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VILLA SAN GIOVANNI, Italy — Santo Versace listens to the tale of an unrelated namesake who, in the late 18th century, helped rebuild this small town in Italy’s Calabria region after it was hit by a devastating earthquake. The current-day Versace is similarly passionate about the area — and he’s running for office to help its renaissance.

“Santo Versace has had the courage to come back here and help us out,” says Vittorio Caminiti, an entrepreneur and president of the region’s hotel association, at a rally last week for the Versace campaign for Parliament.

All eyes are on Versace, the chairman of the family-owned fashion company who has been greeting well-wishers and is sitting center stage, thinner than usual and impeccable in a pin-striped suit and cerulean sweater. “I came back because I think it can be done,” says Versace, who has been constantly traveling around Calabria for the campaign.

Energetic and passionate, Versace is running for Italy’s Parliament as a candidate in Silvio Berlusconi’s party, Partito delle Libertà (Freedom Party), for the city of Reggio Calabria, in southern Calabria, from which the Versaces hail.

The elections will take place Sunday and Monday. Versace’s election doesn’t depend on whether Berlusconi wins, but rather on the number of votes the Freedom Party scores in Reggio. Because of the rules, Versace probably will take a seat in Parliament because his name is at the top of the list in his region.

The glamorous world of fashion appears aeons away from Calabria and its struggles, including everything from high unemployment to a stranglehold on key sectors by criminal organizations, which stall the area’s development. But Versace is undaunted and has high hopes for the future.

“I want to revolutionize politics,” he says.

He dislikes the use of the word ‘Ndrangheta, which is Calabria’s equivalent of the Sicilian Mafia or the Neapolitan Camorra, and would rather speak of malapolitica or “bad politics.” “Good politics lead to well-being and prosperity,” says Versace, whose mantra is to work in the interests of the people. “If you don’t, you are not a politician.”

Versace is deeply committed to Calabria, the “toe” of Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula, because he and his siblings, Gianni and Donatella, were formed here. “Gianni was culturally from Calabria — he left when he was 25 and the message he sent out to the world was shaped here,” said Versace, who still spends much of his time in the family’s house in Reggio Calabria, next to the first boutique that sold his brother’s designs. Versace’s fame is undoubtedly attracting the media to Calabria, which, located across from Sicily, has always lagged behind in terms of tourism and entertainment.

This story first appeared in the April 8, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Giusva Branca, editor in chief of online newspaper Strill, calls it the “Versace effect,” noting how the candidate should be able to give credibility to the region. “This is a major opportunity for the area to come out of its isolation, perhaps the last chance on such an international scale,” says Branca. “Let’s hope the region is ready to make the best of it.”

“Santo Versace mixes top credibility, personally and as an entrepreneur,” says Reggio TV reporter Mario Meliadò. “In politics, you always need to connect potential with facts, and he is a person who acts,” he adds, noting that one step Versace took years ago was to save the region’s venerable basketball team, Viola Basket, from bankruptcy.

Versace calls his campaign Operazione Verità, or “Operation Truth.” “What you see is what you get,” says the candidate, who has always spoken freely and at length on social topics. “I want to relaunch Italy, I want to change my region. If you develop the south, Italy will fly.”

He points to the absence of a meritocracy and overpowering bureaucracy as major stumbling blocks to the region’s development. “Enough with appointing friends and relatives to any given job. In fashion, it’s all about merit. This is a global and competitive world. Why should someone be in charge of a particular post only because he is loyal to you? What about being able to do that job?” wonders Versace. “Bureaucracy allows those incapable or lazy to dream of power.”

Versace tells the story of an entrepreneur who has companies both in Calabria and in Friuli in northeast Italy. “It takes two years to obtain the same permit here, versus seven days in Friuli. This is what arrests any form of development,” he says. “This is why I urge people to deal with politics. Twenty-four hours a day, you must demand things to work, you must be proactive because it is not enough to be critical.”

Although left-wing and a socialist for most of his life, Versace has decided to run with center-right wing Partito delle Libertà because he was asked to, he says, and because he lost faith in the objectivity of the left ever since Italy’s Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”) judicial investigation into political corruption in the early Nineties. According to Versace, there were too many in power on the left who targeted only their political opponents and “selectively cleansed” the system.

While the Versace brand is synonymous with luxury and a flashy lifestyle, Versace is focused on balancing things out. “It is unacceptable to see men giving up their life because they have no job or can’t support their families. The wealth here should be better distributed,” he says, mentioning Martin Luther King in the same breath. “And there is too much money that is not well managed with too many that got rich illegally,” he adds, noting that it is the “political vortex which is rotten.”

Versace doesn’t hide his political ambitions, which he sees as a means to act. “Well, I don’t think Silvio Berlusconi would have called on me if he didn’t have something substantial in mind for me,” says Versace, who also has worked alongside a number of mayors of the city of Milan on different projects.

That said, Versace’s political involvement doesn’t mean he’s scaling back his duties at the family company. “Fashion is my life, but politics will become equally important. These are two different worlds and two different passions, but one does not rule out the other,” he says.

When asked about his sister’s opinion on the issue, Versace says she gave him the green light. “She knows the situation is complex,” says Versace of Donatella Versace. “She asked me, ‘Are you sure? Well, then go….'”

Versace seems unfazed by possible repercussions from the criminal organizations he wants to fight. “Some people think things are never going to change, so they see no outside threat to the status quo,” he says.

In the end, Versace seems to abide by his father Antonio’s teachings: “He told me you are nobody if you don’t help all those that you can help.”

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