Were it not for the tragedy which took place on July 15, 1997, Donatella Versace might still be a bit player on the world's fashion stage. But the death of her brother Gianni, who was gunned down outside his Miami mansion, propelled her into the limelight. In a few short years, she boosted the Milanese fashion house into the stratosphere, helping make Versace the label of choice for celebrities the world over.
Born in the Italian town of Reggio di Calabria in 1955, the daughter of a businessman and a dressmaker to the aristocracy, Donatella was the youngest of four children. Although Gianni was a decade her senior, the two were close, and by the age of 11 Donatella was accompanying her brother to discos and nightclubs. "Gianni was the wildest," she once told an interviewer, "Then he pushed me to be wild. Now I'm the wilder one; it's his fault."
After attending Florence University in the Seventies, Donatella joined Gianni's fledgling fashion company. She started out handling his PR, but her involvement went much deeper, and many credit her with being his muse, as her input was constant. "If my sister wants to do something, okay," Gianni once told Vanity Fair. "If she doesn't like a sketch, I will cancel it."
It was Donatella who came up with the idea of using well-known models for the catwalk shows, knowing it would generate more press coverage for the Versace label, and in the Nineties she was given carte blanche to design a new line, Versus. With her unerring feel for the Zeitgeist, Donatella, who loved to frequent nightspots, was invaluable to Gianni for her ability to tap into what the younger generation craved.
Gianni's murder changed Donatella's life forever. Her first reaction was to take the family off to a private resort in the Caribbean where they could mourn the loss of the designer together. The Spring-Summer 98 collection was cancelled.
Then Donatella had a blinding realisation: the show must go on. Gianni had told his sister perhaps after he was diagnosed with ear cancer in the early Nineties that if anything were to happen to him, she was to take over.
So she did. Her first collection, attended by a host of celebrities, was a triumph. But in typical Donatella fashion she credited its success to the seamstresses and models, and dedicated the show to, "Gianni's love of work and to our entire staff, whose incredible love and devotion was so precious to our brother and means so much to us."
Donatella brought a new sensibility to the house of Versace. These days, the label is more in tune with the modern career woman, as the former muse has taken her inspiration from the lives of friends such as Madonna, Trudie Styler, Naomi Campbell and Courtney Love. And, while the hemlines might not have dropped along with the price tags, collections display more variety while retaining her brother's original ethos.
With profits looking good and rave reviews in the fashion press, Donatella is riding high. She has two children, Allegra, born in 1986, to whom Gianni bequeathed the lion's share of his multi-million dollar estate, and Daniel, three years his sister's junior. The fashion house head is married to Paul Beck, a former model, although the two generally live separate lives.
With houses just about everywhere not to mention the five-star Versace hotels that are springing up all over the globe Donatella leads the peripatetic life only the truly rich can achieve. With diamonds that are "bigger than a very big grape, but smaller just than an apricot" according to the Daily Telegraph, Donatella is excessive glamour personified.
Her credo can be summed up by her reaction to a journalist who asked her if she ever contemplated changing her trademark white-blonde hair back to its natural colour. "Natural? What is natural?" she shuddered in response. "What is that? Natural is not about the hair or the face. I do not believe in totally natural for women. Rubbish! For me, natural has something to do with food, something to do with vegetables."