Gianni Versace lavishes all on `little princess'

 

From the so-called King of Frock'n'Roll, it might seem like a final gesture of non-conformist bravura. For the media, it may herald a vicious, incestuous power-battle within the billion dollar family business.

In reality, it may well have been the last will and testament of a man who was not only a fashion icon in his often very public life but also a devoted brother and doting uncle in his private life.

In a will made public this week, Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace left his 45 per cent share of the family's $1 billion business to his 11-year-old niece, Allegra, daughter of his sister and business partner, Donatella.

Openly gay and without children, Gianni Versace left his share of the family fortunes - a fortune largely created by his own unique genius - to the niece he liked to call My Little Princess.

The will also bequeaths his art collection, including works by Picasso, Leger, Di Chirico and Basquiat, to Allegra's eight-year-old brother, Daniel, while it provides his companion, Antonio D'Amico, with a $29,000 monthly stipend and the use of his luxury homes in Miami, Milan, Lake Como and New York.

The fifty-year-old Gianni Versace, friend of the rich and famous and a man recently described by a veteran fashion reporter, Suzy Menkes, as the designer "who bought and caught the zeitgeist", was murdered on July 15th this year. In a seemingly inexplicable killing, he was shot down outside his luxury Miami villa, allegedly by the gay prostitute, Andrew Cunanan. Eight days later, Cunanan in turn shot himself during a police raid on a Miami Beach houseboat where he was hiding.

Gianni Versace's decision to leave his 45 per cent holding (some reports suggest 50 per cent) to his niece rather than to divide it between his sister, Donatella, and his brother, Santo, has inevitably prompted a variety of speculation, with commentators asking if the will indicated bitter differences between Gianni and Santo Versace. The three Versaces - Gianni, Santo and Donatella - had always worked closely together with all three playing key roles in the creation of the family business empire.

Gianni was the creative genius, Santo the accountant and Donatella heavily involved in marketing and promotions.

When the ambitious Gianni came north to Milan from Calabria, deep in the south of Italy, all of 25 years ago, he brought Santo and Donatella with him. Born to a mother who ran a small dress-making business and a father who sold electrical goods, the Versaces were not poor but neither were they anything like the billionaire family of today.

In a country where another famous family fashion giant, the Florence-based leather goods icon, Gucci, was almost destroyed by a bitter feud among the Gucci heirs, it is inevitable that people should question Gianni Versace's motivation in making such a will. For that reason, no doubt, the Versace family this week issued a business as usual communique, saying:

"The Versace family retains complete control of the company . . . (Allegra's) heritage will be managed by her parents, Donatella Versace Beck and Paul Beck, together with her uncle, Santo Versace . . . All policy decisions will be made strictly with the company's future growth in mind."

It could be, however, that the will is nothing more or less than the act of a doting uncle. Gianni Versace was certainly much attached to his nephew and niece, once saying in an interview with the New Yorker magazine: "I want to see my niece and nephew grow up, to see their children . . . I get crazy at the idea that a time will come when I won't see Daniel and Allegra anymore."

Photographs of Gianni Versace with the children, be he playing with them in his swimming pool or putting the final touches to a splendid Elizabethan-style dress designed especially for Allegra, suggest an affinity and a love that goes far beyond opportunistic photo-calls.

An Italian fashion writer and current affairs commentator, Natalia Aspesi, speculated this week that Allegra and Daniel, along with their parents, Donatella and Paul, and companion, Antonio D'Amico, represented nothing less than desperately desired "family warmth" for Gianni Versace, a craving all the more strongly felt by a gay from the conformist, family oriented and relatively poor Calabria of the 1950s.

It is also true that when Gianni Versace wrote this will, in September of last year, he could not have foreseen that his own death was only 10 months away. Presumably, he wrote it believing that Allegra would be an adult, fully involved in the family business, by the time it came into effect.

Indeed, when Gianni wrote the will, he did so in a spirit of renewal since he had just recovered from a long, painful but ultimately successful battle against a cancerous tumour in his ear.

One thing seems sure, Uncle Gianni has left 11-year-old Allegra well provided for. Not only will she have her share of the family business but also the celebrated abodes that Gianni bought, refurbished and redesigned at pharaonic expense:

64th St, New York, worth about $7.5 million and complete with a bed commissioned from the artist Julian Schnabel;

the Miami villa where he died, worth maybe $25 million and featuring two years worth of ancient Roman-style mosaic and marble work done by a team of imported Italian artisans;

Villa Fontanelle on Lake Como, north of Milan, worth $40-$45 million, a house Gianni once loaned to pop star Madonna; and Via Gesu in central Milan, worth $50-$55 million.

All the indications suggest, too, that Allegra will inherit a thriving business. Despite Gianni's death (or maybe in response to that death), orders for the spring-summer 1998 pre-collections have exceeded projections while new Versace boutiques are planned for New York, San Diego, Philadelphia and London.

Fashion commentators argue that the name Versace has already crossed the divide between "designer label" and "brand name", suggesting that Versace could follow the example of the French fashion houses, Chanel and Dior, which have remained world famous brand names despite the deaths of their founders.

Little Allegra may have a very full and busy life in front of her.