Written By | Julie Miller
Wednesday’s episode of American Crime Story flashes back to Gianni’s last fashion show, which was staged in Paris nine days before his murder.
Just nine days before Gianni Versace was fatally shot outside his Miami mansion, the designer had been in Paris, debuting his haute-couture fall-winter collection in extravagant style at the Ritz. Models including Naomi Campbell, Amber Valletta, and Stella Tennant, dressed in body-clinging chain mail and silk jersey gowns, descended from a double staircase and strutted down a glass catwalk that had been erected theatrically over the neoclassic swimming pool.
The second episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,“Manhunt,” flashes back to Versace’s last fashion show, revealing the creative tensions simmering between the designer and his sister shortly before his death. According to one biographer, however, the stress-filled showdown hours before the fashion show was even more volcanic than what’s being shown on television.
As depicted on American Crime Story, the siblings clashed backstage over the women they wanted showcasing the collection. Donatella had booked models with skinny, “heroin-chic” builds—including Karen Elson, the fair-skinned, flame-haired up-and-comer Donatella selected to wear the collection’s climactic piece: the wedding dress.
Archival photos on Getty show Elson in the Versace atelier being fitted with the piece—a slinky, metallic-silver baby-doll dress, accessorized with a veil emblazoned with a silver Byzantine cross. But on the show day, the collection’s marquee piece was reassigned to a proven supermodel and Gianni favorite, Naomi Campbell.
“Gianni never liked [Elson],” explained Deborah Ball in her 2010 book, House of Versace: The Untold Story of Genius, Murder, and Survival. “‘Why are you so pale?’ he used to demand of Elson, in Italian. The British girl looked blankly at him. ‘Why don’t you go get some sun?’”
Ball reported that, during rehearsals the day before the show, Gianni erupted in front of his sister and Elson, who had never before walked a runway.
He bristled as he watched Elson nervously descend the stairs and walk the runway. Gianni didn’t like her lopey, horselike gait, and he raged at Donatella for having suggested the girl in the first place. So he substituted Naomi, who did him proud as she sauntered by in the wedding dress [. . .] Elson burst into a fit of tears, while Donatella wore a stony look on her face. Gianni’s ruling showed he didn’t trust her with key decisions.
(Elson, who returned to the Paris runway for another Versace couture collection in 2016, diplomatically told Vogue that year, “I remember [Gianni] being very tender and sweet to me. It was daunting, as every supermodel on the planet was there and I was the ‘new girl’ at school, so to speak.”)
Clashing was nothing new for the Italian siblings. Earlier in 1997, Donatella’s husband at the time, Paul Beck, told Vanity Fair contributor Cathy Horyn that it took him five years to get used to the “Versace verbal dynamic.”
“I thought somebody was going to kill someone,” Beck said of witnessing their first fight. “I had to leave the room . . . And the argument would be over something like where to put the sweaters in the new boutique on Via Monte Napoleone.”
But as the tensions escalated within the Versace empire, so did the fights. Gianni had long been the creative genius and workhorse behind the fashion house, counting on Donatella as his muse and critic. For Donatella, who was more of a brand ambassador in those days, her ability to stand up to Gianni was part of her value.
“I thought of myself as the one who really was able to tell Gianni the truth, because with a big designer, nobody is able,” Donatella told New York magazine. “That’s the big threat for a big designer.”
As Vanity Fair contributor Maureen Orth wrote in her book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, Donatella stepped up to help manage the company when Gianni fell ill in 1994, and was being groomed to take over the fashion house. The relationship fractured unexpectedly when Gianni recovered several years later and attempted to reclaim his position.
“We know that Gianni was very, very sick in 1994—he was struggling to walk to the news stand in Miami,” explained Tom Rob Smith, who wrote Wednesday’s episode. “He was working closely with Donatella to [prepare her] to take over the company. There was this real sense that she was his heir, and then, unexpectedly, he gets better. That is a very tricky situation for anyone—if you’re about to be given control of something and then that control is suddenly modulated.”
Gianni and Donatella “acknowledged friction during the winter and spring of 1996, when Gianni disagreed with her choices for an advertising campaign and she seemed to overstep her bounds,” reported Orth in her book, which is the basis for the FX series. The siblings were struggling to find a power balance and share footing in the spotlight. Ball claimed that Gianni’s decision to change his will in September 1996—leaving his shares of the company to his niece Allegra, rather than his brother or sister—was done in secret and fueled by his frustration and resentment towards his siblings.
“That tension you see in the final fashion show . . . You feel like Donatella felt she was no longer subservient to her brother,” continued Smith. “She was his equal. It’s hard in those creative industries to have parity. Someone ultimately has to make the final decision. So you start splitting everything up—you could have some models, and he could have other models. They had different styling on the models and different ideas. It didn’t really coalesce as well as a singular vision might have.”
The aesthetic disparity between brother and sister Versace was so apparent during this particular runway show that American Crime Story costume designer Lou Eyrich told Vanity Fair that she took special care to craft a dozen looks for the series that represented Gianni and Donatella’s different ideals.
“Gianni had a more colorful look, so the creams and the pinks and the yellows and the reds were Gianni,” Eyrich explained of the costumes she attributed to Gianni. “Donatella’s models, meanwhile, were more waif, heroin-chic models who wear all black and had the heavy eye makeup. It was important to show the difference between the designers’ visions at the time.”
In spite of the tensions simmering behind the scenes, Versace’s final fashion show was widely praised. Even though the house faced fresh competition from flashy rivals like John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, Versace got first billing in the Associated Press’s write-up: “Gianni Versace reigned supreme with his ‘King of the Night’ pool runway.” Joan Kaner, then the fashion director of Neiman Marcus, was quoted as calling the collection “terrific, sexy, and modern.” The New York Times, meanwhile, acknowledged the disjointed feel of the collection, writing, “for every dress that took the idea too far, there was one where the idea worked.”
“When Gianni died, things were unresolved with Donatella, and how awful must that have been for her,” added Smith. “For Gianni to die and to think, ‘What were we even fighting about? Models?’ It was utterly trivial.”
Indeed, Donatella has said in the years since her brother’s death, “My brother was the king, and my whole world had crashed around me.”
By 2012, though, 15 years after the murder, Donatella had found the strength to keep her family’s company afloat and develop her own identity as a designer. She was finally able to look back at the defining details of her brother’s final collection—the ones that she hadn’t necessarily liked at the time: the Byzantine crosses he applied to his dresses and the slinky silver-metal mesh he had specially created—and incorporate them into her 2012 fall-winter collection.
Speaking to The New York Times about finally having “the courage” to face and find inspiration in Gianni’s final fashion show, Donatella said, “I can look at it now with a smile . . . I remember my last moments with Gianni, the rehearsal, the show. But finally I have freedom. I am not afraid.”
To find out more about the true Versace story, the series itself, and everything between the two, subscribe to Still Watching: Versace on Apple Podcasts or your podcast app of choice. New episodes, including behind-the-scenes interviews, air every Wednesday.