What's that? It's wedding bells because someone's getting married. Oh, who? Donatella Versace and Paul Beck. OK. Am I invited? Of course everyone is, because it's our podcast and we can invite anyone we want Fairpoint. But you'll have to travel back in time about 25 years or just use your imagination. It's March 1983, and the Versace family is crowded into a teeny tiny stone church in the port village of Multiracial.
The church is on the western shore of Lake Como, and the location is the definition of an Italian paradise, a gorgeous lake surrounded by hilly vineyards, olive trees, wisteria vines and alpine peaks. Oh, man. I'm way underdressed. I'm still in my PJs.
Well, no one notices. They're looking at the bride as she enters the church. They're dying to know what and who she's wearing. She's in a dress that Johnny made just for her. It's off white silk with just a hint of yellow. It's simple. Wraps across her bust, drops into a wide band in the middle and seamlessly blends into an exquisitely tailored skirt.
Like everything Johnny does, he put his heart and soul into this dress. And outwardly he's thrilled for the couple. But privately he's not so sure it'll last. According to the book The House of Versace, he told one of his seamstresses, I don't know why we're going to all this trouble. They'll split within a couple of years. I hope not.
They make such a cute couple.
I know they really do. So Donatella makes her way down the aisle, her platinum blonde hair cascading behind. When she reaches the altar, she stops and turns to face the guests, and that's when she notices Johnny is staring at her and waving his arms like a wild man. Oh, my God. He's telling her not to get married. Isn't he worse? Apparently, the train of her dress isn't flowing as freely as it should.
It's somehow folded up on itself.
He points at her skirt, so Donatella dutifully bends over to fan out her train, and that's when she inadvertently shows the wedding guests her cleavage. Johnny is frantic at this point.
Mouthing No, no. Finally, she gets it all sorted out and gets the nod of approval from her brother.
And now she can finally get married.
After the wedding, everyone beams and Johnny presents his gift, let me guess, an endless supply of matching socks close.
But no, it's an incredible apartment in one of Milan's swankiest neighborhoods.
He's decorated it himself right down to the marriage bed. I think they're just called beds. Well, I'm sure it's top line. Once he sings his teeth into a project, no matter what it is, it consumes him.
Every detail has to be just so. He's a perfectionist with his homes and his runway shows and his every last design, which means he's not always easiest guy to work for. And while Donatella knows what he's like, they are related. After all, when he steps up her involvement at the label, she's going to find out firsthand just how hard that can be.
With greater responsibility comes greater expectations. And for Donatella and Johnny, bigger egos and monster fights.
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From London. I'm Brooke Saffron. And I'm Marisha Skidmore Williams, and this is Even The Rich. In our last episode, Gianni Versace went from a small town kid to powerhouse fashion stardom. As his star rises, so does the pressure he puts on himself and on everyone around him, including his sister and muse, Donatella. This is Episode two, the Versace experience.
It's 1984 in Milan, Giani and Donatella are at the Versace Italia, which is a fancy way of saying his studio models sip Diet Cokes and puff cigarettes as they try on their outfits. It's the day before a show Donatella points a manicured finger toward a model's ballet flats.
Hideous, absolutely hideous. You can't have them wearing flats. It will ruin the entire look of the clothes. Wow.
Remember, this is a woman who loves heels so much. Even her slippers are stilettos. She has over 40 pairs of candy colored meals for one season alone.
This shoe battle between Giani and Donatella has been going on for months and it's epic. She wants the models in heels. Giani prefers flats. The seamstresses and models are used to these two arguing, so they just do their thing while Donatella and Gianni verbally duke it out. They know Gianni will eventually win.
He always does. After all, he's the boss.
But Donatella has come a long way from the caterpillar who moved to Milan five years ago. Now she's transformed herself into a big, extravagant butterfly. She lightens her hair even more. She brings in a personal trainer back before personal trainers or even a thing. She goes sexier and bolder with her clothes, and she embraces what a few little tricks can do for the face.
Like she wears five pairs of fake eyelashes at a time on each eye. Yes, it's like a Vegas showgirl meets alluring Shantou, and it works.
In her early days at Versace, Giani put her on hair and makeup duty for the models. He always loved her look. And Donatella has a vision.
She basically turns all of the models into many Donatello's it wow is the fashion crowd and it pretty much defines Versace's look. Sounds like the look of the 80s. Yeah, it was like go big or go home on your roller skates. She was so good at it that Giani puts her in charge of Versace's accessories and turns out she's got an eye for that too. She goes big and bold, sky high, skinny heels, glam elbow length gloves with jewels and little crystals.
Johnny is thrilled. Pretty soon Donna Taylor's job is to give her opinions on everything which comes with some pressure because Johnny is an uber perfectionist. Donatella, do you prefer teal or navy? Oh, teal for sure.
Donatella Lajeunesse with a bright yellow skirt or black sequence black sequins.
Wait, is this a trick question, Donatella? What color for the bracelets? Cerrato are both wrong. OK, I don't like this quiz.
It's fun for Donatella and Johnny.
They're alive with creation and opinions and they have this incredible way of bouncing off each other.
They talk so fast, no one else even understands what they're saying except when Johnny starts to yell, which just scares people. So they at him to death and stay out of his way.
But Donatella stands her ground. Of course, Johnny is the boss and sometimes overrides her, which can be frustrating because Donatella knows her instincts are spot on, especially when it comes to shoes.
But it's an argument Johnny is tired of having. And today he shuts her down. He's like Flatt's and that's it. Case closed inside.
Donna Taylor's seething and when she gets up the next day, she has a plan on the day of the show.
Johnny's so distracted by the millions of last minute details, he hasn't even had time for his double espresso.
It's the usual mayhem. Backstage models and assistants and people sewing and pinning and hemming Donatella somewhere. But he hasn't seen her in more than an hour. When it's time to begin, Johnny slips into a seat in the front row as the music starts to pulsate.
And here come the first group of models on the catwalk. Their hair is piled high. The shapes of the dresses, perfectly tailored accessories are spot on and their shoes are wait.
What in the world is going on? The models are all wearing high heels.
Johnny breaks out in a sweat. Where are their flats? More models stride out, more high heels. What the heel is happening. Oh wow. Except deep down he knows Donatella.
Right before the models hit the runway, Donatella swapped out all the flats for heels, every single payer. When they get back to the studio after the show, Johnny's fuming, how dare you go behind my back and do exactly what I told you not to do? Donatello's like a major look so much better and you know it. Johnny's so furious. He kicks her out of the studio. Later, when he's cooled down, he realizes she was right, they did actually look leaner and edgier.
The next day when she comes in, he pulls her aside. I made a mistake. He says you were right about the shoes. Donatella is like Johnny. I told you. And he says you didn't push enough.
Being Johnny's right hand woman isn't easy. He has a lot of demands and Donatella is expected to be on call 24/7. It's exhausting, but she knows she's the only one who can push him in ways no one else does.
You need to take risks. You can't rest on your laurels. She's always encouraging Johnny to think bigger, edgier, cut your skirts shorter, show more leg. It infuriates Johnny. He's the designer.
He's the one who knows fashion, but she never backs down and he keeps asking her opinion. Johnny may be the creative genius, but it's Donatello's prodding questions and opinions that always make the designs just a little bit better. It's a unique collaboration and the business starts to soar. Money is coming in and Johnny gets to work spending it. Imagine it's 1985 and you're in Lake Como, Italy.
I'm putting on the halter dress I got at Target or 22 dollars.
Well, it's actually December. OK, there's snow on the pine trees and covering all the country roads.
And I'm also putting on a parka and mittens.
Good move, because we're going to Villa Fontanelle, a three story mansion that belongs to Gianni Versace. This place is insane.
A giant terrace overlooking the lake, perfectly manicured hedges, some gurgling fountains with Medusa heads for water spouts. It looks like someone painted it and dropped it on a postcard. Inside, it's pure Giani.
Twenty seven rooms, polished marble floors, deep red furniture, hundreds of neoclassical oil paintings on the walls and an all pink bedroom for the lady of the house. Donatella Yepp. For Christmas this year, Johnny has imported a huge fir tree from Norway. Underneath are piles of presents for everyone but the biggest present this year. Donna, tell us news. She's starting her own line. She is, except it's not a clothing line. Donatella is pregnant. A new Versace is about to come into the world.
And what better place to celebrate than a fabulous mansion on the lake?
Now, once the holidays are over, the Versace's are right back at work to design the spring line, including Donatella, who loves working and smoking and wearing high heels, which she does pretty much right up until the day she gives birth.
June 30th. Nineteen eighty six. Is it a girl or a boy?
A girl and helps her and Paul pick out the name Alegra. That's beautiful.
A baby in the family is always something to celebrate, especially in Italian culture. And Gianni becomes a doting, obsessive uncle. He calls Alegra his principessa, which means princess in Italian, and he starts bringing her to fashion shows when she's barely a month old. He loves showing her off. Donatella gets it. Family is everything.
In 1986, Giani is working in his office above the Versace store in Milan when he gets a call from the men's shop below Signore.
It's the manager from a downstairs. What do you need? Well, Signore Elton John is here. The Rocket Man. Yes. And he wants to meet you. Johnny doesn't even say goodbye. He just hangs up the phone and runs downstairs.
As Johnny rushes into the shop, he can barely contain his excitement. The store he whispers to the manager, Elton must be able to shop with no one bothering him or even looking at him. We must make him feel at home. Johnny introduces himself to Elton, who is just as thrilled to meet Johnny. He's been buying his men's collection from the London store for several seasons, sight unseen. But this is his first time in Milan. I'm picturing like Johnny running around the shop, Elton.
How about a green silk print? It will look fabulous with your huge purple wig.
Or how about this black sparkly blazer? After hours of shopping, they are thick as thieves and decide to have dinner together. I'm picturing them devouring like plates of pasta and white sauce, guzzling bottles of wine and gabbing like long lost friends and not like celebrities.
Surface talk like, Oh, darling, have you been to Paris? 16TH arrondissement. We're talking real conversation. Elton opens up about his drug problem, which has been going on for years at this point. He talks about his eating disorder and how self-conscious he is about his fluctuating weight. And he talks about the stress of opening the tabloids each morning to see questions about his sexuality. Again, Giani understands he spent years in Calabria feeling the same way, and his Joie de Vive is infectious.
The guy just loves life and Elton's music. It's the start of a beautiful friendship. Two peas in a pod, even the rich form into bonds over shopping, wine and good music. And it's a bond that will grow stronger over time.
And it comes with some perks. Elton brings press and attention to Versace's clothes, and Versace keeps him supplied in the latest shirts, vests and blazers. Sometimes it's free and sometimes Alten can't wait and he buys it once he spent four hundred thousand dollars on a single shopping trip. That's how much he loves Versace clothes. Wow. And I feel guilty when I spend 50 dollars on a pair of jeans while they're very nice shirts.
Elton even write songs for Jeanny shows and Johnny makes costumes for Elton's tour. If you've seen pictures of Elton in the 80s, he's pretty hard to forget. I mean, his stage outfits were glamorous and fabulous and completely over-the-top. Embroidered hats, crazy colorful vests, leather tuxes, all Versace.
But Giani isn't really the type to fawn over celebrities. It's just not his thing. Which isn't to say he doesn't see the value in famous people wearing his clothes. He absolutely does. But hanging out with them all hours of the night is boring. Plus, he doesn't really drink, which is where Donatella comes in.
She's always loved rock shows and stars and she has a knack for getting backstage. But male rock legends aren't enough. What Versace needs is women, famous women, and in the fashion world, that means couture. We're talking custom pieces. Giani doesn't make any of those. He specializes in ready to wear clothing.
Sure, it's edgy and trailblazing and very expensive, but it's not couture, which is one of a kind perfection. It's a tough leap to make for a designer and pretty rare for one. It's super expensive. The most exquisite fabrics cost money and sewing and draping and hand finishes must be perfect. It's a risk, but if it pays off, it puts a designer into an entirely new stratosphere. It's like a chef earning three Michelin stars for his new restaurant.
And now no one can get a reservation or afford the food.
But Giani is ready.
It's January nineteen ninety, a cold day in Paris, but backstage at the Ritz the action is sizzling. You know the drill.
Dozens of seamstresses and assistants pulling out bags of jewelry and shoes. Donatella hopping from model to model and Giani yelling at everyone. The show must be perfect. The front of the house is pure glam. There are hand painted ceilings and spiral staircases and a runway that was specially constructed right over the pool.
Oh my gosh. It's like that bubble episode of America's Next Top Model. We watch last year when we watched that model fall over and over again on repeat, like two people who need lives, though funny, though, they're going to be three hundred guests and the pressure is enormous.
It's hard enough to put yourself out there and have people judge your work. But the Parisian crowd is notoriously snooty.
If they turn up their noses at his collection, it'll be a total catastrophe when the show starts. Johnny is a bundle of nerves. I imagine he's standing backstage watching a video monitor as the first model comes out. The next 45 minutes are an all out assault on the senses. The models spin and strut down the catwalk to a mix of opera and rock in a tsunami of little dresses wrapped up in pink hooded capes, mini skirts and glittery formfitting tops.
The crowd eats it up when it's over, they burst into applause, even the press is blown away, Giani killed it.
He did what he does best, combining clothes, music, sex and theater to create a once in a lifetime spectacle. The show is a runaway runaway success, and Gianni Versace is on the map. But it's never that easy.
Johnny still has a problem. America, they don't get it or him. They think his clothes are brash. Paris may be the center of fashion, but you have to break the American market if you want to be a fashion designer at the top of your game. That's where the money and real famous at least back then. But you see magazines and high end fashion buyers pretty much ignore him. They won't even go to his parties.
But he does find a champion in an unexpected place at Vogue magazine.
Please tell me Anna Wintour is a fan. I've watched The Devil Wears Prada like 20 times. She is she's a total trailblazer in so many ways. And when she gets to Vogue in nineteen eighty eight, she made it her mission to bring in less stuffy, more accessible fashion in Versace. She saw someone completely unique.
She thinks his designs are strong and fun. She invites him to show it a benefit and she starts featuring his clothes in vogue. It was like a big confidence boost for Giani. Anna Wintour likes his clothes. As Donatella will later say, Anna arrived and realized Johnny wasn't vulgar.
He was glamour. But still, the editor of Vogue can't do much to sway the American public. It's going to take money to do that. And Donatella.
Erica, what saves me a lot of money and also makes my life better on a weekly basis, is this a trick question?
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That's ten dollars off your order of thirty dollars or more every day from participating restaurants. Download the GrubHub app today and get ten dollars off your order of thirty dollars or more. Donatella is working on an idea of her own on one of her trips to New York. She's thumbing through American fashion magazines and newspapers. She's always checking out the latest trends in the US and she notices a ton of press coverage on three print models, in particular Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelist and Naomi Campbell.
Naomi Campbell. I love her. Right. The press dubs them the Trinity. And they're not just gracing every cover of the fashion magazines. They're hanging out together and Manhattan's party scene and they're getting more attention than the hottest Hollywood celebs.
So Donatello's we'll start spinning. What if she could bring an entirely new type of model to the Versace runway? Print models like the Trinity Versace could get the Trinity to walk their next fashion show. Maybe the press and American magazines will take notice.
But there's a reason why designers don't use print models for their shows. Basically, runway models needed to have these mannequin bodies that show off clothes and the best way, little hips and waists and super long legs.
They had a particular way of even walking.
Hips jutted out, but muscles clenched, head sort of tilted back.
Sounds like me at the dentist over the runway. A faces don't really matter because the audience is looking at the clothes. But in print, faces are everything and they can have curves. I mean, they're still thin. They're just not a size zero. And Donatella Versace clothes will look great on them. Now she just needs to convince Giani and we know he can be stubborn.
Yeah, she's got to go in hot. So it's early. Nineteen ninety one. Donatella is just off a flight from New York. She hightails it over to Johnny's decadent Milan palazzo Giani is probably on his couch sketching, surrounded by Greek voices and Roman busts.
Is he always sketching? Does he ever do anything like watch TV or make a salami sandwich?
I mean, I'm sure he does. But since I don't really know, let's just say he's sketching anyway. Donatella marches off to him and flings these American tabloids at him.
They're covered in photos of the Trinity. Donatello's like, Johnny, we've got to get these girls. And one of our runway shows, it's practically a command. Johnny doesn't know what to make of it. Why is she showing him pictures of American models partying? Donatella keeps going. Look at the press they bring in. It's like the paparazzi follow them around. Imagine what that kind of press could do for Versace. Johnny isn't keen on the idea. What your crazy look at them.
Their bodies are all wrong. All boobs and bottoms. How would I ever dress them? And what if they can't walk? Will be fashion road kill. But Donatella eventually wears them down.
Now she's just got to convince the models and their agents and that comes at a price. These girls are expensive. Linda Evangelista had that famous quote. We don't wake up for less than ten thousand dollars a day and runway normally pays closer to a thousand. This is where Donatella is. Charm and persistence come in. She promises them beyond triple the rate for runway shows and then sweeten the pot with luxurious suites at five star hotels, flights on private planes, free clothes and accessories.
Everything is free, free, free and me somewhere safe and point me to the runway. I love that reference and that's pretty much what they thought.
Donatella not only scores the Holy Trinity, she gets a few more. They all agree to do the next Versace show. It's going to be raining supermodels. And Donatella is convinced Versace is about to change the course of fashion.
In March nineteen ninety one, the supermodels take the stage for the fall winter line. They look Versace. Fabulous Linda Evangelista has even dyed her hair platinum blonde. Oh, big Donatella Vibs. Yes, except her hair is short. Of course, Johnny is worried the women will clomp down the runway like Clydesdales, but they don't. Naomi even creates her own walk. It's fierce, all hips and swag and oozing confidence. And Donatella was absolutely right about the clothes.
The models make Versace look sensational and the audience agrees.
But more important than the roar of the crowd is the sound of hundreds of flashbulbs. The press practically stampede over each other as they run to pay phones so they can report to their editorial desks about the Versace collection. It's a total game changer.
You have to remember that this is pre Internet, pre Instagram, pre Twitter. And Versace is instantly making international headlines. The day after the event, he basically blows past every other designer on the planet to show Armani, Chao, Valentino. Although I do love Valentino same.
The show was trailblazing. He pretty much creates the first. Modern runway show The Risk paid off, Donatella was right, Donatella has arrived, and not only that, she's going to take it further. She's about to become the celebrity whisperer.
Donatella pretty much always believed the key to success for the Versace brand is to get celebrities to wear their clothes. It's also the way into the hard to crack American market. If someone famous wears your dress, suddenly you're on everyone's hot list. And of course, being Donatella, she sets her sights high. The numero uno pop star in the world. I'll give you a hint.
She's no virgin touched for the very first time. I love Madonna so much. Oh, my God.
Yeah. I mean, what's not to love? She's a legend. Truly. The woman is a shapeshifting provocateur, a boundary pushing phenom. Donatella is salivating to bring Madonna into the Versace fold. And they're practically best friends in the celebrity world because, you know, they met a couple of times. Now, Donatella has caught wind that Madonna is sniffing around for new looks to play with Donatella, start sending Madonna trunks filled with couture dresses on the house.
Of course, it's like catnip. And when Donatella invites her to Milan for a show, she's like, sure, why not? This is where Donatella kicks it into high gear. I wish my friends would give me trunks full of glitter dresses. Well, do you want to imagine it? You know I do.
OK, you're Madonna. You've been flown into Italy by private jet. Now oiled men and loincloths are spraying your face with crushed rose petal water.
When you arrive, you're whisked off in a limo to Jannis Lake Como getaway villa Fontanelle. OK, and what am I wearing? I mean, I always picture Madonna and like a black bustier. Good for me.
So when you walk into the villa with your entourage, you smell the enchanting aroma of your favorite flowers, which are whatever Trader Joe's has that week.
Hardly the entire palazzo is filled with white gardenias and tuberose. The scent is intoxicating. And even though you're used to the most opulent, over-the-top splendor, you, Madonna, are gobsmacked. You've brought along your tiny dog, Chiquita. She's a Chihuahua.
And before Chiquita piddles near some 14th century statue of a Roman God, a crew of superhot, buff bodyguards swoop in and offer up their services. Meanwhile, you just relax as another hot guy hands you a Bellini and a white gloved hand.
All of this is true, according to the House of Versace book. It sounds heavenly and it works. Madonna is positively enchanted by the villa and by Donatella. She'll end up becoming super close friends with both Donatella and Geordie, and she'll do several of their ad campaigns. And damn, I don't know if you remember those shots of Madonna, but they are positively iconic.
Those were truly epic. Yes, the campaign and Madonna is a huge score, but Donatella wants more, never one to rest on our laurels. She'll keep racking up wins with celebs like Demi Moore and Courtney Love, Tupac and Biggie staying in Prince. Of course, it probably helps that she flies many of them into Italy. First class opens up the shop and tells them to take whatever they want. She even gives them the run of the Versace crib in Lake Como.
It was all part of the courting ritual. She keeps the measurements of VIP clients on file, so if they can't come into the store, she sends them an outfit that fits like a glove.
All told, the Versace budget for Promotion's is over 70 million dollars, wholly properly. But celebs liked hanging out with her.
She's fun and like Jeanny, she's also sensitive. She doesn't mind star tantrums or demands. I mean, she's got good practice from Giani. Exactly.
She's in charge of all the photo shoots, too. She hires the best photographers, people like Richard Avedon, and she'll spend millions to let the photographer get the best shot. And the effort pays off. Celebrities break open the market. The Versace's have been trying to crack for years. The American public is no longer snubbing Versace.
They're in love with his clothes. It's like you can run the world and be sexy, too. In other words, when you wear Versace, you feel like a beautiful badass.
Donatella Giani have it all. Now they're at the top of the heap. Giani keeps his nose to the grindstone, working on new designs. Donatella, on the other hand, has her nose into something else. Cocaine. Oh no.
Yeah. By the 90s, Coke is pretty much everywhere and in the fashion industry everyone is indulging hairstylists and makeup artists love it because it keeps them going.
Models love it because it's local and now you can do for the low, low price of nineteen ninety nine. That's too low. I don't trust that Coke. Donatella is spending more and more of her time jet-setting between New York and L.A. She's hanging with the cool kids so it becomes part of her lifestyle. It suits her go, go bouncy energy. She even uses a code phrase for sniffing out who has coke. Do you want to guess what it is?
Who has Coke? Orisha. This is Donatella Versace. She'd march into a party or wherever, puffing on a bavaro, tossing back her platinum mane and ask, Do I smell Chanel? At first, Donatella keeps it to just the party scene.
But then she realizes it's kind of fun to do it work to like on photo shoots where there's always a wild vibe with sexy guys and tight white pants and tigers roaming around. Yes, she did bring in tigers to photo shoots, so why not pop into the bathroom with an assistant or photographer and do a bumper to her habit becomes as casual and regular as having a cocktail.
It's like happy hour, except with cocaine instead of Cosmo's like any habit, it starts out as fun contained behind closed doors and far from Johnny's prying eyes, he'd never approve.
It's why Donatella loves coming to the States. It's an escape to her own fantasy island. There's only one problem.
Giani expects her to be available 24/7, no matter where she is, and things start to slip through the cracks. Like one time when Donatella is off on a photo shoot, she gets so high that she forgets to show up on set. Johnny calls her a dozen times, but it keeps going to voicemail. When he finally does get through, he asks, How's the shoot going? And Donatella goes, Great, Johnny. Just great.
She's probably lying in bed making fake camera noises with her mouth. Look at darling. Work it right.
Her lifestyle is starting to get the better of her and pretty soon she won't be able to lie her way 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. But 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 Ritchies. 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 500 500. Again, that's audible dotcom. Even the rich or taxed, even the rich to 500, 500. In 1994, Johnny gets a call from his new BFF, Elton John, when Johnny picks up, Elton tells them there's a rumor and it's not good.
It's about his sister, Donatella. She loves celebrity parties, right? She fits right in. They both know that. But people are starting to notice how little time she spends at the actual party and how much time she spends in the bathroom and how different she acts when she comes out there laughing at her. In America, Elton says, oh, man, when Johnny hangs up, he's pissed.
He knows Donatella used to party here and there, but now people are laughing at her. He doesn't understand how she could let this happen, but suddenly things start to make sense. No wonder she's always running to America. No wonder she missed that photo shoot. One thing is clear. These rumors are bad for business.
When you have a household name like Versace, negative press can bring you to your knees.
It's the mid 90s and the people of Milan are about to celebrate the most important holiday of the year. International Pasta Day. Oh, my God.
Is that a day? Because I should be celebrating.
But no, it's fashion week, except it's no holiday for Gianni Versace. He's been working 24/7 for weeks. In fact, the entire Versace team is working around the clock to make sure everything's perfect. He's done hundreds of shows, but each fashion week is like the first like opening night nerves.
But Donatella is back in town and he's glad he can finally get her opinion, just like old times only she's nowhere to be found.
And when she shows up, she's late and then she's always popping into the bathroom or who knows where.
It seems like every time he turns to ask her a question, she's gone.
Where the hell is my sister? He yells. And the assistants run off in a panic to find her. Donatella used to throw herself into her work side by side with Johnny. But now in the lead up to the show, she's going out every night and partying like there's no tomorrow. But now Johnny knows what she's doing, and this time he doesn't give her a pass.
He yells, It doesn't matter what you do, but you have to know how to do it and when to do it.
That's according to the House of Versace book.
Apparently, Donatella is so ashamed that she leaves and goes home probably to do more Coke.
I mean, who knows?
She definitely doesn't show any signs of slowing down.
And Johnny is under no illusion he can make her stop, but he's worried about her health and the business and pretty much everything.
So what does he do? Nothing. I mean, what can he do? Donatella is headstrong if she's not going to listen to him about what shoes?
His models, where she's certainly not going to stop doing blow because her brother doesn't like it.
And the truth is, she's still bringing in celebrities and press. The brand is on fire. So he does what he always does. He throws himself into his work. It's August 1994 and Gianni Versace is pooped. Is that Italian?
I wouldn't expect you understand, but yes, he's been burning the candle at both ends ever since he learned how to work a lighter.
And now, to be honest, it's catching up with him.
He just got back to Milan from a trip to the states and usually he's got more spunk than the Energizer Bunny. But lately he's not feeling like his old obsessive self.
His hearing's all messed up. Maybe it's an infection, he thinks. But then half of his face swells up.
Oh, then he starts to lose weight. It's like his body is shutting down after years of hard work. So Johnny goes to see a doctor, gets a bunch of tests and the diagnosis ear cancer.
Shit. I didn't even know that was a thing. Yeah, neither did Johnny. And the news knocked him sideways. I mean, he's 47 years old. I imagine he's thinking about all the things he still wants to do. But cancer doesn't care about your day job.
He tries to keep up his furious pace at work, but that becomes impossible. As soon as he starts chemo, the treatment wipes him out. He's tired all the time. Some days he can't even make it past lunch before he has to lie down. The timing couldn't be worse. As Johnny's energy wanes, things at work are busier than ever. Versace is the hottest label in the world. Demand is through the roof, which means there are new lines to design, shows to put on ad campaigns that demand attention.
And as much as it pains him to admit Johnny doesn't have the stamina to handle all of it, someone else has to step in. And there's only one person he trusts enough to fill his suede loafers, Donatella, the one and only.
He's probably still nervous about her drug use, but his hands are tied. She's the only other person who understands the business inside and out, and she's all too happy to take the helm. At 39, she's been living in her brother's shadow for as long as she can remember. A few years back, he gave her a tiny label of her own called versus, but it never really got much attention. Now, this is her time to step out into the light.
When news gets out that Donatella is taking more responsibility at the company, every fashion journalist from here to Saks Fifth Avenue wants an interview with her, and Donatella gladly agrees.
She used to be bashful with the media. Now, though, she's all charm, funny, sassy and bold. And when the press finds out she's a Coke loving party animal, they love her even more. The headlines practically write themselves. Donatella totally steps up, which starts to rub Johnny the wrong way.
It's like overnight she's become the face of the Versace brand, the brand he built.
But what Johnny really can't stand is when she begins taking credit for his work while he's busy, you know, trying not to die, she's going around calling herself code designer, even though she's never designed anything in her life. It's all too much for poor Johnny. He's always been his sister's biggest cheerleader.
He begged her to come to Milan all those years ago and be part of his world.
He gave her a job and made her rich. This is the thanks he gets, but he's too drained and feeble to do anything about it. All he can do is wait until he gets better.
If he gets better, it's nineteen ninety five.
A change is blowing into the fickle world of fashion at avant garde parties in New York and L.A.. Donatella keep spotting chic young women in plain slip dresses with spaghetti straps and simple chokers. They're stomping the dance floors with chunky Doc Martens. The colors are muted. Black, gray, beige. The style is restrained. Fashionistas start calling it minimalism, a.k.a. heroin chic move and the trendsetting crowd Donatella runs with is going bonkers over the look.
It's essentially the polar opposite of Versace's bright geometric shapes and sexy rock star Kottoor. It's no secret. Fashion is a moving target. You have to adapt or die. So Donatella knows she needs to talk to Johnny like STATT. She has to convince him to embrace the style for an upcoming season.
I don't think this is going to go over well with him.
Yeah, he doesn't like the style, but he agrees to try some looks even though he's not feeling great. Giani is still hands on, so he puts together a bunch of simple sheets and dresses. Though he can't resist giving them splashes of colorful embroidery, Donatella tells him he has to pull back, go more basic, less color, less sexy, less everything. Johnny's not here in it.
How do you tell a guy who sees the world through Technicolor goggles to create a sack dress and charcoal gray or black? He's like a hummingbird. Science has proven they see colors. We can't even imagine.
If he's a hummingbird, then Donatella is a bird of prey and she's got her sharp talons or ready to pounce. She basically tells Johnny that he's. So in love with his own precious designs that he can't let go and then she goes in for the kill, she screams something like, go ahead, you're just dressing old ladies now. You're stuck in the past like the widows from our village who never want to change.
I mean, quoting my girl, Heidi Klum here. One day you're in, the next you're out. So Johnny gives a little ground the clothes day, but they run into more problems when they start planning Versace's next men's show. Johnny puts Donatella in charge of casting, thinking she'll crush it. After all, she killed it with the supermodel Triniti. And when it comes to male models, she knows what he likes, tanned, brawny dudes with glistening, flawless skin.
So imagine his surprise as he settles in to watch the dress rehearsal and a bunch of scrawny, strung out looking guys stumble down the runway. There's so bony, the clothes hang on them like maternity smocks. OK, I'm picturing stick figure drawings walking in Versace now after the fifth model.
He just can't take it anymore. Enough, he screams, throwing up his arms. He turns to Donatella and lets her have it.
What were you thinking? My clothes are supposed to be sexy and powerful. These beanpole can't even fill out a fitted T-shirt back in the day. Jeanny and Donatello's collaboration brought out the best in them. Now it's bringing out the worst.
But there's not much Johnny can do about it.
He's so depleted from the chemo that even a small fight with his sister leaves him drained. He's worried he's losing control of the business, but he's got a plan, one that will ensure that the direction of his business will remain in his hands. This is episode two 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 podcasts, Spotify, the Wonder App or wherever you're listening right now.
Join 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 wondering dot com slash 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 Zafrin. And I'm Trisha Skidmore Williams.
Celia Finkelstein wrote this episode. Our editor is LaDonna Polyvore. Hayler Bissinger is our associate producer, audio assistant by Sergio Enriquez. Sound design is by James Morgan.
Our executive producers are Stephanie Jones, Marcia Louis and Hernan Lopez for wondering.
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