Lisa Tant reviews House of Versace, a must-read book for all fashion-lovers

Murder, sex, drugs, couture – all of the essential ingredients for a juicy read. What makes House of Versace (Random House) even more compelling is that it’s the real deal. I love designer biographies – Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren are two others I’ve read but both were unauthorized. What makes Deborah Ball’s story about the Versace family so fascinating is that both Santo and Donatella Versace, plus their confidantes and industry big-wigs, spoke to the author (a Wall Street Journal reporter). And while her story isn’t particularly flattering to the family, it reveals some incredible facts about how the fashion industry works.

House of Versace tells the story of the Versace’s family’s modest home in Reggio, Italy and then traces Gianni’s meteoric rise until his murder on the steps of his Miami mansion, Casa Casuarina. It continues on to show how his muse and pampered little sister Donatella failed to keep the legendary house on track. Ball wraps it up to spotlight where the family business is today – a mere shadow of its former powerhouse position on the global scene.

Ball details stories many of us know about – how Gianni created the era of the supermodel, Donatella’s battle with cocaine – but, more importantly, others that remained under the radar – how Tom Ford and Domenico de Sole tried to save the house after their stunning success with Gucci. (Donatella was furious with Ford’s plan to become the sole creative director at Versace, and stormed out of the meeting.) Juicy tidbits include Donatella’s out-of-control spending, including her annual $150,000 bill for hair extensions. The author also looks at where the house was in 2009 after the recession had ripped through the luxury fashion industry. A new CEO forecasted the house would lose 30 million Euros. At the time, Gianni’s niece, Allegra, 23, was the majority shareholder.

What makes this an essential read for any fashion follower is more than just the Versace family history. And while it’s an incredible analysis of the dynamics between three headstrong siblings, the book also charts the rise and fall of supermodels, celebrities and stylists, and the luxury business overall. Ball shows how ego, greed and creativity need to be carefully coddled and groomed while still keeping an eye on marketing and retail sales. Her analysis is thoughtful and detailed but she keeps the pace up to create a page turner that I literally could not put down.

Since Ball’s book wrapped, the news continues to look bleak for the Versace label. While British designer Christopher Kane’s collection for the Versus line was well-received during Milan Fashion Week in October, that same month, the company’s financial statements were an unfashionable red. According to industry reports, Versace cut 26% of their global workforce – catastrophic news for a label battling a worldwide recession. At this point, it looks like the company will need a miracle to survive – a sad thought for a once mighty house.

I’ll be back again next week. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter