Not long ago, when it came to dressing magnificently, no name carried more weight than Gianni Versace. He changed the face of modern style with revolutionary attire renowned for its broad appeal. Versace’s designer wear was just as likely to be found at an elegant dinner party as in a trendy nightclub. That is, until a senseless shooting in 1997 put an abrupt end to his creative brilliance.

Journalist Deborah Ball makes her hardcover debut recounting the amazing story of this groundbreaking designer and the dynasty he founded in House of Versace: The Untold Story of Genius, Murder and Survival from Crown Publishing. Ball has been a business journalist in Europe for more than 15 years, and she was stationed in Milan and Rome while covering the luxury goods markets for the Wall Street Journal from 1999 to 2002. So she is especially suited to tell the tale, having witnessed many aspects of it up close — along with its wider effects on the marketplace.

“There was clearly a ton of fascination around the whole Versace story,” she notes. “I had a unique opportunity when the house and the family finally felt comfortable talking about the good years and the bad years as well, so it really came together.”

Ball pulls no punches as she guides her readers through a tour of the life of this archduke of haute couture, starting with the moments that seared Versace’s name into the history books — his brutal murder by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. Explaining why she chose this incident and the monumental funeral at Milan’s historic Duomo that followed as her opening, the writer explains, “I was always struck by the looks on the faces in the front row of the cathedral — you really realize how close these people all were to Gianni and the enormity of the shock of the loss of this man, and in such a violent way. I felt the funeral brought together the paths of their story, of Gianni’s legacy, and of his role in the fashion world, in a truly poignant way.”

Next, we’re transported back to Versace’s provincial beginnings in Reggio, a small town in southern Italy, where he learned his craft from his devoted mother. She ran a modest but successful dress-making shop. Accounts concerning his growing up gay in such a conservative time and place bear testimony to what a role model of pride and courage he was. Later, Ball paints equally thorough pictures of the many houses and estates the famed stylista owned, as well as the opulent acquisitions he made for them.

One example is a collection of rare Picasso paintings, which he intended to leave to his nephew Daniel. In the end, though, Italian courts determined that because Gianni Versace had borrowed most of the money from his company to purchase them all, the company was the rightful owner, ultimately leaving the boy with nothing.

Yet perhaps the most stunning revelation involved the rest of the will, particularly how he’d left controlling interest in the business to his niece Allegra — only 11 years old at the time.

An intimate portrait is also presented of Allegra’s mother, Gianni’s sister Donatella — 13 years his junior, who on that fatal day suddenly found all hopes of continued success squarely on her shoulders! It’s entirely fitting that the final third of the book is largely devoted to her struggles living up to her brother’s legend — sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

“I was surprised at how different Donatella is from her public persona,” Ball said. “What I got from the people I interviewed who know her well — from her college roommate, her peer-counseling friends, and her relatives — is the picture of this really warm, incredibly generous, witty, lovely woman who is so different from that tough, diva image.”

As for her talent as a designer, the author says, “She may never have the ‘chops,’ certainly, that Versace had, but she’s doing much better than when she first carried the house he created, no question. I think she’s a very good keeper of the flame.”

Ball also explores the origins of many standard conventions within the fancy apparel industry — those that shoppers on both sides of the Atlantic today take for granted. Among these is the development of the American vs. the European system of garment sizes.

In providing us this extra insight, she presents the saga of one design powerhouse and an overview of the worldwide garment trade itself as it progressed in the 20th century. In fact, one recurring theme is the clash that every enterprise faces between creativity and finance — and which is more important to their success.

“If the business part is not really solid and really smart, a house will literally go under,” Ball says, “because creativity is not nearly enough to keep things going. But in the long term, if you don’t have that vision, you don’t project anything. So it’s a very delicate but important balancing act.”

She points to the frequent disagreements between Gianni and his older brother Santo (who oversaw much of the company’s expenses) and how they managed to reach a good equilibrium most of the time. “They really were an example of balancing that out, and the balance they did find was critical to the success of the entire label.”

In the end, though, Ball acknowledges that the Versace saga is still very much in progress and she appropriately leaves it open for the reader to discern what is likely to happen — particularly now that Allegra is old enough to exercise her control.

“She’s decided for the moment to keep her distance from the house,” Ball says. “She has 50 percent interest and she doesn’t seem to want to sell it, but it’s one of the mysteries of the house to understand what she does want to do. Whether she’ll choose to sell it to a bigger group that would help invest in the company and make it grow is anyone’s guess. She’s 23 — anything could happen!”

With its crisp narrative, House of Versace will please anyone who loves an engrossing work of nonfiction, not just those interested in the latest Vogue trends. Don’t just think of this as simple night-table reading, though. Once you pick it up, you may find yourself turning page after page well into the wee hours of the morning, because one section flows so naturally — even compellingly — into another.

House of Versace is available at book sellers everywhere. For more information, go to www.crownpublishing.com.

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