Donatella Versace, right, has befriended many celebrities, including Madonna, shown here with her daughter Lourdes.

Donatella Versace, right, has befriended many celebrities, including Madonna, shown here with her daughter Lourdes.

WWD Staff

NEW YORK — “Biography: Versace Family,” will kick off a week of famous families on A&E Network this month.

This story first appeared in the April 4, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The show, which will air April 14., describes the Versace empire’s humble beginnings in Reggio Calabria, Italy, the rise of Gianni Versace’s glamorous design house in the Eighties, his murder in South Beach, Fla., in 1997, and his sister Donatella’s ascension to head designer of the company.

The other families profiled during Biography’s theme week are the Woolworths, the Hiltons and Cadburys.

The one-hour Versace show, produced by Towers Productions, provides a flattering portrayal of the family, which fully cooperated with the producers for nine months, said a Versace spokesman. As family historian, Santo, chief executive of the company, provided all the background information for the narrator.

The program traces Gianni’s early fascination with fashion as a young boy spending time at his mother’s dressmaking shop, where he learned to sew and would make hand puppets to entertain the customers. He designed his first dress at the age of 10 — a one-shoulder velvet gown. Gianni eventually moved to Milan, starting out in 1973 at Girombelli Group’s Complice label before setting up on his own five years later. In his first year, Gianni Versace did $11 million in sales.

“He was one of the first designers to understand the power of having celebrities wear their clothes,” said Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue.

Besides Wintour, others who provide commentary are Harold Koda, chief curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Guy Trebay, fashion reporter for The New York Times; Patrick McCarthy, chairman and editorial director of Fairchild Publications, which publishes W and WWD; Candy Pratts Price, executive fashion director of Style.com; Hamish Bowles, European editor at large of Vogue; Franca Sozzani, editor in chief of Italian Vogue, and actors Rupert Everett and Jennifer Lopez.

According to the show, Gianni amassed a fortune estimated at $900 million and “spent money about as fast as he made it.” In fact, he spent so much money that Santo would “confiscate Gianni Versace’s checkbook and credit cards.”

Gianni fell in love with South Beach, Fla, and spent $32 million to renovate two Ocean Drive buildings and turn them into a three-story home known as Casa Casuerina. It was the place where he tragically met his death on July 15, 1997, at age 50, when he was shot by Andrew Cunanan.

Donatella assumed design responsibilities of the house and has grown increasingly comfortable in the role. The show ends with a telling comment on Donatella’s personality from her friend, Rupert Everett.

“It looks on the outside that she’s very hard, tough, a careerist and a ballbreaker, but inside she’s very discreet, quite vulnerable, and a very supportive friend,” Everett said. “There’s a great dignity about her.”