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G FORCE | DEBORAH BALL

Inside the House of Versace

Deborah Ball, a Wall Street Journal reporter, has written a book detailing the rise and fall of the company founded by legendary Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace. Deborah Ball, a Wall Street Journal reporter, has written a book detailing the rise and fall of the company founded by legendary Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace.
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / April 15, 2010

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Wall Street Journal reporter Deborah Ball has worked as a journalist in Europe, largely in Italy, for the past 15 years. Fluent in Italian, she covered European luxury goods for the paper, and in the process gained a rich understanding of the fashion world as well. Exploiting the sources she acquired on the beat and elsewhere, she has written a knowing book about the rise and fall of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace called “House of Versace: The Untold Story of Genius, Murder and Survival.’’ Ball, a West Roxbury native, divides her time between Zurich and Milan. We caught up with her on the phone recently.

Q. Why Versace?

A. It was a story waiting to be written. It’s so dramatic — the personal and business, the family drama. It’s rags to riches back to rags again. It was all there.

Q. Versace came from a poor region in southern Italy. How was he received by the Milanese?

A. He arrived with a different accent, different manners. The Milanese turned their noses up at him. Prada and Armani were from the north and were more accepted. The Milanese always resented that he bought an incredible palace there. It was really in their face. He never liked Milan. [His sister] Donatella found it suffocating.

Q. Tell me about Donatella, who is best known to many of us for fast living and drug abuse?

A. Donatella was 10 years younger than Gianni. but they had an extraordinary bond. They were like twins, they had a sixth sense. She became his muse — a much younger, hip woman in the ’70s — his inspiration from the very beginning. She was the model for his first designs. She always hated her body, the stocky peasant look.

Q. And she ran the company after Gianni’s death?

A. Yes, but her personal and professional behavior were out of control. The company was spinning out of control. She hit bottom in 2004 and was doing coke every day. There was a family intervention and she’s clean and sober now. She’s very open about it.

Q. What was the rivalry between Versace and Giorgio Armani like?

A. Both came up at the same time in the ’70s. Anna Wintour said Armani dresses the wife and Versace dresses the mistress. They were the two poles of Italian fashion we know today. They hated each other. They couldn’t have been more different. The classic Versace look was super sexy, vixen. Fun, fast, glamorous. Armani made classics. He was all about control and discipline.

Q. What happened after Versace died?

A. Things got so bad that the creditors moved in. The company couldn’t repay its debt. Today, it’s stabilized, but an enormous gap opened up with companies like Prada and Gucci. Armani’s revenues are six times the size of Versace today.

Q. So what is left of the House of Versace now?

A. It’s a niche brand with an outsized image. It never fully recovered from Gianni’s death. It will stay a niche company.