Inside the iconic Versace family's journey through fame, tragedy, and resilience

  • The Versace family, one of the most powerful families in fashion, according to Harper’s Bazaar, has seen a lot of success since the Versace brand’s founding in 1978. But the family has also seen its share of tragedy.
  • Versace has been a family-owned company for more than 40 years. It was founded by Gianni Versace and later run by his brother Santo Versace, his sister Donatella Versace, and his niece Allegra Versace Beck.
  • The iconic fashion designer Gianni Versace was shot and killed on July 15, 1997, outside his Miami mansion, by the serial killer and crazed fan Andrew Cunanan.
  • He was survived by Donatella and Santo and their children. Gianni was especially close with Donatella’s daughter, Allegra.
  • Donatella, Santo, and Allegra together became the sole heirs to the company after Gianni’s death, whether they wanted to be in the fashion industry or not.
  • In 2018, Michael Kors Holding Group, now known as Capri Holdings, acquired the Versace fashion house for more than $US2 billion.
  • Here’s what we know about the Versace family’s journey through fame, tragedy, and resilience.


Gianni Versace was born in December 1946 in Calabria, Italy, into a family with an entrepreneurial seamstress as its matriarch.

Source: Encyclopædia Britannica


Francesca Versace — the mother of Gianni, his sister Donatella, and his brother Santo — had very little money in Calabria but used what she had to start an atelier, Donatella told The New Yorker. Gianni grew up watching her work and designed his first dress at age 10, according to WWD.

David Lees/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: The New Yorker, WWD


In 1972, after he graduated from high school, Gianni moved to Milan to work under various designers, one of whom was Mario Valentino.

Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Encyclopædia Britannica


Six years later, in 1978, Gianni started his own fashion company, Gianni Versace S.p.A. Donatella moved to Milan to be with him, learn from him, and serve as his muse. She began to help with clothing design as well.

christophe thorimbert/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Encyclopædia Britannica


When it came to fashion shows, Gianni pioneered the concept of filling the front row with celebrities and industry “it” people. Friends such as Elton John and Madonna always attended his shows …

Images Press/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, GQ


… and he paid top models such as Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Cindy Crawford so much that the word “supermodel” was invented just for them.

Ken Faught/Contributor/Getty ImagesFrom left: Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Gianni Versace, Christy Turlington.

Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, GQ


The Versace brand became synonymous with tasteful sexy luxury wear. The gown Gianni designed for Elizabeth Hurley in the 1990s made her the topic of conversation at the time, and her acting career took off after that moment.

Dave Benett/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: WWD


In 1994, Donatella became the head designer of Versace’s Versus line — a sort of experimental line that would challenge fashion norms at the time. The line later saw collaborations from the likes of designers Christopher Kane and JW Anderson.

Source: The New Yorker, Business of Fashion


Little by little, Versace became more of a lifestyle brand, selling everything from bedsheets to tableware.

Katie Collins – PA Images/Contributor/Getty Images

The brand was arguably at its peak in the mid ’90s. It had become iconic with its loud prints and Medusa mascot.

Source: CR Fashion Book, The Guardian


But then, on July 15, 1997, Gianni was killed outside his home in Miami. He was 50 years old.

Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Contributor/Getty Images

As the designer for his eponymous fashion house, Gianni left behind a giant legacy. He’s been called a legend and a genius by many.

Source: The New Yorker, GQ


Before he was shot by the serial killer Andrew Cunanan, Gianni was treated for a rare inner-ear cancer. The treatment was successful, but during treatment, he prepared a last will and testament in case he died.

Source: Ssense, The New Yorker


The will confirmed Donatella’s 20% stake in the fashion company — she was already serving as the company’s creative director and became the artistic director after Gianni’s death.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Source: Ssense, The New York Times


Their brother, Santo Versace, who was already serving as president of the company and later became chairman, received a 30% stake in the company.

Jacopo Raule/Contributor/Getty ImagesSanto Versace.

Source: Refinery29, Ssense, The New York Times, Bloomberg


And Donatella’s daughter, Allegra Versace Beck — Gianni’s niece — received the remaining 50% of the company, even though she was only 11 years old at the time.

Dave Benett/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Ssense


Donatella told Ssense that Gianni “idolized” her daughter and called her “my little princess.”

Dave Benett/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Ssense


Gianni also had a nephew from Donatella, Daniel Beck. Gianni left Daniel his art collection, which includes two pieces by Picasso.

Roberto Baretti/Stringer/Getty Images

Source: The New Yorker, Ssense


Donatella told Michael Ebert and Sven Michaelsen of Ssense that when she first heard the news that her brother had died, “the world stood still.”

Source: Ssense


Donatella told Ssense she was in Rome with her children at the time. She was preparing for a fashion show in the ancient city — the show was postponed because of mourning.

Wikimedia CommonsThe show was set to be on the city’s iconic Spanish Steps.

Source: Ssense, Los Angeles Times


She told Ssense her two children were supposed to be in the hotel room watching cartoons while she tried to figure out what happened, but the cartoons were interrupted by a breaking-news alert, and the kids “had seen their uncle lying in his blood.”

Patrick McMullan/Contributor/Getty ImagesFrom left, Allegra Versace Beck, Gianni, and Donatella’s son, Daniel Beck.

Source: Ssense


Donatella said that was the moment that changed her family’s outlook forever. “After that, everything is different, and the past fades,” she told Ssense.

Source: Ssense


Donatella became the new face of the Versace brand after her brother’s death. She had inherited only 20% of the company in Gianni’s will, but because Allegra was so young when she inherited half the company, Donatella was in charge of her shares until she turned 18.

Source: Ssense


Donatella told Ssense that this loophole was a “trick” that Gianni had included in his will that kept her from otherwise leaving the company in 1997.

Source: Ssense


The New York Post reported that when Allegra finally turned 18, she asked her family for more time away from the company. She told La Repubblica that she spent time working in the States with other designers and exploring more opportunities outside fashion.

Source: The New York Post, La Repubblica


The New York Post reported that Allegra felt guilty after Gianni died, telling her mother she should have been by her uncle’s side.

Source: The New York Post


The Guardian reported that as an 11-year-old, Allegra could not fully understand why her uncle chose her to take over the company.

Source: The New York Post, The Guardian


The New York Post reported that Donatella tried to help Allegra cope with the murder by organising counseling sessions, but Milan “fashion insiders” told the newspaper that the young girl was “never the same.”

Source: The New York Post


The New York Post reported that although Allegra had tried to stay away from the spotlight, the public made increasing speculations about her health as she came into adulthood.

Source: The New York Post, Reuters


In 2007, while Allegra was studying at Brown University, Donatella and Paul Beck — Allegra’s father — released a statement addressing their daughter’s health. They said she had been receiving the best medical care possible for anorexia and was “responding well.”

Source: Reuters


Allegra told La Repubblica she was “living in darkness” for so much of her life after the murder that she had no memories of her time with Gianni and said she couldn’t even remember what he looked like at times.

Source: La Repubblica


Allegra told La Repubblica that she loved the partial anonymity she had while living and working in the US. She studied art and theatre and worked backstage dressing actors and models.

Source: La Repubblica


But in 2011, at 24 years old, Allegra accepted her uncle’s inheritance and took her seat on Versace’s board.

Source: Bloomberg


Donatella said she also struggled after Gianni’s death and was addicted to cocaine at one point. She said she was constantly worried about disappointing Gianni and Versace customers.

Source: Ssense


During her early years at Versace, critics, including The New Yorker, called Donatella a mere “muse, mascot, and de-facto First Lady” to Gianni while he was still alive and running the company.

Source: The New Yorker


She told Ssense that she thought she couldn’t handle the pressure and turned to drugs shortly after Gianni’s death. Donatella told the publication she was in and out of a daze for the following 18 years, which made her even more self-conscious, she said.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Source: Ssense


“Who buys fashion from a weak, unstable designer who’s out of her mind because she takes drugs and therefore can’t stand herself?” Donatella told Ssense. “Nobody!”

Source: Ssense


To protect herself, Donatella said she created an alter ego. She told Ssense that she created a version of herself that was “cold and aloof, aggressive and scary.”

Source: Ssense


In the years after Gianni’s death, only people close to Donatella and the Versace family were able to see her sadness, Rupert Everett — a close friend of Donatella — wrote in his memoir “Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins.”

Source: The New Yorker


Everett said people wrote her off as being “brash” and a “diva.” He said they often overlooked her sadness and hurt, even when she “offered it, humbly and with dignity, in a conversation.”

Source: The New Yorker


The death of Gianni wasn’t the Versace family’s first time dealing with loss. The oldest of the four siblings, Fortunata Versace — whom the family called Tina — died at the age of 12.

Source: Romper, The New Yorker


Donatella told The New Yorker that Tina went to a carnival with her parents, Santo, and Gianni — Donatella was not yet born — where she fell, cut her knee, and contracted tetanus.

Evan Agostini/Invision via Associated Press

Source: Romper, The New Yorker


She said her sister was treated improperly with the wrong medicine and died 24 hours later.

Source: Romper, The New Yorker


“Sudden death is frequent in my family,” Donatella told The New Yorker.

Source: Romper, The New Yorker


She said that she always felt like she was born to be Tina’s replacement and that her mother “never recovered” from the loss of her first-born. Donatella was born three years after the incident in 1955.

Source: Refinery29, The New Yorker


Talking about her own experience as a mother, Donatella told The New Yorker, “I try to give my children quality time instead of quantity time.”

Source: The New Yorker


She said her children, Allegra and Daniel — along with several other close friends, including Elton John — were the reason she decided to go to rehab in 2004.

GIUSEPPE CACACE/Stringer/Getty Images

Source: The New Yorker


Part of Donatella’s post-treatment recovery from cocaine addiction was daily morning workouts, according to The New Yorker.

Source: The New Yorker


She told the magazine in 2007 that she jogs on the treadmill and lifts free weights — “but very, very low, because if I do too much weights my muscle gets bigger.”

Source: The New Yorker


While Donatella has a clear passion for the fashion industry, her older brother Santo does not. He told The New Yorker, “I work in fashion because Gianni was a talent.”

Mondadori Portfolio/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: The New Yorker


Otherwise, he said his real passion lies in charity. He said he is constantly thinking of the people who are “suffering” and in poverty.

Venturelli/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: The New Yorker


Both of Gianni’s surviving siblings, along with industry friends they have made over the years, have repeatedly honored him through the arts and their respective crafts.


On the 10th anniversary of Gianni’s death, Donatella, Santo, and Maurice Béjart — a choreographer Gianni had worked closely with on operas in the past — put together “Grazie, Gianni, con Amore,” (“Thank you, Gianni, with Love,”) an opera for Gianni.

Source: BBC News, The New Yorker


“It is the most beautiful gift I could do for him,” Donatella said. “He was a genius and a simple exhibition of his designs would have been banal.”

AFP Contributor/Contributor/Getty ImagesGianni, left, and Maurice Béjart.

Source: BBC News


The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute — in conjunction with Vogue — honored Gianni in its 1997 fashion installation. The exhibit, entitled “Gianni Versace,” showcased some of his most iconic looks.

Source: The Met


People have tried to document the life of the Versace family in books and television series throughout the years. Christopher Mason’s “Undressed,” a biography of Gianni, was scheduled to be published in 1999.

Mondadori Portfolio/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: The Washington Post, The New Yorker


While it was thought to be a biography of the late designer, fashion critic Cathy Horyn said it was more of an “unflattering portrait of the two surviving siblings.” The Versaces were able to stop its publication.

Mondadori Portfolio/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: The Washington Post


But the family wasn’t able to prevent the FX series “American Crime Story” from releasing “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” as its second season.

FX

Although Donatella gave the actress Penelope Cruz her blessing to portray her, she — along with her whole family — did not approve of the season.

FX

Source: E! News


Cruz told Giuliana Rancic on the Emmy Awards red carpet that without making a call to Donatella — a woman whom she “likes” and respects — she would not have been able to accept the role. She said Donatella told her she had nothing to do with the show but that if someone was going to play her, she was glad it was Cruz.

FX/’American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace’

Source: E! News


The family stands by its denunciation of the show, saying it’s an inaccurate portrayal of their brother’s life and his murder. Ryan Murphy, the show’s executive producer, said he thought his team was being kind to the family through the show’s portrayal of them.

FXDarren Criss as Gianni Versace’s murderer in ‘American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace.’

Source: Harper’s Bazaar, Business of Fashion


Donatella told Ssense that right after Gianni was shot, companies came to her asking her to sell them Gianni Versace S.p.A., saying things like, “None of your family will ever have to work again.”

Pool ARNAL/PAT / Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Ssense


But Donatella wouldn’t sell. She told Ssense, “My brother would not have wanted me to sell a single office chair. To him the company was family, and you don’t sell family.”

Catherine McGann / Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Ssense


But in 2014, they sold 20% of the company to the Blackstone Group — a private-equity firm — to help move Gianni Versace S.p.A. forward as a business. In 2016, Jonathan Akeroyd stepped in as CEO to overhaul people’s perception of the brand, which was not doing well at the time.

Darren Gerrish/Contributor/Getty ImagesFrom left: Christopher Kane, Donatella, Jonathan Akeroyd.

Source: Versace, WWD via Press Reader, Business of Fashion


Akeroyd proved to be a good addition to the team. Twenty years after Gianni died, Donatella managed to pull off what has been one of the biggest comebacks in the world of fashion — so much so that fashion journalists dubbed 2017 “the year of Versace.”

Victor VIRGILE/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: The Guardian


She paid homage to her brother’s loudest designs …

Catwalking/Contributor/Getty Images

… styles …

Victor VIRGILE/Contributor/Getty Images

… and prints …

Victor VIRGILE/Contributor/Getty Images

… and she even brought out the women he featured most to close the showing of her spring 2018 line in Milan.

Venturelli/Contributor/Getty ImagesThe line was shown in 2017 and would be in market for spring 2018.

While the Versace family has stayed busy by running the company from every angle — keeping it in the family — they sold all of their shares in the company to Michael Kors’ Capri Holdings company in 2018.

Source: The New Yorker, Business Insider


John Idol, the chairman and CEO of Capri Holdings, said in a statement after the group acquired Versace that the Italian fashion house “has represented the epitome of Italian fashion luxury.” He went on to call the brand timeless.

Scott Olson/Staff/Getty Images

Source: Forbes


Michael Kors Holdings — the company’s name before the Versace acquisition — purchased Versace for more than $US2.1 billion. Donatella will stay on as Versace’s chief creative officer, Santo remains chairman and president, and collectively their family now owns the equivalent of $US176 million of Capri Holdings in group stock.

Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Forbes, Business of Fashion, Bloomberg

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.