Those who tuned into American Crime Story’s current season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, expecting episodes centered on the late fashion designer may have been disappointed to realize the drama does not hinge on Versace as much as on his murderer, Andrew Cunanan. But Wednesday’s episode, “Ascent,” takes audiences inside Versace’s empire, finally showcasing the fiery relationship between Gianni and sister Donatella that preceded his 1997 death, and Donatella’s insecurity as a designer in the years when her brother was ill.
Deborah Ball’s 2010 book House of Versace: The Untold Story of Genius, Murder, and Survival shed additional light on the complicated power dynamic between Gianni and his 10-years-younger sister Donatella. Gianni had known as a child that fashion was his first love, studying from his dressmaker mother and treating Donatella as his doll—creating clothes for her, encouraging her to bleach her hair, and shaping her as the mascot of his brand. Donatella’s professional trajectory was less clear, so she allowed her brother to steer her in adulthood as he had in childhood. As Ball put it, “Donatella filled an indefinable role of muse, sounding board, and first assistant. . . . Donatella became Gianni’s shadow in the atelier [and] had a great knack for sizing up a dress or a pair of pants or a color palette and deciding whether it had that mysterious quality that would make it trendy.”
Donatella considered Gianni to be the creative genius and Gianni considered Donatella to be his gut. Their relationship was so enmeshed that Gianni had said, “I think if I were to marry I would look for a girl like Donatella. Our friendship was from when we were children. We were always together.” Meanwhile, Italian fashion journalist Giusi Ferre explained the sibling dynamic to Ball in another way: “She was his passport into the world of women. She was his female alter ego.”
Though she has always projected a larger-than-life aura given her exaggerated look—bleach-blonde hair, bronzed skin, heavy makeup, and audacious clothing—Ball wrote that Donatella “was a serial self-belittler, homing in on every last physical imperfection. She charmed people by betraying a bit of her vulnerability, but her insecurities unbalanced her.” Even by 2007, once she had righted her family’s fashion empire, the New Yorker’sLaura Collins noted that she critiqued herself often, peppering the conversation with statements like, “I am petrified,” “I get very anxious,” and “I have a major talent to lose things.”
During the years when Gianni was sick—whether with a form of ear cancer, as the family maintains, or with H.I.V., as Vanity Fair contributor Maureen Orth claimed—Donatella found herself reluctantly taking the reins of the company. She explained her role as intermediary in a 2006 interview with New York magazine: “I was going up into his apartment, showing him the work, getting the approval from him, but I ran the company because he wasn’t showing himself. It was like a year and a half I did everything . . . [That way of running the company was more] convenient for me, when I was next to Gianni, because Gianni was the one with all the responsibility, taking all the criticism. It was a more comfortable position.”
In spite of her experience shadow-directing the company when Gianni was alive, Donatella found herself ill-equipped to fully take over after her brother was murdered in 1997. And her self-critical nature spiraled to the point that she paralyzed herself with fear and anxiety.
“I realize[d] that all the eyes of the world were on top of me, and really, people didn’t believe I was going to pull through,” Donatella told New York in 2006. “All these people depending on me, their jobs on my shoulders, to live up to Gianni’s dream. I’m going to fuck up everything Gianni did?”
“Gianni’s death left Donatella, who was essentially an unprepared understudy, with awesome responsibility,” wrote the New Yorker. “She is charged with designing not only men’s and women’s clothing for four apparel brands (Versace, Versace Atelier, Versace Collection, and Versace Jeans Couture) but a host of lucrative ‘life-style products’ (among them perfume, watches, belts, couches, dishes, eyeglasses, shoes, bags, and scarves). For the Versace line alone, Donatella produces twelve collections a year.”
Before Versace’s first fashion show after Gianni’s death, Donatella warned press to lower their expectations, telling them,“I would like to be judged for what I am doing, not compared to him. If you compare me to him, I can only fall short.’”
“The thing that killed me the most was to show this strong façade in front of everybody because I wasn’t strong at all,” Donatella told New York. “I was going home and crying tears.” The designer confessed to The Guardian, “For the first five years [after Gianni’s death] I was lost. I made a lot of mistakes.” One of which was numbing her tremendous pain with drugs.
“When you use cocaine every day, your brain doesn’t work anymore,” Donatella told Vogue in 2005. “I was crying, laughing, crying, sleeping—I couldn’t understand when I was talking; people couldn't understand me. . .I was aggressive; my voice was always high. I was scaring [my family] to death; my children were petrified of me.” Her professional decisions were as erratic as her personal ones—and the Versace brand identity wavered. The company posted losses of $7.1 million in 2002.
In 2004—seven years after her brother’s death—Donatella’s good friend Elton John, daughter Allegra, and son Daniel staged an intervention, and persuaded the designer to get treatment for her addiction. After she was sober, Donatella turned around her company by installing a new C.E.O., Giancarlo Di Risio, who returned the brand to profitability, and finally trusting her voice.
“I had been listening to everyone else, and then I realized, who was the person my brother listened to? Me,” Donatella told The Guardian in 2017, looking back on her professional turning point. “I worked with him every day. I was much more than a muse. It was a dialogue between us. We discussed everything.”
She told the same outlet that if she were to give her younger self any advice in those year’s following her brother’s murder, it would be simple: “Be strong, and stay true to yourself. . .But most of all, follow your own instincts, and don’t try to be Gianni.”
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