Heritage

Family Tragedy: Inside the Versace Drama

Gianni Versace and his sister Donatella built one of the great style dynasties. Now Penelope Cruz and Edgar Ramirez star in fashion's most fascinating-and heartbreaking-saga.
IMAGE TOM MUNRO
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You would often hear him before you saw him: a muffled baritone in the brocade-lined suites of the Paris Ritz or a booming echo down the marble neoclassical corridors of the palazzo at number 12 Via Gesu? in Milan. “Do-na-TEL-la!” he would bellow, as he strode regally through a warren of makeshift cutting tables, observing the team of seamstresses bent over gossamer layers of Swarovski-studded tulle and silk, guiding the layers of fabric through the relentless staccato rhythm of sewing machines.

Gianni! Gianni! They would turn their faces to gaze reverently at the master, Gianni Versace, the Italian designer and couturier who was murdered at age 50 on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion, Casa Casuarina. He was loved by his family and his staff—his family often was his staff—and the legions of fashion editors, models, and buyers who swarmed to his radiant light. Gianni was a fashion designer, but his world—his profession, really—was show business.


Penelope Cruz, who plays Donatella Versace in The Assassination Of Gianni Versace, wears an Oscar De La Renta Dress ($4,990); Christian Louboutin Shoes ($1,095); and Ana Khouri Ear Cuff ($4,846).

He broke the rules of French haute couture, showing his collections of chain mail dresses and denim shirts paired with ball gowns on top of the swimming pool at the Ritz. He shattered the stuck-up class consciousness of Milanese ready-to-wear by setting up shop on the ultratraditional Via Gesu and then inviting celebrities like Madonna, Elton John, and Tupac Shakur to sit in the front row. He defined the cultural zeitgeist one supermodel at a time, sending Linda, Christy, and Naomi marching down his runway to the exuberant chorus of George Michael’s “Freedom.”

Gianni was a fashion designer, but his world—his profession, really—was show business.

For a brief moment in the 1990s Versace was the king of fashion. Prince showed up at his afterparties. Richard Avedon shot his ad campaigns. Princess Diana wore his dresses. He obsessed over what was new but took inspiration from antiquity. His logo was the head of the Medusa, and every label and shopping bag featured a Grecian frieze inspired by his hometown of Reggio Calabria, which was once an ancient Greek colony.

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Art, music, theater, dance, and classical sculpture all infused Versace’s daily life, whether he was in Lake Como, Miami, or Milan. He was inspired by Byzantine mosaics, by the three-dimensional works of Alexander Calder, and by the gutsy glamour of his sister Donatella, his lifelong muse and consigliere.

He designed stage costumes for Tina Turner’s concerts and for Maurice Bejart’s ballets. In his flagship stores on the Faubourg St. Honore? and Fifth Avenue, Versace hung works by Frank Stella and Julian Schnabel. He splashed Andy Warhol’s famous pop portraits on dresses and leggings, and he manipulated the punk rock imagery of the Sex Pistols into the vision of Elizabeth Hurley in a slip of a dress held together with giant gold safety pins.


Edgar Ramirez, who plays Gianni Versace in The Assassination Of Gianni Versace, wears a Prada robe and pants (prices upon request) and Dolce & Gabbana shirt ($995).

“I think it’s the responsibility of the designer to try to break the rules and barriers,” Versace once said. “I’m a little like Marco Polo going around and mixing cultures.” He was a rule breaker when taking on that role in Italian fashion was risky business, especially for a working-class kid from the south.

At a time when AIDS and homosexuality were mentioned only sotto voce, Versace lived his life as a publicly gay man. Most of all, he was kind and he cared deeply about family. At the end of every couture show at the Paris Ritz he would take his bow and stop to thank each model.

Versace’s passion for life and for his work is ultimately what made his tragic and untimely death so surreal. In fact, it’s strange to think that Gianni Versace has not been here for the last 20 years to witness the way his intoxicating mixture of rock and royalty has come to define today’s celebrity culture. The latest installment of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story on FX, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” airing now, brings that pivotal 1990s moment rushing back, with vivid portrayals of the designer and his sister by Edgar Ramirez and Penelope Cruz.

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From the series’s opening sequence, when Ramirez walks through the ornate boiseried dressing room at Casa Casuarina, lifts a pink silk bathrobe off of its hanger, and steps out onto the balcony to survey South Beach’s sun-drenched Ocean Drive, the show oozes the kind of louche ’90s glamour Versace helped create.

He saw the sexiness of the 1970s and the opulence of the 1980s, and he mixed them. Glamour and sexuality had never been married like that. —Edgar Ramirez

The glimmering highs and dark lows of celebrity culture are telegraphed in the details and drama of every scene, from Donatella taking in the crime scene for the first time, sunglasses firmly planted on her Roman nose, to Gianni walking freely down Collins Avenue, not a bodyguard in sight, greeting friends and strangers alike. You can almost smell the blend of cigarettes and sex when Versace huddles with friends in the VIP room of a nightclub as the heavy disco beat of “Gloria” thumps away and his killer approaches.


Cruz wears a Fendi Dress ($9,850); Christian Louboutin Shoes ($2,995); and Ana Khouri Ear Cuff ($5,870).

“Versace was living in a time that he helped create,” says Rami?rez, who prepared for the role by researching the designer’s impact on 1990s fashion and culture. “He was a visionary and a disrupter, and we’re experiencing an era that he helped create aesthetically. He saw the sexiness of the 1970s and the opulence of the 1980s, and he mixed them. Glamour and sexuality had never been married like that. There were no designers expressing that rock ’n’ roll approach to couture before Gianni—this mix of sexuality and celebrity. The current obsession with fame started with Gianni.”

In many ways, Versace was born to be a designer. He and his siblings were raised by their dressmaker mother and coal merchant father in Reggio Calabria, on the toe of the boot of Italy. Gianni spent his youth watching his mother and her studio of 45 seamstresses sew.

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He made his first dress at the age of nine, and later, after studying architectural drafting, he went to work for his mother. At 26 he moved north to Milan and designed for various clothing brands, including Genny, Callaghan, and Complice.

By 1978 he had his own fashion house and was showing sexy dresses in leather and lace in Milan’s Palazzo della Permanente. A boutique soon followed on the fashionable Via della Spiga.

In the 1970s, being a southern Italian outsider in Milan was not easy. Catty competitors whispered about Versace’s over-the-top shows and the abundance of sex appeal on his runways. This was puritanical Milan at a time when Giorgio Armani’s corporate armor reigned supreme. Versace was challenging that aesthetic with a big smile.

He ignored the criticism and surrounded himself with family and friends for protection. “In the middle of all of his creative exuberance, Versace was mainly focused on his family,” says Ramirez, who was surprised by this seeming contradiction in the designer’s character.


Donatella Versace, seen here with Gianni in 1988 in Lake Como.

“He was a family guy, and very few people then would imagine how much this meant to him. They think of his celebrity and the parties and the clothes and the vitality of the brand, but very seldom would they relate all of this to a man who would go to bed very early and focus mainly on his work and his family. That was a very important trait of his personality. It is very Italian, but when you think that there was only one designer who defied convention so much, in a way that was completely out of the norm.”

Of course, Italian families have always been powerful in fashion, from the Fendi sisters in Rome to the Ferragamo family in Florence and the Missoni clan outside Milan. There were other fashion “families,” too, not blood relations necessarily but designers and their business partners who worked together so long they felt related. The Valentinos in Rome and Paris, for example, including Valentino, his longtime business partner Giancarlo Giammetti, and their socialite muses Georgina Brandolini and Marina Cicogna.

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Italian luxury companies like Bulgari, Buccellati, and Cipriani are also controlled by powerful families. At times all this melding of family and business could take on operatic if not comic proportions. As Versace himself put it in 1986, “I am a bit like Fellini: I like my family around me.”

To me, Donatella is like a heroine. In the middle of this horrific thing—of losing him in such a horrible way—she has to take care of this empire and be so strong when she had so much pain. —Penelope Cruz

As in every family, each Versace sibling had a role: Santo, the eldest, the serious one; Gianni, the enfant terrible; Donatella, Gianni’s accomplice. Gianni was famous for talking about his relatives—his sister and brother but also his nieces and nephews, for whom he often would say he built his company. He treated each seamstress and front row celebrity like family, too. And he loved to say that with such a group “you can fight at six o’clock and have a nice dinner at eight.”

“I could relate to that family emotion,” Cruz says. “Italian and Spanish people are similar in that way. It’s like what I have with my brother and sister. Donatella, Santo, and Gianni, what they had together they started together, and that family passion is very tight.”


On Cruz, Dolce & Gabbana jumpsuit (price on request); Christian Louboutin Shoes (price on request); Chopard Earrings (worn throughout, price on request). On Ramirez, Armani Shirt($545), and pants ($825); Giuseppe Zanotti loafers($810); Eleuteri pinkie ring (Worn throughout, $55,000).

In many ways, it was the close ties of the Versaces that made the designer’s death so devastating, particularly for Donatella. “My brother was the king, and my whole world crashed around me,” Donatella said in the aftermath of Gianni’s murder.

Indeed, Donatella had always been the party girl, the muse, the one who befriended celebrities and never wanted to become a designer herself. Cruz plays her devastation and conflict with a perfect balance of solemnity and extravagance. In one of the first scenes in the series, we watch the steps of Donatella’s private plane descend slowly before we see her; this small detail captures the drama and isolation and, ultimately, the glamour of being Gianni’s sister in that moment.

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“It was such a devastating time,” Cruz says. “Versace was at the pinnacle of fashion, and they were such a close family. So for Donatella to lose so much and have to then take over the company was very emotional.”

Before accepting the role, Cruz called Donatella to get her blessing. “To me, she is like a heroine. She is somebody who we all know had such a close relationship with her brother. He was so important to her, and then in the middle of this horrific thing—of losing him in such a horrible way—she didn’t even have the time to deal with that, because she has to take care of this empire and be so strong when she had so much pain,” says Cruz, who worked with a coach to perfect Donatella’s signature growl.

“She has demonstrated in so many ways in her life how to be an incredible woman.”

To honor her brother and the 20th anniversary of his death, Donatella staged a tribute collection in Milan last fall with a retrospective—or reinterpretation—of his iconic fashions. She reimagined the floral printed silk shirts and knife pleat skirts, the animal prints mixed with Medusas, and the gold chain mail dresses Versace made famous. She dove into the archives and recreated 12 classic prints—including the leopard print called “animaliere,” the “Baroque” gold squiggles, and the “Warhol” print of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.


Donatella Versace, center, walks the runway last fall with Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Helena Christensen.

But merely recreating the clothes was not enough. She had to somehow recapture the moment—the excitement of 1990s glamour. So she called her supermodel friends and hired them all to walk the runway. Out came Claudia Schiffer, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Helena Christensen—five of the original pack who were part of Versace’s ’90s crew and who helped the designer elevate his couture shows to pop culture events.

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At the end of Donatella’s tribute, the models created a tableau at the foot of the runway, posed like Greek statues in their chain mail dresses, leonine waves of hair cascading down their backs. And then Donatella appeared to take her bow, and they marched forward together, as if not a minute had gone by—nothing had changed—since the mid-’90s supermodel apogee.

The audience went crazy, jumping to its feet. An avalanche of Instagram posts followed. It was a classic fashion moment and an emotional recognition of how influential Versace had been and how far Donatella had come as the steward of her brother’s brand.

More than the supermodels and the sexy clothes, though, that last scene on the runway was a reminder of something much bigger: Joy was the ineffable Versace ingredient—combined with glamour and sex and over-the-top exuberance. With all of his intensity and drama and talent and confidence and warmth, Gianni Versace brought joy to fashion.

Photographs by Tom Munro, Styled by Nicoletta Santoro

Hair and makeup by Pablo Iglesias for Talents using Nars and Bumble & Bumble. Grooming by Rebecca Martin NYC. Nails by Lucero Hurtado for OPI. Tailoring by Beatriz Santiago. Produced by AlanaCompany.

This story appears in the March 2018 issue of Town & Country. 

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