She’s known for her platinum blonde hair, her extravagant grape-sized diamonds, and her lavish parties – but above all else, she is known as the sister of major Italian designer Gianni Versace, and the reigning head of the Versace fashion empire. Donatella Versace has moved from the background to the limelight, flawlessly carrying on her older brother’s legacy.
She was born on May 2, 1955 in Reggio di Calabria, the youngest of four children. Her parents were a financier and a dressmaker whose careers both catered to Italian aristocracy. Donatella was very close to her brother Giovanni “Gianni” Versace, and often served as his inspiration, wearing clothing that he had designed specifically for her. Despite their ten-year age difference, the two of them enjoyed the active Italian nightlife together, frequenting clubs and discos when Donatella was barely a teenager. It was her brother, she claims, who made her “wild.”
When Gianni moved to Florence to begin a career in knitwear design in the mid-1970s, Donatella followed, attending Florence University to study Italian literature. On her days off from school, she spent time in the Versace studio. After graduating, she and Gianni relocated to Milan and moved in together. She joined her brother’s newly founded fashion company, initially to handle public relations.
But her continuous inputs, and Gianni’s reliance on her opinions, made it clear that she was better suited to the design aspect of the business. As the Versace label made a name for itself, and the business was firmly established as one of the premier names in the fashion world, Gianni continued to depend on his sister’s verdicts on his work. In the 1980s, he dedicated a perfume to her (aptly called “Blonde”). He also gave her free rein to design her own line, Versus, still well-known today.
Donatella’s skill in the arena of public relations went far from unused. She was among the first – possibly the very first – to have the idea of using celebrities and well-known models to boost sales and media exposure for the Versace line. And it worked: the Versace label continues to be championed by hordes of A-list celebrities.
Life changed dramatically for Donatella on July 15th, 1997. It was on that day that her beloved brother Gianni was tragically gunned down outside his mansion in Miami, Florida by a suspected serial killer named Andrew Cunanan. After shooting Gianni, Cunanan turned the gun on himself; no clear motive for the killing was ever established. A grief-stricken Donatella Versace ushered the Versace family to a secluded resort in the Caribbean so that they could mourn privately. Gianni’s death led to the cancellation of Versace’s Spring-Summer ’98 Collection, and a halt to all the company’s operations.
But Donatella realized that life had to go on, even without her older brother; besides, Gianni had told her that if anything ever happened to him, she was to take the reins. So she did. A mere three months after Gianni’s death, Donatella presented a ready-to-wear collection, and in the spring of 1998 her first mainline collection debuted to rave reviews. Fast-forward to present-day; Donatella is now the Vice-President of the Versace Group and the Chief Designer, overseeing a dozen collections every year. The Versace Group has expanded under Donatella’s influence to include Palazzo Versace, a line of luxurious hotels with locations in Australia and Dubai.
Donatella has two children – Allegra, born in 1986, and Daniel, born in 1989 – with Paul Beck, an American and former model. As Gianni Versace had no children, he left the majority of his assets to Donatella’s daughter, his niece Allegra. On her eighteenth birthday, she inherited 700 hundred million USD, plus several of her uncle’s palatial estates. Allegra also stands to inherit the Versace Group. To his nephew Daniel, Gianni bequeathed his rare artwork collection.
It may have been her older brother who founded the Versace fashion empire, but Donatella Versace has had a hand in its success from the very beginning. And thanks to her natural design savvy, the Versace label continues to thrive. Gianni would be proud.
By Rita Templeton
Edited and Updated by Damyanti