After Gianni's death, Donatella spiralled into a cocaine addiction, while the House of Versace declined
For years after Gianni Versace's death, the brand suffered under the creative direction of Donatella Versace who snorted lines of cocaine while fashion critics almost wrote off House of Versace.
A few months after Gianni Versace died in 1997, an exhibition of his clothes premiered at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute gala. At the end of the show, his younger sister Donatella bowed to an audience with tear filled eyes.
It was, after all, an overwhelming moment for the Italian designer who was yet to find her voice, vision, and clothes for the House of Versace which dressed celebrities and supermodels in 80s and well into the 90s.
Gianni, the Sun King, as he was often called, orchestrated a brand that designed clothes which were tailored with decadence, boldness and a seductive quality that it's fierce competitor at the time, Armani lacked. Where Gianni celebrated opulence, Armani became known for its understated elegance. And celebrities loved the powerful sexiness that Gianni's clothes brought out in them.
Donatella, who was soon announced Versace's creative director after her brother's untimely death, found herself wearing a crown that was too big for her head.
Gianni's baby sister, eight years his junior, was always his muse and his fiercest critic. She never believed however that she would take over the reigns, and when she did, Donatella resorted to a habit that she had given up for a while. Cocaine made its way into her life once again.
According to various accounts, she snorted lines of coke at meetings, backstage during fashion shows, at after-parties of a fashion show, and at home in front of her children. It proved to be a way of coping with grief, a responsibility that was suddenly thrust upon her and the drug made her numb to a marriage that was on the brink of a breakdown.
In an interview with New York Magazine, Donatella said that she never liked to project herself as the victim. Instead, she rode on the narcissistic high from a drug that fuelled her life. In 2000, she tasted her first celebrity success when Jennifer Lopez wore a £4,000 green backless and frontless Versace dress that was held together by a brooch under the stomach.
This, however, was one of the few successes she had as the creative director of Versace in the early 2000s. Fashion critics were unkind in their criticism of Donatella. They described her collections as soft, pastel versions of Gianni's clothes. Many wondered if the House of Versace's glamor was lost. Their confusion resonated with Donatella's own foggy, incoherent life in which drugs abounded and doubt endured.
According to a 2009 Newsweek, Donatella's addiction had an adverse impact on the brand's employees who feared her short-temper, expensive last minute changes and frequent arguments with assistants. "You were frequently getting the ugly monster and didn't want to go near it," one employee told the outlet.
By 2000, the House of Versace was forced to sell most of Gianni's prized assets as the company suffered but the family's extravagant lifestyle and parties didn't. In 2003, Versace's CFO Daniele Ballestrazzi was named the company's interim CEO but he spent most of his time trying to hold conversations with Donatella.
According to Newsweek, Gianni's younger sister had begun to use cocaine with sedatives like Halcion, Valium, Ativan, and Rohypnol. She became increasingly incoherent and scared her family, and finally, an intervention took place.
Donatella's close friend Sir Elton John staged an intervention along with their closest friends in 2004 and she booked a flight to a rehab center in Arizona that same night. It was her daughter Allegra's 18th birthday, the day she came to formally inherit 50% of Versace's shares.
In her absence, the company hired Giancarlo di Risio as CEO who sold assets and cut costs. Upon her return from rehab, Donatella didn't resist the changes.
The House of Versace struggled to make profits even during the years of Giancarlo's reign but something had changed for the positive: Donatella found her vision for Versace, one that differed from her brother's, but was executed with the confidence of a woman who knew the Versace man and woman.
By 2007, the Versace label found its respect in the fashion industry. Sarah Mower, a respected fashion author, called the September 2007 collection, "hot, easy and believable," according to The Guardian. The company's debt of £1.1 million at the end of 2005 was converted into assets to the tune of £8.4million.
The second half of the 2000s allowed her to create a Versace man and woman who is unafraid to be glamorous but sophisticated enough to stamp his/her power and authority. Under Donatella, the Versace clothing line is less sexy but still seductive enough to represent everything Versace stands for: a style that's groovy, fabulous, and striking.
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