
"I get crazy at the idea that a time will come when I won't see Daniel and Allegra any more. I want to see my nieces and nephews grown up and to see their children," he told the New Yorker magazine.
"For Allegra, Gianni was her hero," Donatella said some years later. "He was invincible. He was her Batman, her Superman."
The feeling was obviously mutual. In 1995, when Donatella debuted her first solo collection (the hipper, cheaper Versus line) in New York, Gianni made a pointed supportive statement when he walked out on the catwalk beside his sister. Asked why he had decided to delegate a collection to his sister, the fashion czar replied: "In her I see my mother, the past. But also the future, because Donatella is herself the mother of my niece Allegra: a symbol of the continuation of the species."
Allegra, who is said to still be bewildered by Gianni's decision to bequeath her the controlling interest in the company, has no immediate plans to join Gianni Versace SpA, the holding company. Instead, she will leave Milan in August to start a course in English and international business studies at New York University in early autumn, with hopes of going to LA to study acting after she graduates.
For now, Allegra's role within the company will remain as it has been for the last seven years, with her recentlyestranged parents managing her interests without the aid of the lawyer and the judge who were legally necessary before she came of age.
"Allegra has decided to take full responsibility for her quota and exercise her prerogatives," said Daniele Ballestrazzi, managing director of the Versace group on Monday. "Nothing will change. It will just make decision-making more fluid, as we'll no longer need to go through her lawyers on questions of strategy."
Donatella says she approves of her daughter's decision to spread her wings - to apoint. "Allegra's dream is to become an actress, and she has asked me to give her time until she turns 24 to try that career," the increasingly skinny platinum blonde said last week.
"If she succeeds, fine. Otherwise she will come and work in the company," said Donatella, before adding, in a signature tongue-in-cheek sign-off: "Besides, she draws very well."
Santo, who has reportedly been bitterly feuding with his sister since his niece inherited'In New York fashion circles, the 18-year-old was described as 'someone who obviously has a hard time getting her mouth around a sandwich.'
the bulk of the family fortune, gamely pointed out that Allegra "can't not be interested in fashion - it's the world she has always lived in."
Not everyone agrees. Many in the fashion world are skeptical about the potential this highly privileged young woman has to face the many highly complex challenges that lie ahead of her.
"Allegra grew up in the fashion world, which means she can develop an eye for clothes, find out how a show is organised," says Giusi Ferre, an Italian fashion critic who was both a friend and fan of Gianni's. "But when a genius like Gianni dies, his creativity isn't passed on as easily as his property. It's so medieval to think that descendants should run everything. Giving 50 per cent to an 11-year-old was crazy. I can't imagine he actually thought things out."
Other concerns centre on Allegra's physically fragile appearance. In New York fashion circles, the 18-year-old was archly described last week as "someone who obviously has a hard time getting her mouth around a sandwich". While some put the girl's painfully gaunt appearance down to the traumatic events in her past, others have questioned the wisdom of placing so much responsibility on the fragile shoulders of a young woman who has so far lived in a family riddled with complicated relationships.
Much to Allegra's distress her father, former male model Paul Beck, is currently estranged from her mother who is (say the snitches) at breaking point over incendiary family infighting, both in and outside of the office.
Perhaps more than anything, the greatest concern among those who have spent time around Allegra during the last seven years is the change in her personality - from a precociously poised 11-year-old who could hold her own in any conversation to introverted teen who has been overly protected by her mother to the extent that they both reportedly attended therapy sessions together.
Donatella's fear about the safety of her children, while understandable, has cast a long shadow on her daughter's life. Terrified of an attempted Mafia kidnap, Donatella hired a string of bodyguards to protect the children soon after Gianni's murder. The reality of not being able to venture outside the family's 18th century palazzo in Milan without constant surveillance - and having to check that a friend's home boasts state-of-the-art security equipment before accepting a casual invite for, say, a game of tennis - couldn't be easy on any kid.
The New York paparazzi, enthralled by the notion that such a sheltered trust-fund kid is about to hit NYU's anything-goes campus, are already polishing up their camera lenses.
And Gianni - who also left Allegra a house in Milan, a villa on Lake Como, a US$22m New York townhouse, and the since-sold 12-bedroom mansion in Miami where he was killed - never hid his favouritism for his darling niece.
He insisted she was to be in attendance at one of his early fashion shows, even though Donatella argued that taking a two-day-old baby to a runway presentation was over-the-top. In later years, Gianni would buy Allegra a baby Hermes handbag to wear when she accompanied him to the Paris fashion shows.
"Only you understand how I express what I feel," a reporter quoted Gianni telling the young girl, who (and it probably sounded more natural in Italian) replied: "You are a magician, uncle."
By the time photographs of the agonised schoolgirl clinging to her mother's chest in heart-wrenching grief during Gianni's memorial service started appearing in the newspapers, the FBI manhunt for Gianni's murder was neatly wrapped up with Cunanan's alleged suicide.
Conspiracy rumours - that the murder was somehow related back to the start of Gianni's business in the Mafia-infested city of Reggio di Calabria in southern Italy - didn't fade as quickly. They were for a time, however, overshadowed by the publication of Gianni's two-page will.
At the time of his death, equity in the family business was split between the charismatic Gianni (50 per cent), the creatively forceful Donatella (20 per cent) and the low-key Santo (30 per cent) who kept both eyes firmly on the books.
Both brother and sister were stunned by the surprise contained in Gianni's will. In a twist befitting a close-knit family whose histrionics are said to rival anything witnessed in La Scala, Gianni named Allegra as beneficiary of his 50 per cent stake in the company, to be managed two siblings and her father until she came of age. Then six-year-old Daniel inherited his uncle's US$68m art collection, including paintings by Picasso, Leger and Basquiat. Donatella and Santo were ignored, as were Santo's two children - Antonio and Francesca - while Gianni's long-term boyfriend, Antonio D'Amico, received a $57,000 a-month allowance for life and the right to live in any of Gianni's homes.
Some observers believe Gianni made that will out while hewas being treated for cancer. Later on, in 1996, he would admit his relations with Donatella and Santo were pitiful.
Donatella's success with the Versus line was so rapid, he worried that his most trusted aide would become his most dangerous rival. After a newspaper ran a story headlined 'The bottle-blond rock chick behind the Versace empire', Gianni and Donatella didn't speak for six months.
"It was war," he told Vanity Fair magazine in late 1996, after the two had made up. Naturally, he also talked about his niece. "I like to talk to Allegra," he explained, "because Allegra tells me the truth about Donatella. She'll say, 'Gianni, don't worry, she's alway a little bit exaggerated.'"
Two weeks after Gianni's funeral, Donatella stunned everyone by showing up back at the office. "She's just so tough about everything," husband Paul Beck said admiringly at the time. "On a trip to California, she backed into a stove and burnt her hands," he said. "She never cried out, just sank to the floor. That's Donatella. She just keeps going."
Supporters of Allegra predict her saving grace will be that she is every inch her mother's daughter. As if to confirm this, Allegra reportedly rolled her eyes when she heard what Giorgio Armanisaid about her coming of age. Confessing he didn't know her personally, the man who once trashed the overtly flashy Gianni for turning fashion into a "porn show" declared: "I hope she can bring the house back to thesplendor of the years when her uncle was around."
Despite her hesitancy to jump into the family firm, few people who know the Versace family ethos doubt that Allegra will be earnestly involved in the running of the brand with the Medusa logo by the time she is 25.
Gianni, who fell in lovewith fashion as a toddler watching his dressmaker mother at work, never stopped lecturing hisniece about the wise words his mother used to lecture him."Keep business in the family; trust each other," she schooled herson who, when he launched his first label in 1978, hired Donatella and Santo as his first recruits. The real question hanging over Allegra's future as a prominent member of the international fashion community is whether or not the Versace family can manage to hold on to the financially shaky panties-to-perfume empire which currently consists of 166 boutiques and 20 associated companies.
Despite the last-minute reprieve of the crucial loan to cover its US$121m bond in time for last Monday's meeting, Santo and Daniela have their work cut out for them if they want to avoid being forced to be subsumed by a predatory luxury goods conglomerate like LVMH or the Gucci Group, each of which is rumoured to have had been involved in preliminary acquisition discussions after flirtations with Alberta Ferretti and Gucci's former dream team of CEO Domenico De Sole and des-igner Tom Ford came to nothing. Worldwide sales at Versace fell 17.2 per cent last year, to US$485m, according to this month's Fortune magazine, and while the company has aggressively cut costs (shuttering stores in London and Milan, slicing its advertising budget in half, and merging collections for runway shows) to focus all efforts on product design, the investors on Wall Street aren't at all convinced that Santo can deliver on his target to double turnover within four years by increasing the weight of accessories (from a current six per cent of revenues to 50 per cent) and doubling sales in the US, Japan and the Far East. Yet sources close to the Versace family say a sell-out isn't on the cards - though Allegra's presence is.
As analyst David Wolf says, the positioning of Allegra as the face of the firm would fit perfectly with the natural strategy of attracting the next generation of Versace followers. "She has pizzazz, she's outgoing. And all the status labels that have been reinvented for a second stab at big success have had a younger person at the helm," Wolf points out, naming Eliza Reed who is working close with her step-father Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera Jr who works on developing her mother's company.
"The world of pop culture is run by 18-year-olds, and fashion is infinitely tied to pop culture," Wolf argues. "You don't have a CZ Guest leading fashion today - instead it's Mary-Kate and Ashley."