A quick heads up, there won't be any swearing in this episode, but there will be stilettos. OK, Erica, it's July 15th, 1997, and you're in Rome. Hmm, I'd prefer to visit in the fall, but OK. OK, well, you don't have a choice.
Your Donatella Versace, the vice president of one of the biggest fashion labels in the world. And right now you're scrambling to put the finishing touches on a fashion show that's going to air on Italian television. In twenty four hours, the heels on your stilettos are sinking into the hot cement. There's a heat wave in Rome, but you don't care. You've worn a five inch heel every day since you were 15. No reason to change.
Now I must have some serious lower back pain while when you're five, two and a fashion icon, you got to do what you got to do where your marching up and down Rome's iconic Spanish steps.
Normally the place would be packed with tourists getting gelato and taking photos. But today it's packed with models trying not to fall down. It's total mayhem, makeup artists, models and stylists running around like sugar crazed children. But you keep your cool. This isn't your first rodeo and you know what you're doing. You're like this home is too long. Piñata up. This needs about what kinds of eyeshadow is this? We're not at a death metal concert. I would never say that you might if you're Donatella.
She knows what she wants and she's got an amazing eye. The rehearsal wraps up, but the real work is just beginning. Back at the hotel, the crew has taken over two large spaces on the first floor. Donatella hurries into the models rooms and gets busy evaluating hair and the fit of plunging dresses, making sure all the models have scotch tape their breasts in place. Then her phone rings.
It's Gianni Versace. Donna tell his brother he's calling from Miami. It's just after 6:00 in the morning and he can't sleep. He's always like this the night before a show, even when he's not there. He's a perfectionist and he trusts no one but himself to know what will work. He peppers Donatella with questions, nitpicks every detail.
What dresses did she choose? What shoes, which model will wear what she snaps. You can't help me from there. And she hangs up the phone. Back in the day, she would have stopped everything for her brother's call and taken every note to heart. But in the last few years, she's learned to trust her gut. She knows what she's doing and she needs to focus. When he calls again 30 minutes later, Donatella ignores him. Back in Miami, Dwyane sets down the phone.
He's frustrated. He founded the Versace label, built it from scratch. How dare Donatella ignore him? Maybe some sunshine will calm him down. There's nothing quite so lovely as the early morning in Miami. Palm trees lining the wide streets, the sun bouncing off the ocean. Even after five years here, it still feels like paradise. He opens the door of Casa Kosal Arena, his palatial South Beach mansion, and steps out to greet the morning.
I've seen pictures of his house. It's insane.
I know, right? He's decorated every inch of the 35 room mansion with baroque mosaics, paintings by Picasso, busts of Medusa. It's campy and over-the-top and totally fabulous, just like everything Johnny does.
I mean, what else would you expect from a world famous fashion designer? Well, you might expect that he'd dress a little better today. He looks just like an average guy, white t shirt, black shorts and sandals. He probably figures no one will notice him. He's just running a quick errand.
He heads to a newsstand a few blocks away where for fifteen dollars he buys five magazines. Then he turns for home where he climbs the front steps and slips his key into the lock of his wrought iron gate. He's so busy fiddling with the lock that he doesn't notice the young man who crosses the street and walks toward him.
He doesn't hear the guy mount the cost five stone steps and he doesn't see what the kid is holding until it's too late. Meanwhile, back in Rome, Donatella is busy fitting a model when her brother Santo runs into the room, he says, Donatella, please come with me. She's annoyed. Santo knows how much she hates to be interrupted when she's working, but something about the look on his face makes her follow him into the hall. When he speaks, he's out of breath.
A lunatic shot Giani Donatello's heart drops, he says, Don't worry, he's already on the way to the hospital. He'll be OK. But Donatella isn't so sure. Even though she and Giani sometimes fight like cats and dogs, they have a special bond and something feels very wrong. She's on the verge of hysterics when she reaches Johnny's assistant. Is he dead? She yells. There's a pause and then the assistant says, Yes, Giani is dead. Donatella lets out a howl that echoes across the Spanish steps.
What is she going to do? She can't run the business without her brother. She's not even sure she can live without him. And then. She faints. We get support from Book of the Month, Book of the Month is a super popular and fast growing online book service for readers, and we are both big, big readers, huge readers.
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From London. I'm Brooke. And I'm Erica Skidmore Williams, and this is even the rich where we bring you absolutely true and absolutely shocking stories about the greatest family dynasties the world has ever seen. It's a show about power, how you get it, how you keep it, and what happens when you nearly lose it all.
It's also about how the rich are just like us, because even the rich love and cry and dream and struggle and order too much takeout from the Cheesecake Factory, because whatever. It's a brave new world out there.
Wow. So, Ereka, Brooke, I got to say, I just love this story.
It has everything we love about the rich, sprawling palazzos, brushes with celebrities and sky high stilettos. Hmm. Gianni Versace is one of the most iconic fashion designers in history, and the story of his death is pretty widely known. May he rest in peace? Yes. And we will talk about his murder. But the story I really want to tell you is about how three siblings from southern Italy built a fashion empire and how two of them fought to save it from ruin after Johnny's death.
Over the next four episodes, we're going to explore the rise and fall and rise again of the House of Versace. This is episode one, The Artist and the Muse. OK, Tricia, let's rewind a little to nineteen fifty five. Imagine you're in the city of Regio on the coast of southern Italy. It's isolated from the rest of the country in a region called Calabria.
It's a beautiful place. People sitting under colorful umbrellas, cafes with trays of fresh pastries in the window, open markets filled with eggplants, lemons and juicy ripe tomatoes.
You can smell the sea air on a busy street. In the middle of town is a small dress shop, and inside, a nine year old boy is dragging a giant bolt of floral fabric across the floor. His name is Gianni Versace and this is his mother's store. To him, it's the most magical place in the world. He loves staring at patterns, the feel of silk in his hands, the rat tat tat of sewing machines in the back.
And he loves the seamstresses who bustle around the back room, cutting out dresses by hand and doting on Giani.
What a good little assistant you are, one of them will say, pinching his cheek all day long.
They shout, Come here, Giani know and they send him hunting for pins or zippers when he's not running errands for the seamstresses. Gianni watches mesmerized as his mother fits a dress onto one of her clients. She tucks and folds the fabric to flatter her clients body, quickly fastening it with pins.
As she goes, she's transforming shapeless cloth into something beautiful. This is his happy place where he's surrounded by everything he loves.
I mean, with that description, that would be my happy place. Jeanny, shouldn't you go outside and play with the other boys? It's his mother, Franka, no, mama. He says, I don't want to I want you to show me how to make clothes.
That's actually a conversation he and his mother are going to have a lot over the years. Well, his mother adored him with all her heart. She couldn't help but worry. Shouldn't he be doing boy things again? This is the 50s and things were different. Gianni Versace isn't like other little boys. It's not just his fascination with making clothes or hanging out at his mom's dress shop. He's just different. He doesn't like fishing or soccer or rock'em sock'em robots.
Giani prefers dressmaking and sketching and clothes. Let's just say he doesn't exactly fit into a town like Regio, which is this totally macho old world city about as far from the center of the fashion universe as you can get.
When I was growing up, I thought the center of the fashion universe was the hot topic at the Annapolis Mall, where I'm assuming everything you bought was mint green just like now.
Actually, I was into purple. So Johnny has an older brother that his teacher and parents hold up as an example of how they think boys should be. His name is Santo. He has dark blond hair and he's athletic and outgoing. Unlike Johnny, who's skinny and shy while their mother loves all the children equally, Johnny is pretty sure his dad likes Santo best, probably because his dad is always saying stuff like, Why can't you be more like. OK, so that's about as obvious as you get.
Yeah. Santo is serious about school. He's on track to go to the university and get a business job.
Johnny is a slacker, a dreamer who has no idea what his future holds, although he secretly hopes it involves making clothes. He's a sensitive kid. He has a high pitched voice and when he gets to high school, other kids start to avoid him because in their eyes he's different. It probably doesn't help that he calls his classmates out when their socks clash with their outfits, which, if you ask me, he's just doing the Lord's work. He always sits in the back of the classroom filling his notebook with sketches, women with giant boobs and tiny waists like the Italian stars he sees in the movies.
The teacher is concerned, and one day she calls in his mom for a parent teacher conference.
I'm trying to imagine what that would be like.
I picture her wearing like silk stockings and sensible shoes. Let's hope they match.
Senora, I have something very important to show you. Whatever. Could it be a Santa run for school president and won by a landslide majority? No, no, senora. I'm afraid it's about your other son. He drew this. Oh, wait.
Is that Sophia Loren?
No, it's a drawing done by a sex maniac. I'm pretty sure that Sophia Loren. Wow, he's pretty good. My boy has such talent.
So what's sort of ironic here is that Johnny doesn't even like girls, at least not in a sexual way. He's gay. But in the 1960s, being gay was taboo. So Johnny hid his sexuality.
A few gay friends knew, but all they talked about was how much they wanted to leave. It was lonely. The only time he feels like he can be himself is when he's in the dress shop or sketching clothing ideas.
But the cool thing is, as he gets older, his mom is now sending him on fabric buying missions. It's his first real taste of life beyond regio alone. And it's glorious. Bigger towns connected to even bigger cities like Milan and Rome, places where women's taste is more bold than regio.
Giannis like why bother with school when there's so much more out there when it's time to take his final exams for high school, he doesn't even show up which means he automatically flunked out.
Oh I bet his father was pissed. Oh yeah. Without a high school degree he doesn't have a lot of prospects. His dad wants him to go to trade school and become a surveyor, which I couldn't even bring myself to look up because it sounds so boring. But his mom, Franka, isn't about to let him fail. She comes to the rescue. She decides to open a fashion boutique next door to her workshop and she puts Jeanny in charge.
Imagine you're a beautiful young woman living in Regio in the 1960s, and today you're going shopping. There's a new boutique in town, and if the rumors are true, this shop is like nothing Regio has ever seen before.
Even its name sounds exotic. El DeFrancesco, Versace. Oh, wow. You're right.
What does that mean? It doesn't really mean anything. It's his mom's name and Johnny just stuck Elle in there because it sounds classy. Hmm. OK, now I want to open a store called Vogue. The Reesha Skidmore. Williams.
Yeah, that rolls right off the tongue. Thank you.
Well, right now you're a young Italian woman who's desperate for an outfit that will make you stand out. You pull open the shop's front door inside.
It's like nothing you've ever seen. Actually, it's like nothing you've ever felt. Your body is cool. Oh, my God.
You think this is the first shop I've ever been in that has air-Conditioning? A shop girl comes over to you and hands you a drink. You look around, there's a skinny man in the corner hunched over something, a stereo in a store.
Your mind is blown. No shop in town plays music while you shop. This is big. The young man introduces himself as Giani and as you talk, he makes you feel like you're the only person in the world and he wants to make you look fabulous. He pulls a few dresses off the racks, holds them up to you and nods. You've never seen dresses like this in your life. The fabrics are luxurious, the cuts are dramatic and yes, a little bit sexy.
Basically, you're in heaven. There's only one problem. I'm broke. No, there's a woman in the corner who's kind of glaring at you, so she must be jealous. I'm hogging Johnny's attention. Not quite. It's Johnny's mom and she's not mad that he's fawning over you. She always taught her son to treat customers like royalty. She's concerned about the dresses he's having you try on. She told him to stick with classic looks. Regio is a simple place with simple tastes.
But what did Johnny do?
He stocked the shop with dresses from daring new designers. Franka is pissed. She told him no one would buy this modern crap except for me and all the other young women in Reggio.
Giani has this gift for seeing what suits different figures, and pretty soon he's making clothes himself, he's not selling them yet, but when he goes on buying trips, he brings his sketches to show buyers. And one day someone bites and knitwear company in Tuscany. It's his chance to get out of Regio. And it could be his first step into the bigger world of fashion. But it means he'll have to leave home and his mother, and most difficult of all, his little sister, Donatella.
Donatella. I was wondering when she'd show up.
Well, she's 10 years younger, so she doesn't show up until he's 10 years old. But he adores her from the start. The whole family does. She has a round face and big dark eyes. And Johnny loves taking her to the beach and a little bassinet. As she gets older, the two of them develop this special relationship like an impenetrable sibling bond. There are a lot of like shy, creative and a little bit weird. It's like they're cut from the same cloth.
See how I did that? The sewing metaphor. Yeah, that was a.. Thank you.
They both have these fiery spirits and love new adventures, and they've been attached at the hip ever since Johnny died. Donatella hair blonde when she was 11 years old. Well, I mean, once you find a hair stylist that does what you like, you never let them go.
Yeah, exactly. She was pretty much the only person he told he was gay and she was completely unfazed. She's like, who cares? And he says, you're right. Let's celebrate. We can dye your hair. So you look like Patty. Bravo, Patty Bravo.
Is this totally fabulous Italian pop singer who has platinum blonde hair and wears these bejeweled blazers with giant feathery cuffs.
Donatella is like, OK, the hairdresser does his best, but it's not easy to dye dark hair blonde, Pritch, someone who has dark hair that cannot go blonde when he's done.
Donatella squinch is up her face and is like, I don't look like Patty. Bravo. Johnny turns to the hairdresser. She doesn't look anything like Barry Bravo. And they start to chant Blonder, blonde, blonde.
And that's how Donatella Versace ends up completely platinum blonde.
It will become her trademark in life. Donatella means everything to Johnny. He calls her his muse. Johnny loves to dress her up. When he goes on buying trips, he brings back bold new clothes. No one else would wear mini skirts, animal print tops. Anything he puts on her looks better than it did on the rack. Johnny doesn't just adore his little sister. She is his greatest inspiration. And now if he takes this opportunity, he'll have to leave her.
He's not sure what to do. So he turns to someone.
He looks up to his brother Santo, the practical child with a head for business. And of course, Santo says he'll help. Family is everything. He looks at the contract from the knitwear company and says you can do better. They'll be lucky to have you. And then he gets him a really sweet deal.
As Johnny packs his bags, he's excited. He promises Donatella they'll stay in touch and maybe when she grows up, she can join him.
And just like that, Gianni Versace leaves home for the very first time and heads into the big world. He's twenty five years old.
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So what did he do? He made lemonade out of lemons, or in this case, he wove nets into braided fabrics. No one had done it before. And his collection was a hit. It gave Jeanny a confidence boost, but it also made him wonder, what am I doing in Tuscany?
He felt like he was still on the outskirts of the fashion industry. He knew that if he really wanted to make his mark, then he needed to be where the action is. And that's Milan. Fashion houses are popping up and models who can't get jobs in Paris or New York are showing up on the scene. The timing couldn't be better for an aspiring young designer like Jihadi. Johnny's new apartment building is called the Principessa Clotilda. But because most of his neighbors are wannabe models, the building has another nickname, Princess Clitoris.
OK, I have a lot of questions live. Probably can't answer them. Well, that's fine. I'll just sit here and imagine a very sensitive Italian Melrose Place, but with way more sex.
Hard to imagine more sex than the original Melrose Place. So he spent his whole life dreaming of a place that felt alive. And now he's arrived. But the hip Milanese fashion set doesn't take kindly to strangers, especially strangers like Giani who come from the south. In Italy, the northerners look down on the southerners. They make fun of Japanese accent. They call him a peasant. It's a painful reminder that he's an outsider. Somehow, less than so, he gets busy with his own transformation.
He practices speaking like a northerner, loses his accent and cuts off all ties with his few friends from home. Even with his new image, it still takes him a few months to get a job offer.
It's from a label called Gennie.
They specialize in modest dresses and skirts for like baptisms and weddings. They want Jeanny to revamp their line. He's probably expecting he'll knock their socks off just like he did in Tuscany. But Jenny is a big label and the other designers are in another league. Unlike Giani, they've all had logit training. Their clothing sketches are perfect, while his are boxy and Rasht looking. The other designers make complete patterns before sewing their dresses. Giani only knows how to improvise as he goes, draping fabric on a mannequin and cutting until he's happy.
Improvising while you're holding scissors sounds dangerous. Well, the point is his new colleagues are pros and he's an amateur. But no one puts Giani in a corner, he decides he'll just have to work harder than anyone else to prove he has what it takes, he's always had a great eye and trailblazing taste. Now he leans into it and starts breaking rules. He mixes fabrics in unusual ways, like combining silk and leather, and he blends patterns to like cutting checks with florals.
His clothes pop and Jenny sales pop, too. But Johnny's never one to rest on his laurels. Over the next five years, he works like crazy, taking on contracts with other houses to ideas come to him at all times of the day when he sleeps, which isn't often he dreams about fashion jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to sketch out his ideas. When he drives around town, his mind sometimes drifts to his work and the next thing he knows, he's slammed into a car.
The guy is obsessed, but when he's still doing the same thing six years later, he starts to wonder what else is out there. He's tired of working for other people. He wants to do more, go bigger, shake the fashion industry out. He knows he's ready to make his own collection with his own name attached. But how? Hmm, this is a conundrum, maybe call Donatella. Actually, he calls his brother, Santo Santoro, went to university, studied business, and now he's back in Reggio working at a bank.
Santo's like, sure, let me see what I can do. And he gets to work on a plan. It's March twenty, 1978, and Donatella is on a train from Florence to Milan, and she's thinking about the meaning of life. A few hours ago, her train left Florence, where she enrolled in university and is studying languages. She loves being a student, being free from Reggio, or she can dress and act exactly how she wants.
And people notice her because Donatella is striking. She has long blond hair and a pretty round face. She dresses in colorful flowing skirts and lines, her eyes with a whole pencil.
She looks like a hippie and she smokes like a chimney.
Oh man. I would totally ask her to grab a soda with me at the Stamp Student Union after class. Wow. You must have been so popular in college.
Thank you. I was. Donatella loves her life in Florence, there's only one thing missing, Jeanny, he invites her to visit him in Milan almost every weekend and she almost always accepts Milan is bustling, cosmopolitan and Giani seems to know everyone who's anyone. His world is so exciting.
She knows how badly he wants his own label to make his own creations, and he's made it clear he wants her to be a part of it all. So when he called and said he needed her help with a special project, she's like, be right there the next day.
Giani is a bundle of nerves. He rushes from model to model, adjusting belts and hems. He can't believe it. He's finally going to show his very first collection. The location is pretty fab. It's on the top floor of the Palazzo della Permanente, a hip art museum in Milan. It's actually a group show, which is how Santo saved costs. They're sharing the lights and stage with other designers. The models will do their own makeup and Donatella is going to pitch in and help dress them all.
He has no idea if it will work, but he's excited and for it deep down, he's still shy and now he's going to put his work on the stage for everyone to see. Donatella puts her hand on his shoulder and whispers, What can I do? He looks at her gratefully, get them into their clothes. You're so good at that. She walks over to the rack of wool skirts and squints at a waifish brunette who is pasting on her lashes.
Perfect, she yells, Giani, this is fabulous. We just need some strappy heels. Yes, yes, he says you're right. And he hurries over to another girl.
Oh, the show is starting. You better take your seat.
Oh, finally, I've always wanted to be at a fashion show in Milan.
What or who am I wearing? You go to a lot of fashion shows, so something fabulous, like a pleated mini skirt and patent leather boots and a big floppy hat. OK, as you look out from under the big wide brim, you notice this isn't like other fashion shows. The shows in Paris are much more staid. There's no music or light show.
Instead, call out numbers as models walk out one by one oring. That's what Giani thinks. So he sends his models out in groups of four and five. He wants to shake things up. They twirl around and bump into each other as they try to find a beat. Maybe it's planned or maybe it's a function of the shorter runway. No one knows. OK, and what are they wearing? Well, it's a bit of a mash up. There are skirts and green and yellow with pops of bright pink and then there are some military trench coats.
And when it's over, no one's quite sure what to think. I mean, maybe it's all the wine, but I thought it was fabulous. So did his friends. They mob him backstage after the show and tell them how much they loved it. Donatella puts her arm around him. It was great. Jeanny size. It wasn't my best work.
The press agrees. The next day, the Italian papers pan the show, calling the clothes gimmicky and confused. It's like Bernie Brown says, when you make the choice to dare greatly, you sign up to get your ass kicked. Oh, my God, I love Bernie Brown. She also said if you're not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I'm not interested in your feedback. The bottom line is Giani needs someone to believe in him. And right now all he has are is siblings.
The next day he begs Donatella to stay one more day. It's not the first time he's asked and sometimes she caves. But today she has to get back. She needs to study. She promises she'll come back soon. Three months after Giuliani's first solo collection debuted, Donatella is back at the University of Florence in her apartment near the Duomo, she's clomping around in her high heeled slippers. Yes, even her slippers have heels. I mean, as long as she doesn't shower in them, no way they'd be ruined.
Donatella is close to graduating. In fact, she's up to her black eyeliner and books and research trying to finish up her thesis. But at this point, Donatella is a very torn twenty three year old. Johnny keeps trying to lure her into his world, but her mom, Franco, wants Donatella to live her own life, follow her own dreams. She's worried her brother has too much of an influence and now her mom is running out of time.
Franco has spent the last few months stuck in a clinic where she's undergoing treatment for liver disease and Donatella calls her often. But today, when she calls her mother sounds worse. Her voice is hoarse and whispery. She says, don't worry about me.
The doctors do enough of that. Are you ready to defend your thesis? Donatella tells her mom she can postpone. She wants to see her. But Franca insists, stay in Florence, finish your studies. I'll be fine. But Donatella has always been headstrong and there's no way she's staying put. So she reschedules her thesis exams and hops in a car and races up to the clinic. The whole time she's driving, she's chain smoking and thinking about how her mom would come up to visit and do her laundry and clean her room, how she'd take Donatella and her roommate out for pasta, and how much love her mom devoted to the family.
This sounds exactly like the scene in Beaches as Bette Midler is desperately driving to see Barbara Hershey totally.
An hour and a half later, Donatella arrives at the clinic. She runs down the terrazzo hallway in her Charles Jordan heels and bursts into her mother's room. But it's too late. Franka is dead. She's only 58 years old and no chance to say the final. I love you. This is worse than beaches. Donatella is grief stricken. But now Donatella has a decision to make finish her studies or go to Milan. A few days later, Johnny is pacing his kitchen when he hears a knock.
When he opens the door, Donatella falls into his arms and both of them cry. Their mother was their biggest cheerleader.
Johnny knows he wouldn't be a designer without his mom's love and support. They need each other. And when Johnny says, Donatella, you must move in. Donatella agrees. Can I move in to. I'm suddenly feeling very sad, you know, why not?
It's a pretty big place and it's totally fabulous.
Johnny has definitely moved up in the world. He's decorated it in this over-the-top art deco style lacquered bar's floor to ceiling. Florentin Mirrors Xebra would armoires.
Donatella loves the glamour of Johnny's world.
The fashion shows, nightclubs and parties, the beautiful clothes.
She imagines herself wearing haute couture and impressing important people with her ideas.
Well, Donatella gets a rude awakening.
The snobby Milanese crowd flat out rejects her. They're like, you are nothing. We don't care about you. Wow. Do they really say that? I'm not sure what they say exactly, but the book House of Versace by Deborah Ball specifically recounts how she snubbed and laughed at. This makes Donatella feel terrible. She's already painfully shy around new people. So when she gets nervous, which is often her eyes get this weird crabby squint which isn't doing her favors.
You've just described my senior yearbook photo. Well, it hits Donatella hard.
She's sensitive like Johnny. She tries to put on a confident front. But inside she has a laundry list of things she hates about herself. She feels like a clunky beaver whenever she's at the office mingling next to the supermodel Gisele's. Even though she's a size four, she's always complaining about how fat she is.
She's always dieting and eating lots of vegetable puree.
I want to give twenty three year old Donatella a big virtual bear hug. I know. Me too. And then there's her accent. Italian has forty dialects and her Calabrian accent is the mark of a country yokel. She hasn't had a chance to smooth out her rough edges like Johnny has, so people make fun of the way she talks.
Donatella is pretty miserable, but she's in Milan and she's with Johnny. She's determined to tough it out.
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I'm very excited. I got where the crawdad thing and as you know, I like to read books before I watch the shows and that's being made into a show. I think Reese Witherspoon. So I'm so excited to actually get to hear the story and then get to watch it.
Nice. So I'm going to read Becoming by my main girl, Michelle Obama, because.
Oh, hell, I absolutely love her. Who who doesn't? Yeah, there are thousands of titles for you to choose from. Riches, try it out. I promise you, there's something for you. INAUDIBLE to start your free 30 day trial, visit audible dotcom, even the rich or text even the rich to five hundred five hundred. Again, that's audible dotcom. Even the rich or taxed, even the rich to 500. 500. Johnny's fancy new friends may look down their perfect noses at Donatella, but Johnny is thrilled to have her around.
His muse is here now. He just needs his brother Santo's business prowess to complete the picture. So he hires him full time. Santos pretty excited to be part of Johnny's dream, but he's not excited about moving in with his siblings. Instead, he gets a small apartment in a quiet part of town. He'll handle the business strategy and Johnny well, Johnny can do whatever he likes.
Most designers at the time were still pretty conservative, knee length skirts, tailored work blazers, that sort of thing. Johnny thinks that's boring. Instead, he comes up with all sorts of crazy designs. He mixes masculine and feminine, hard with soft. It gives his clothes this undeniable erotic quality. And what's amazing about Johnny is he's inspired by everything architecture, color, nature, art. And his vision goes beyond clothes. He's thinking about the future, the empire, slick print ads, disruptive fashion shows, his clothes and boutiques in London, Paris and New York.
But if you want to take over the world, you have to be able to mass manufacture. He's never done that before, which is where Santo comes in.
First, he sets up this huge million dollar contract with a clothing store and gets a few manufacturers on board. Great, right? Not great. It turns out the factories aren't prepared to make a million dollars worth of clothes and the orders can't be filled. Johnny's creations start stacking up in warehouses. By the time they're ready to go, they've gone out of fashion. Santa is not the perfect son after all. It's bad.
Some of the buyers are so pissed they vowed never to buy clothes from Versace again.
But Santa doesn't give up. He opens an exquisitely designed flagship store in Milan.
He figures if people can see Johnny's creations, they'll fall in love.
And they do. Which gives him another idea franchises like McDonald's.
But with more leather, I'll have a Big Mac fries and a Versace leather gown, please. OK, that'll be 3500 dollars, please. OK, do you have a layaway plan? Sorry. Do you want fries? You already ordered fries? I can't say that.
So franchising is such a new thing in Italy. There's not even a word for it. Basically, the Versace's oversee the design of the stores and they provide the clothing. The store owners pay the upfront costs and share in the profits. This allows Santo to open boutiques on some of the ritziest shopping streets in Europe, which gives the brand this exclusive feel. And you know what that does to people?
I mean, I live in L.A. I see how people lose it over a velvet rope. That's real money starts coming in left and right and the company is turning a profit. Santo has cracked it. In 1981, Santo buys this insane mansion for the family, a palazzo, as they call it.
In Italy, it's forty five thousand square feet, which is like almost as big as a football field.
OK, I'm not even going to ask how you know that. Go Ravens' is. The Palazzo has two huge courtyard's fountains, Rose Gardens and a green house that takes up an entire wing. Johnny always loved a good house.
The knocker on the front door is a Medusa had an image that will become the Versace logo, the monster who had snakes for hair, who turned people to stone.
She was a revolutionary. OK, I wish I could do that, but yes, that's her. I'm not sure what meaning to make of it, but that's Jeanny for you. He finds inspiration everywhere.
Now, of course, when you buy a giant palace, people are going to talk. Some of the old school milanes are already suspicious of Versace since he's an outsider. Now they're asking, how did such a young designer get this kind of money?
Rumors start to fly that the mob is funding the business. I mean, you can't send someone to swim with the fishes wearing sweatpants.
Exactly. It's actually not that crazy. The Mafia did have a hold on most of Calabria where the Versace's were from. And it wasn't unusual for them to get their hooks into small businesses.
And how else could the Versace's buy an actual palace?
OK, so where are they? No, they just happened to make a profit really early on. Why? Because Santo is crazy good at business. This whole mob thing is really pissing Giani off, but Giani decides to ignore the gossip and turn the other cheek.
He focuses on his new lines, which means time for a new model.
His name is Paul Beck. Giani spots him at a casting call. Paul is one of the army of male models charging into Milan for runway shows and photo shoots.
He's a white bread, corn, all-American kid. He's like the guy whose photo is in the picture frame when you buy it at the store.
I'm imagining an invisible fan automatically blowing back his blond locks when he walks in.
Yes, except Paul is so much more. He has a degree in environmental biology, but instead of studying wildlife, he's sort of living a wild life as a strapping male model in Italy.
Giani adores him, and Paul quickly becomes a fixture at the apartment he shares with Donatella. But Giani is busy working long hours. So guess who finds themselves a party of two?
Going to go out on a limb here and say Donatella and Paul Bengoa, the girls lonely and she hasn't dated a ton, and now she's here in Milan feeling like an ugly duckling when she catches Paul staring at her. And then I've got the hots for you kind of way. It's off to the races.
Paul's Italian is myth. So the two of them speak in English as best as Donatella can muster. But who needs words when you're speaking the language of love? And just a few months they move out of the shared apartment into one of their own. It's modest and bare bones compared to Johnny's lavishly decorated space. But she doesn't care. She's fallen head over stiletto. OK, and what does Johnny think of all this? He's totally on board. A few months later, he even hires Paul to help develop accessories for his men's line.
It's a small job, but Giani envisions the line growing. Paul can still barely speak a word of Italian, but it doesn't matter. He's super charming, and Johnny figures he'll help win over American customers.
Besides, Giant is about to meet someone special himself. By 1982, Gianni Versace is on fire, he's 36 years old, and in just four years, he's done a lot in the world of fashion. He's had several shows. He's in stores all over the world.
Now he's trying something new, designing costumes for a big opera production.
On opening night, Johnny brings the date, a very handsome older man whose name I haven't been able to find.
Not that it matters because he won't last long. In fact, he won't even last the night.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Aren't you supposed to say spoiler alert or something? Here, spoiler alert. Thank you. After the show, Johnny and his date head next door with the cast and crew to celebrate.
Everyone is patting him on the back and fawning over him. John, you're a genius. That's sequin jumpsuit was a masterpiece. It's all very fabulous.
Then an old friend comes over to his table and says he wants to introduce Johnny to someone.
I feel like we need some romantic parting of the crowd sound or something.
OK, cut, cut. Never mind. Yeah, that just made me picture a guy with a big red hair and a bozo nose riding through the crowd on a unicycle.
Yeah. Know, this new guy is 24 and he looks like he stepped out of a renaissance painting.
He has dark hair and olive skin, piercing green eyes and muscles. For days, Johnny completely forgets his date, who's sitting right next to him and is like, would you care to join us?
It's kind of sexy sounding when it's not you being forgotten at the table. Yeah.
Imagine the sad story that poor guy has to tell for the rest of his life. Anyway, the young guy's name is Antonio. Turns out he's a model. Of course he is.
And he has small town roots like Giani. And he lost his mother just like Giani. He's even bought Versace's clothes while he bought a Versace sweater, but he really liked it. So Giani asks him out on a date. Before long, they're seeing each other every weekend. Johnny is always curious and excited, which is fun for Antonio, who's a laid back guy and reminds Giani of home.
He helps balance out Johnny's intensity. Pretty soon he's letting Antonio drive them around and his expensive car and manage all the house bills. OK, that doesn't sound like a perk. I mean, it's a really nice car, though.
OK, no, no, stop that. Anyway, after about six months, Giani offers him a job. What is it about giving the boyfriend's jobs? I don't know. It's a Versace thing, I guess. Giani wants to make Antonio the head of sales for one of his cheaper lines, but Antonio isn't sure it's such a good idea. He's visited the office enough times by now to know the staff aren't exactly thrilled. They're already taking bets on when the relationship will end.
But even worse, Santo and Donatella don't like him Santo for practical reasons. He doesn't think Antonio has enough experience to run sales. Donatella has a bigger problem. Her brother is spending all his free time with Antonio. She feels threatened. But I got to say I feel for her in a way. I mean, she's been there for Gianni since she was a kid. She let him dress her up. She came to Milan whenever he needed her.
She thought she was his only muse. Now, some pretty boy has come along and he wants to bring him to work, not on her watch. She starts trying to turn the staff against him. She openly criticizes his work to anyone who will listen, including Santo Giovanni and even Antonio himself.
That is when she's not icing him out completely. Antonio mostly tries to avoid her, but it's pretty much impossible since she works with Gianni so closely. It's a Cold War that will last for years. Antonio will later say the triad of Gianni Santo and Donatella were untouchable. Even if you were on the inside, it was only about those three. But tensions are simmering and the artist and his muse are about to butt heads. This is episode one of our four part series, The House of Versace.
If you like our show, please give us a five star rating and a review and be sure to tell your friends subscribe on Apple podcast, Spotify, the laundry app or wherever you're listening right now. Join a hundred plus in the Wonder app to listen ad free. In the episode notes, you'll find some links and offers from our sponsors. Please support them.
Another way to support us is to answer a short survey at one Tricom survey. We use many sources when researching our stories like Vanity Fair, New York Magazine and Vogue, but we especially recommend the book House of Versace by Deborah Ball. I'm Brooke Saffron. And I'm Marissa Skidmore.
Williams Celia Finklestein wrote this episode. Our editor is LaDonna Palabra. Kayla Bissinger is our associate producer, audio assistant by Sergio Enriquez. Sound design is by James Morgan.
Our executive producers are Stephanie Jones marshmallowy and Hernan Lopez, for one, wondering.
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