Versace: I want to relaunch my country

But why has the left-leaning fashion magnate thrown in his lot with Berlusconi? By Peter Popham
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The Independent Online

Santo Versace made his parliamentary debut in Rome this week: very much the new boy despite his immaculate suit. "The only time I was here before was on a school trip, 48 years ago," he confessed. He emerged after his tour of the place looking sobered. "This place needs a real regeneration," he was heard to mutter. "I don't say Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but almost..."

The elder brother of murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace and of Donatella, the ash-blonde party girl who stepped into Gianni's shoes, Santo has been the business brains of the family since the Versace firm's origins in his mother's seamstress shop in Reggio di Calabria, a town in Italy's south. He is still deeply involved with the company, which has regained much of the ground it lost after Gianni's death. But after a personal appeal from Silvio Berlusconi, the 63-year-old – a lifelong left-winger – threw in his lot with the media mogul and his People of Freedom party, which three weeks ago gave the centre-left a thrashing.

Versace is a synonym for glamour and luxury, so it is startling to hear Santo Versace declare his passion for politics and his devotion to the problems of the underdog. "My commitment," he said in a recent interview, "is to those who have trouble making ends meet."

His philanthropic instincts have been known in his home town since he rescued the local basketball team. But Calabria is in desperate trouble, with all the ills that beset other parts of Italy's south and then some: crippling bureaucracy, high unemployment, rampant organised crime (the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian equivalent of the Mafia, have overtaken their Sicilian counterparts) and the unstoppable emigration of young people with brains and ambition. What can one fashionista do to turn the place round?

Versace doesn't like to talk about organised crime and corruption in so many words: he prefers to talk about malapolitica, "sick politics", and its alternative, healthy politics. "Healthy politics leads to well-being and prosperity," he says. "I want to relaunch Italy. I want to change my region. If you develop the south, Italy will fly. Enough with appointing friends and relatives to any given job: in fashion it's all about merit. This is a globalised and competitive world. Why should someone be in charge of a particular post only because he is loyal to you? What about being able to do that job? Bureaucracy allows those who are incapable or lazy to dream of power."

Italy's meritocratic dream personified, Santo started working for his father, a coal merchant, at the age of six. "As a kid I was always covered in coal dust. Then gradually the economy grew and my father's business with it, and he began to work as an interior decorator." In distinction to the lazybones he sees on all sides in today's Calabria, Santo was infused with his father's puritanical ethic. "My father always said, life's problems are easily resolved with three little words: work, work, work. You work and there are no problems."

After studying economics and commerce, Santo went briefly into a bank; for his national service he served as a cavalry officer in the Italian President's guard of honour. When he got back home he found his siblings convulsed with dreams of making it in fashion. Ever the serious one with the calculator, Santo negotiated Gianni's first contract, and after that the three of them never looked back. Then it was the grand townhouse in Milan's Via Gesù, the family villa on Lake Como – and the fatal Villa Casuarina in Miami, where Gianni was shot dead on his doorstep by a psychopath in 1997. "For me it was an appalling trauma," he says of Gianni's death. "A tragedy like that takes time to digest."

When Santo is not busy transforming Italy's dusty and demoralised toe into the nation's pride, he will still be there at the heart of Versace, the serious and dependable one who never lets the side down. "The company will always be my life," he insists. And his daughter Francesca, who recently launched her own label after graduating in fashion from London's Central St Martins, may prove to be its future.

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